In the preface to the chapter, Trevor watches broadcasts of American TV shows, syncing up the original English audio from the radio, and realizes that the black characters with American accents “felt like foreigners.” He notes that language carries cultural identity and apartheid used this fact to separate different groups by only letting schools use children’s home language. It works the other way, too: by encountering someone else who looks different but speaks the same language, a person can circumvent the racist beliefs programmed into their minds.
While apartheid treats racial difference as the primary means to divide people and linguistic difference as a secondary one, Trevor sees that it is actually reversed in most people’s everyday experience: black people who look like his family feel foreign because of the way they speak English, and it soon becomes clear that Trevor manages to relate with people who think he is “colored” by speaking their languages, which outweighs their racial differences.
The chapter begins. Trevor accidentally breaks his cousin’s eardrum while playing surgeon; his grandmother beats everyone but him, claiming, “I don’t know how to hit a white child.” She is afraid that he will bruise and turn “blue and green and yellow and red.” Trevor’s grandfather sees him as white, too, even calling him “Mastah” and acting like his chauffeur. Even though Trevor is “way naughtier than either of [his] cousins,” he gets off easy when he makes trouble—except for with his mom. Still, he understands “how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks.”
While the white world sees Trevor as colored and he identifies most closely with his black family in Soweto, that same family sees him as white and actually replicates the same system of racial hierarchy that leaves them at the bottom. In this sense, by being mixed-race, Trevor gets access to how it feels on both sides of unequal race relations; this privileged understanding uniquely positions him to fight these same inequalities.
Trevor never realizes this is about race until much later. He thinks it is just “because Trevor is Trevor.” He is famous in Soweto: giving directions, people say, “at the corner you’ll see a light-skinned boy. Take a right there.” The kids call him “white man” and touch and gawk at him. Most of them have never interacted with a white person before, since they never leave Soweto. Trevor gets to eat indoors at funerals, with the family of the deceased, even if he has never met them. However, he never thinks of it in terms of “race,” which is a meaningless concept.
Of course, Trevor only realizes the social context surrounding his special treatment much later in his life, which shows how racism is learned in two ways: first, he has no concept of race until he learns it, and secondly, black kids learn to revere him based on skin color, even though it means nothing to them, and he does not see it as creating any essential difference between them and himself.
To “bridge the race gap,” Trevor learns languages. His mother makes sure he learns English, which is the best way to get “a leg up” as a black South African. At home, they speak Xhosa. Trevor’s mom teaches him Zulu (which is closely related to Xhosa), German (which she speaks with his father), Afrikaans (which she learned “because it is useful to know the language of your oppressor”), and Sotho (commonly spoken in Soweto). Once, an Afrikaner shopkeeper tells his security guard to watch out for “those blacks”—Patricia responds in “beautiful, fluent Afrikaans” and the man apologizes, saying he “thought you were like the other blacks.”
Trevor and his mother both fight apartheid’s insistence that blacks only ever speak their ethnic home language by using six different languages to traverse a variety of social contexts and build exactly the kind of interethnic connections that threaten apartheid’s strategy of “divide and conquer.” They do not choose between appeasing Europeans and getting along with other blacks; like with churches, their strategy is something along the lines of more is more.
On the street, when anyone asks him where he is from, Trevor simply responds in the same language and accent. When a group of Zulus chat about their plans to “get this white guy,” he turns around and proposes in Zulu that they “just mug someone together.” They apologize—they “thought you were something else.” Language, Noah argues, is a much stronger unifying force than color. He “became a chameleon.”
This episode is remarkable not only because Trevor shows he is no “white guy” by speaking Zulu, but also because he is actually Xhosa, the group with whom the Zulu have the strongest rivalry after apartheid. Because he has no particular, discernible ethnicity at all, Trevor can easily transform into whatever is convenient in any particular context.
Near the end of apartheid, private South African schools open their doors to “children of all colors,” and Patricia manages to get Trevor a scholarship to go to Maryvale College, an elite Catholic school. The students never define or divide themselves on the basis of race—but Trevor soon has to learn that the real world does, and that it will make him “pick a side.”
Ironically, even though apartheid ends when Trevor is young, he is actually most shielded from its racism and effects during this period of life (when he is mostly forced to stay inside rather than interact with others and gets to go to an integrated school).
After the sixth grade, Trevor moves to a government school, where he gets placed in advanced classes—which are almost entirely white. At recess, the white and black students separate, and Trevor is “left standing in the middle, totally confused.” Fortunately, an Indian kid, Theesan Pillay, recognizes him as a “fellow anomaly” and rescues him from his isolation. Theesan finds it “amazing” that Trevor can speak so many African languages and spends the entirety of recess taking Trevor around, having him talk with various black students in their native languages. Everyone is surprised and confused—they think he is white but soon realize he “belonged to their tribe.”
The sharp division between the white and black students shows that educational inequalities start early in South Africa, with Trevor likely only in the advanced classes (which exacerbate this inequality) because he got to attend an expensive private school for free. Even after apartheid, the same racial hierarchy perpetuates itself through inequalities in resources and institutions. This is the first of many instances in which Trevor ends up literally caught between black and white and is forced to choose. Ultimately, Trevor’s language abilities lead the black students to accept him even though he looks different, which again proves that language trumps appearance as a basis for group identification.
However, all the black students are “in the B classes,” not the advanced (“A”) classes with Trevor. He asks his counselor to switch over, but she declares that “those kids are gonna hold you back” and explains that “this will impact the opportunities you’ll have open to you for the rest of your life.” Trevor is adamant, though, and switches down to the B classes because he would “rather be held back with people I liked than move ahead with people I didn’t know.” He makes his choice: he is black, like everyone in his family and everyone he has grown up around. The black kids eagerly accept him.
While the counselor correctly recognizes that educational inequalities have a long-standing impact on people’s success in South Africa, she blames this on “those [black] kids” themselves rather than the system that fails to educate them. Trevor clearly picks a side, the one that fits with his family and upbringing, and his skin tone does not prevent him from fitting in (just as the “B” classes in no way prevent him from succeeding).