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New Daily Show host Trevor Noah is ‘colored’ — what that means here in South Africa

Comedian Trevor Noah was “born a crime” to a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father in the final years of South Africa’s apartheid regime. At that time, officials classified him as “colored,” a label and identity still common here today.

Trevor Noah

Straying from the regular beat for a quick cultural dispatch from my new home in South Africa.

Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah

Ask your average American to classify comedian Trevor Noah’s race and they’ll say “who?” Now ask fans of The Daily Show, or anyone who read the news yesterday. Most will say “black.”

If I posed the same question in Noah’s home country South Africa, 9 out of 10 people would say “colored.” The rest would probably think “colored,” remember my American accent, and then blurt out “mixed-race” to avoid confusion or offense.

Americans often gasp at the term “colored” — roughly on par with “negro” in its outdatedness and offensiveness — when senile white octogenarians utter it in polite company. But “colored” doesn’t mean “black” in South Africa, and it’s seldom considered offensive.

Here in Cape Town and across the country, “colored” usually just means mixed-race, somewhere along a fluid white-black spectrum.

“Colored” gained legal significance under apartheid when South African residents were officially classified as Black, White or Colored. Whites enjoyed social, political and economic rights not afforded to Blacks. Coloreds sat somewhere in the middle.

People of Indian or South Asian descent, initially Colored, later got their own category. People of East Asian descent were crowned “Honorary Whites.”

Whites were sometimes reclassified as Colored, Coloreds as Black, and vice versa based on criteria as arbitrary as eating and drinking habits. Seriously.

When apartheid ended in the early 1990s, this ridiculous classification scheme of control and oppression was scrapped. Official IDs no longer list race, but the same categories are still used in restorative justice programs and common parlance.

South Africans speak of “colored accents.” Everyone knows which parts of town are predominantly black, white or colored. Political allegiances closely reflect racial demographics. Although officially dead, legacies of apartheid live, similar to how racial injustice still shapes America long after the end of slavery and Jim Crow’s demise.

Trevor Noah has spent much of his comedy career translating South Africa’s complex racial nuances to international audiences. In stand-up shows “The Racist” and “Born a Crime” he describes his racial identity as having been reclassified at least three times in his 31 years.

To officials, he was born “colored.” His black mother was jailed and fined for mingling with Whites after curfew in a country where “mixed marriages” and interracial sex were prohibited. In parts of Soweto, Johannesburg’s predominantly black South Western Townships, children would point and scream “it’s a white man” as he passed. In Europe and America he’s usually considered black, that is when he’s not mistaken for Mexican:

I’ve always respected The Daily Show’s brand of satire but never carved out enough time to call myself a “fan.” With Noah tapped as host-in-waiting, that’s bound to change. The Daily Show is already wildly popular here with Jon Stewart at the helm. Noah’s promotion will make it Suzelle-level mandatory viewing if I want to hold my own in a conversation among local friends, and for good reason: Noah’s promotion is a big deal.

Few celebrities from this isolated tip of an often forgotten continent “make it” in America. Charlize Theron is one, but how many roles have featured her native accent? Oscar Pistorius is another, but…let’s not go down that path.

I hope Noah can bring more nuance to Americans’ understanding of Africa as a continent with more to offer than Ebola and Boko Haram. I look forward to watching him navigate the complexities of politics, culture and race in America as I continue to do the same in his homeland.

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