Noah’s existence is not only outlawed by the apartheid system; the system also fails to neatly categorize him as black or white, and so his existence as a biracial man reveals the underlying flaws in the system’s conception of race. Nevertheless, he still has to cope with apartheid dividing the world—and people continuing after apartheid to divide themselves—based on race. He is frequently forced to choose a racial group even though that he knows that inequality and oppression thrive precisely by sustaining such animosity. And yet he also recognizes his unique potential to define his own identity by bridging different groups, as well as to show those groups their common interests. Throughout the course of his memoir, Noah manages to find a sense of belonging in the world without clinging to any particular group or identity label.
Under apartheid, identity is defined according to race. But this makes little sense for Noah, who knows that his existence as a mixed-race South African proves the system’s illogical foundations. Noah argues that interracial relationships challenge the very foundation of apartheid’s racism because, quite simply, they show that people want to be together despite racial difference, not only ever because of racial similarity. This, in turn, is why interracial sex is illegal. Judging by skin color alone, Noah is classified as “colored,” a group that falls between black and white in terms of rights and social status. Yet, practically speaking, this makes no sense: colored people are a specific, closed community, largely in Western South Africa, descended from centuries-old mixed marriages and most closely connected to white Afrikaner culture. Even though Noah is not part of this colored community, the apartheid system would have him live, work, and make a family exclusively with other colored people just because of his skin color, which shows how divorced apartheid’s racist thinking is from the reality of how people define their identities. Luckily, Noah and his mother, Patricia, manage to escape detection, but he still repeatedly has to be hidden as a child: he cannot meet his father, Robert, or walk with his mother in public (she often pretends to be his nanny or maid). He cannot play on the streets with his cousins in Soweto, lest he be kidnapped by the government and moved to a colored settlement.
Because race is (for the most part) the dominant basis for identity in South Africa, Noah often feels forced to “pick a side” and choose part of his identity at the expense of the rest. Although he first attends an integrated Catholic school called Maryvale College, after the sixth grade his schools are always divided on the basis of race, and he is consistently unsure how to position himself—he is not particularly white, black, or colored, and he is certainly not Indian. At his first school, he grows close to the other black students and decides to leave his advanced classes to be with them. Similarly, he feels most at home in black neighborhoods (Soweto and Alexandra) and hates the white suburbs, where everyone else lives behind a huge wall. And he particularly feels ostracized by colored kids, who bully him constantly in Eden Park and show him why “it is easier to be an insider as an outsider than to be an outsider as an insider.” However, when he briefly ends up in jail and goes to the cell under the courthouse for his bail trial, again Noah has to pick a group of inmates to hang out with based on race, and the choice is not obvious: he has been playing the part of the colored gangster but wants neither to reveal the part he is playing to the actual colored gangsters nor invoke their wrath by hanging out with the black men. So he goes and talks with the white men.
Noah’s ability to pick various sides in various situations paves the way to the solution to his sense of alienation: he learns to bridge different communities and show that belonging can depend on identities people choose and build themselves, rather than ones imposed on them by the circumstances of birth or color. The first chapter focuses on the three churches that Noah’s mother takes him to every Sunday: an integrated church, a black church, and a white church. This represents the family’s ability to create community on their own terms (rather than only on the basis of race), but also Patricia’s fearlessness in the face of racism during the last years of apartheid. Noah uses business to remain at once an insider and outsider to everyone. By reselling food from the busy cafeteria line in high school, he manages to get along with everyone without needing to truly join one racial group at the expense of the rest. And during his year selling goods on the street in Alexandra, he again uses the social distance of business transactions to build connections with a wide variety of people in the neighborhood. But, throughout his childhood, Noah’s main technique for bridging different identities is learning various South African languages, which allows him to communicate with most of the people he meets and signal that he is part of (or at least respects and understands) their group. This gets him out of potentially violent situations numerous times and makes him a marvel (and arguably the most popular kid) on the first day of sixth grade during recess.
Ultimately, because he recognizes that violent systems like apartheid thrive by making oppressed people focus on their differences rather than common interests, Noah simply refuses to define himself negatively by confining himself to one group and instead defines himself positively, by opening himself to various people, languages, and experiences. This is not only a tool for him to survive in a divided world where he does not neatly fit in any box, but also a means to heal the world by coaxing people out of their boxed-in communities and into a broader mindset of shared humanity.
Identity, Belonging, and Community ThemeTracker
Identity, Belonging, and Community Quotes in Born a Crime
The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.
The triumph of democracy over apartheid is sometimes called the Bloodless Revolution. It is called that because very little white blood was spilled. Black blood ran in the streets.
As the apartheid regime fell, we knew that the black man was now going to rule. The question was, which black man?
In any society built on institutionalized racism, race-mixing doesn't merely challenge the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent. Race-mixing proves that races can mix—and in a lot of cases, want to mix. Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.
As a kid I understood that people were different colors, but in my head white and black and brown were like types of chocolate. Dad was the white chocolate, mom was the dark chocolate, and I was the milk chocolate. But we were all just chocolate. I didn't know any of it had anything to do with “race.” I didn't know what race was. My mother never referred to my dad as white or to me as mixed. So when the other kids in Soweto called me “white,” even though I was light brown, I just thought they had their colors mixed up, like they hadn't learned them properly. “Ah, yes, my friend. You've confused aqua with turquoise. I can see how you made that mistake. You're not the first.”
I was eleven years old, and it was like I was seeing my country for the first time. In the townships you don't see segregation, because everyone is black. In the white world, any time my mother took me to a white church, we were the only black people there, and my mom didn't separate herself from anyone. She didn't care. She'd go right up and sit with the white people. And at Maryvale, the kids were mixed up and hanging out together. Before that day, I had never seen people being together and yet not together, occupying the same space yet choosing not to associate with each other in any way. In an instant I could see, I could feel, how the boundaries were drawn. Groups moved in color patterns across the yard, up the stairs, down the hall. It was insane. I looked over at the white kids I'd met that morning. Ten minutes earlier I'd thought I was at a school where they were a majority. Now I realized how few of them there actually were compared to everyone else.
Colored people had it rough. Imagine: You've been brainwashed into believing that your blood is tainted. You've spent all your time assimilating and aspiring to whiteness. Then, just as you think you're closing in on the finish line, some fucking guy named Nelson Mandela comes along and flips the country on its head. Now the finish line is back where the starting line was, and the benchmark is black. Black is in charge. Black is beautiful. Black is powerful. For centuries colored people were told: Blacks are monkeys. Don't swing from the trees like them. Learn to walk upright like the white man. Then all of a sudden it's Planet of the Apes, and the monkeys have taken over.
As the outsider, you can retreat into a shell, be anonymous, be invisible. Or you can go the other way. You protect yourself by opening up. You don't ask to be accepted for everything you are, just the one part of yourself that you're willing to share. For me it was humor. I learned that even though I didn't belong to one group, I could be a part of any group that was laughing. I'd drop in, pass out the snacks, tell a few jokes. I'd perform for them. I'd catch a bit of their conversation, learn more about their group, and then leave. I never overstayed my welcome. I wasn't popular, but I wasn't an outcast. I was everywhere with everybody, and at the same time I was all by myself.
In society, we do horrible things to one another because we don't see the person it affects. We don't see their face. We don't see them as people. Which was the whole reason the hood was built in the first place, to keep the victims of apartheid out of sight and out of mind. Because if white people ever saw black people as human, they would see that slavery is unconscionable. We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others, because we don't live with them. It would be a whole lot harder for an investment banker to rip off people with subprime mortgages if he actually had to live with the people he was ripping off. If we could see one another's pain and empathize with one another, it would never be worth it to us to commit the crimes in the first place.