Colouring outside the laws... and why Trevor Noah isn’t coloured

Trevor Noah. Picture: Instagram/@pbsthephotographer

Trevor Noah. Picture: Instagram/@pbsthephotographer

Published Sep 9, 2023


This is an extract from Coloured: How Classification Became Culture by Tessa Dooms and Lynsey Ebony Chutel.

No, Trevor Noah isn’t coloured ‒ Tessa Dooms

Colouredness as an identity marker in South Africa must always be understood in the context of both the country’s race-based political structure and its unintended cultural consequences.

We have seen how the invention of Coloured as a racial category under apartheid was a clumsy and random process based on a conception of race as a mash-up of biology, culture and geography – and that, when people presented themselves for racial classification, as was the mandate, it was not DNA or even self-identification that determined their classification but the subjective views of a few White men using limited information and their own prejudices.

Reducing Coloured identity simply to being ‘mixed’ represents not only an erasure of many people’s histories and experiences, but also a failure to recognise the violence of the classification and the work that followed. Colouredness was created by communities forced together to make their lives work, which has had consequences for self-perception, world views and opportunities. Coloured identity is more than hair and complexion. It is more than an accident of biology. Colouredness is a culture. This cannot be overstated.

So, when internationally renowned comedian Trevor Noah is casually referred to as Coloured, it is a debate I want to have but almost always avoid. A discussion about someone else’s identity is deeply personal. However, when it comes to race, the personal is also profoundly political, and the intersections between personal and public identities matter. The explanation of why Trevor Noah, while being a person of mixed racial heritage, is not Coloured says a lot about many misunderstandings of what it means to be Coloured and about oversimplifications of Colouredness that stem mostly from the political and legal history of the category.

Coloured by Tessa Dooms and Lynsey Ebony Chutel

In his book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, Noah tells the story of how his mother, a Black Xhosa woman, met and fell in love with his father, a White Swiss-German man.1 Owing to the legal and social prohibitions that apartheid placed on love relationships between people of different racial groups, Trevor grew up in Soweto with his mother as his primary parent.

In the book, Trevor explains in detail how complicated his appearance and mixed heritage made his mother’s life. The central claim to, and of, White exceptionalism in South Africa was threatened not only by Black love and the idea that Black people were capable and worthy of love, but also by the ways in which children born of “mixed” relationships diminished and exposed the false claim that light skin, light eyes or straight hair were markers of moral superiority – a claim on which White supremacy in South Africa depended.

Trevor Noah’s parentage certainly presented the same threat to Whiteness that, historically, many Coloured people have. The mythology of White supremacy, which needs to position itself as pure and unblemished by “lesser” people, relies on four elements to even almost hold together.

First, it relies on the identification of other people, Black and Brown people, who present as different to what White people accept as Whiteness. An important step for Whiteness to succeed is for it to make sure that power is distributed to select people.

Second, it relies on interpreting physical differences in skin tone, hair, facial features and body types not as mere diversity of human biology, but as defects that can somehow show that some people are “naturally” superior to others. This, of course, neglects the reality that, as is the case with the lens through which history is told, what is deemed the standard of “good biology” is about who has the power to interpret the science and who is empowered to translate the science into social policy. White supremacy relies on having the monopoly on what is considered valid science and knowledge to ensure that what is regarded as truth favours Whiteness over all other people.

Third, White supremacy relies on these so-called physical defects being associated with moral inferiority. It is important to remember that race is neither natural nor accidental. For colonial conquest to work, it needed a justification. Race and racism became this justification, with those who undertook those conquests making wild leaps in logic that connected differences in physical appearance with judgements about different moralities.

The audacity of saying, without fear of contradiction, that the inhumane treatment of Black people was simply a function of a natural order of White superiority is the foundation of a system of oppression that is irrational and unconscionable. It is a world view that has been normalised and is reflected in the internalised racism experienced by Black people in Africa and the diaspora.

Finally, and most importantly, it relies on a separation from and loathing of those physical traits to maintain the lie that the traits justify the inhumane treatment of other people. This is where the threat that children of mixed descent pose to White supremacy comes to the fore. If White men can find Black women attractive enough to have sex with, it contradicts ideas that Black people’s biology is inferior and undesirable. It creates a category of people who have traces of the biology that Whiteness praises as superior – and a social lineage that, in the bodies of people of mixed descent, literally equalises Blackness and Whiteness.

The underlying driver of racism is fear: that the inadequacy of others will be exposed as a lie, and that the privileges derived from that lie will fall away. The stories of “mixed” people like Trevor Noah and many Coloured people expose the lies that uphold White supremacy. During colonialism and apartheid, the birth of a mixed-heritage child signalled that a White person, usually a man, had physically desired a woman who was not White – usually a Black woman. This desire offered a different interpretation of Black bodies. It showed that those bodies were beautiful, acceptable and more similar to than different from White bodies.

The Independent on Saturday