Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood has a glowing 5-star review on Amazon. He’s a comedian who is currently heading the satirical news show The Daily Show.
Trevor was born during apartheid, which, in his words, “was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under total control.” He grew up in the complex post-apartheid South Africa. Being a mixed child–from a white father and black mother–he was literally born a crime, because the law prohibited interracial marriage or “carnal intercourse” between blacks and whites. For most of his childhood, he navigated life as an outsider, since the way he looked and how he was brought up did not align with the typical constructs of the South African sub-societies. A chameleon was what he called–and still does–himself.
Using Language to Change Perceptions
Yet one poignant insight that he gleaned from his outsider-ness was the power of language in “hacking” racism. Apartheid did not only separate black and white people; it separated every identifiable skin color and subculture to weaken its opposition. Crediting his mother, who really is the heroine of his book, he says, “Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world.”
If you’ve seen any of Trevor’s stand up, you’ll see that he’s incredibly skilled in accents and imitations. He speaks something like six or seven languages.
I learned to use language like my mother did. I would simulcast—give you the program in your own tongue. I’d get suspicious looks from people just walking down the street. “Where are you from?” they’d ask. I’d reply in whatever language they’d addressed me in, using the same accent that they used. There would be a brief moment of confusion, and then the suspicious look would disappear. “Oh, okay. I thought you were a stranger. We’re good then.”
In another instance, a group of guys intended to mob him because they thought he was white. But as they plotted in their language, Trevor, who understood what they said, replied in kind and suggested that they all mob someone else together.
They were ready to do me violent harm, until they felt we were part of the same tribe, and then we were cool. That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.
Language, Connections, and Trust
Language is key in defining a tribe.
Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says “We’re the same.” A language barrier says “We’re different.” The architects of apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure we were separated not just physically but by language as well. In the Bantu schools, children were only taught in their home language. Zulu kids learned in Zulu. Tswana kids learned in Tswana. Because of this, we’d fall into the trap the government had set for us and fight among ourselves, believing that we were different.
Yet, he continues, language’s power to divide can easily be reversed.
The great thing about language is that you can just as easily use it to do the opposite: convince people that they are the same. Racism teaches us that we are different because of the color of our skin. But because racism is stupid, it’s easily tricked. If you’re racist and you meet someone who doesn’t look like you, the fact that he can’t speak like you reinforces your racist preconceptions: He’s different, less intelligent. A brilliant scientist can come over the border from Mexico to live in America, but if he speaks in broken English, people say, “Eh, I don’t trust this guy.” “But he’s a scientist.” “In Mexican science, maybe. I don’t trust him.” However, if the person who doesn’t look like you speaks like you, your brain short-circuits because your racism program has none of those instructions in the code. “Wait, wait,” your mind says, “the racism code says if he doesn’t look like me he isn’t like me, but the language code says if he speaks like me he…is like me? Something is off here. I can’t figure this out.”
Reflecting on my own experience with languages, I realized that I was spared weird looks and condescending stares when I moved to the US because I was reasonably trained in English. I don’t recall an incident where an English speaker had to slooowlyy spell out each word they’re saying with his head tipped down, with that wide-eyed, condescending look that I see a lot in situations related to immigration or airport security. At least, this act won’t last long because I could meet them where they’re at in comprehension and speed of pronunciation. But certainly, I see it a lot when I travel with other non-native English speakers who may not be as quick in understanding the rapid speaking pace of a native speaker. It annoys me tremendously.
Incidents like this reveal the deep interconnection between language and trust. People naturally don’t trust those who are different than them. But a common language, even though skin-deep differences exist, can override that prejudice and engender trust.
Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.”
Check out Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood for a treasure of hilarious and insightful stories. I recommend getting the audiobook, which you can get at a hefty discount using the trick outlined in this post.