Trevor Noah, since he took over from Jon Stewart on the American network Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, has made waves throughout the media sphere.
A “coloured” South African (meaning a mixed-race child of black and white South Africans), who grew up as the child of a partnership that was at the time illegal in apartheid era South Africa, his international perspective and unique identity promised to change the premise of the Daily Show. After an initial transition period in which many wondered whether he could fill the shoes of his tenured predecessor, his ratings have gone up dramatically, and he has thoroughly positioned himself as a young, internationalist, liberal symbol.
Since he has come into his own, however, the style of comedy has transformed. Less about exposing the hypocrisy and idiocy present in politics, as it was primarily about in the past, Trevor Noah is a man consumed by identity politics, and has made his show reflect this.
This is not simply reflective of the man himself, a man who grew up in one of the most ethnically divided countries in the world, and then moving to one of the most culturally liberal and diverse places imaginable, New York City, to host the Daily Show. It is also reflective of the fact that the American political system itself has polarized, not only around class, ethnicity, and geography, but about politics, with two deeply entrenched and bitterly opposed camps formed.
Many have rightly bemoaned these developments, and their danger, eroding trust in institutions, smothering independent thought on crucial issues, and making debate and conversation impossible. The two sides no longer trust each other’s media, with regular references to some networks labeled as fake news, and others as conspiracy theorist hacks. People have lost faith in the honesty of our institutional law enforcement as an idea, with the left admonishing ICE for enforcing Presidential orders, and local law enforcement for alleged institutional racism, and the right’s mistrust of a purported deep state conspiracy, questioning the integrity of FBI and Department of Justice. Mostly though, there is a sense of an unbridgeable cultural divide, of two sides whose disagreements define who they are.
Trevor Noah feeds of this, knowingly or not, and adding unrefined diesel to the flames.
While comedy should be absolutely unrestrained, for Trevor Noah, running a show which a sizable proportion its viewers use as their primary source of news should come with some sense of responsibility. This week, he made a joke which offended many, galvanized others, and helped no one, except for Trevor Noah.
After France’s world cup victory last Sunday, he quipped, “Africa won the World Cup! Africa won the World Cup! I get it. I get it. They have to say it’s the French team, but look at those guys – you don’t get that tan by hanging out in the South of France.”
On its surface, if said by a white comedian, they would be instantly lambasted as racist. If any such remarks were made about an NBA team after winning the playoffs, or an NFL team after the Superbowl, the speaker would be shamed into submission. Though, because sometimes, American viewers understand little about the rest of the world, the faces that some Americans saw when they walked on the field may have surprised them so much that that they, too, laughed at this clearly racist joke.
Trevor Noah himself is probably not a racist. The joke was stupid, not actually hateful, but poignant, because it exposed a wound that exists in many 21st century countries about how race affects their national identity, especially after the 20th century immigration boom. Forget sports, forget world cup, the reason why this joke was bad, is simple: the implication that the players are not French, because of their African roots, is wrong.
The French Ambassador to the United States himself wrote a reply to Trevor Noah, which read,
“all but two out of 23″ of the players “were born in France, they were educated in France, they learned to play soccer in France, they are French citizens… They are proud of their country, France. The rich and various backgrounds of these players is a reflection of France’s diversity… unlike in the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin. To us, there is no hyphenated identity, roots are an individual reality. By calling them an African team, it seems you are only denying their Frenchness… This, even in jest, legitimizes the ideology which claims whiteness as the only definition of being French”
To which Trevor Noah replied by reading the reply in a mocking French accent, first calling France a colonial state, claiming he was right all along, and asking why can’t they have hyphenated identities, saying ,”I think it’s more a reflection of France’s colonialism… black people all over the world were celebrating the African-ness of the French players. Not in a negative way, but rather in a positive way, going, ‘Look at these Africans who can become French.’ You know what I mean? It’s a celebration of that achievement.”
Firstly, he didn’t refer to a complicated identity, he internally labelled them as black, and then he called them African.
Hyphenated identities are another complex issue, as well. But, simply look at how well South Africa is coping, and it becomes clear that domestic ethnic divisions can in certain social structures become toxic. This cuts to the core of the issue that many immigrants in Europe have had with integration- some nations have not historically existed as immigrant nations, and have pre-existing, if internally diverse, national cultures. Some states may aim to subsume their immigrants previous identity to their new one, and make them a member of the new national-culture, as many countries still exist, essentially, as nation states. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the point of the joke, but simply a Donald Trump style diversion.
By assigning primacy to the color of their skin, and saying that second and third generation immigrants are actually African, he is pushing the idea that ethnicity itself is primal, and can’t be erased by generations of change, new citizenship, language, or experiences. The idea he espouses is that for some people who are obsessed with race, just like entering a prison gang, it doesn’t matter your background or who you are, your skin color is who you are.
Perhaps some of the members of the team do consider themselves African French, North-African French, or any other of the multitude of identities that modern people can choose. He never thought to consider that, and it doesn’t matter. They played on the French National Team, representing their country, and for a host who ascribes deeply to modern political correctness, he should refer to them based on the identity they choose, not necessarily the one they are born with.
This says more about the man who told the joke, than it does about the players.