Born a Crime

by Trevor Noah

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Born a Crime Themes

The main themes in Born a Crime are racism and apartheid, power and dependence, and ambiguity.

  • Racism and apartheid: Noah’s chief subject is the racially segregated system of apartheid. He considers how such racial divisions shape societies and individuals.
  • Power and dependence: The memoir examines the dynamics of power in both the public and private spheres.
  • Ambiguity: Noah discusses the ambiguity of his own identity in a society that divides people along rigid racial lines.

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Racism and Apartheid

Born A Crime’s central theme is the experience of racism, specifically in the context of apartheid, the segregated system of government that allowed white South Africans to legally oppress and subjugate the country’s other racial groups from the 1940s to the 1990s. Born in the 1980s, Trevor lived through the end of apartheid during his upbringing. As a result, the institution’s inherent racism and subsequent inequity shape and define his early years.

Trevor is born to a Black mother and a white father in a time when it is illegal for couples across racial lines to have children, and Trevor spends his early years unable to openly speak about, embrace, or even accept either of his parents’ identities in public. This is deeply alienating for him. Instead of claiming his own ancestry, he has to pretend to be descended from those whose ancestors had children across racial lines before it was illegal—a racial group that he has no actual connection to.

As apartheid falls, Trevor gains a little bit more freedom to live out in the open, but the systemic injustice set in place by apartheid proves hard to dismantle. The laws have changed but not the infrastructure, and members of the three nonwhite legal designations (“Black,” “colored,” and “Indian”) remain at a social and economic disadvantage that keeps many of apartheid’s restrictions informally alive.

It’s not enough, the author insists, to simply remove the legal barriers of racism and expect those who have been bound by them for generations to suddenly thrive. In chapter 15, he explains the situation by way of analogy:

People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.”

To erase the lasting inequities of apartheid, those with resources need to invest in those without them.

Power and Dependence

Born a Crime interrogates power on both macroscopic and microscopic scales. Apartheid itself is a system that relies on power imbalances to function. All caste systems are dependent on the ability of the ruling class—in this case, white people—to keep the lower classes in a position of powerlessness. In the case of South Africa, where the lower classes consist of myriad races, identities, and language groups, the ruling class maintains its power stronghold largely by pitting the lower classes against each other so they don’t concentrate their own power to confront those at the top.

The power dynamics in Trevor’s personal life are similarly fraught. This is perhaps most clear in Patricia’s relationship with her husband, Abel, which can arguably be seen as an embodiment of some of the broader conflicts at play in South Africa itself. She is caught in a cycle of domestic violence in which her husband is both her abuser and, often, her dependent. In the face of Abel’s constant drinking and his inability to keep his business going, it is only Patricia’s hard work and constant diligence that allows them to survive. In a similar pattern, Apartheid systematically abuses South Africa’s oppressed people and relies on their labor and their capital to function.


Born mixed-race in a society that does not accept mixed-race citizens, Trevor grows up alienated from his ancestral communities. As he tries to make sense of his own ambiguous identity in an otherwise highly racially codified world, he often finds himself straddling the dividing line between two or more disparate groups, without an obvious claim to any of them.

Sometimes, this experience can be very literal. In two instances in the book, Trevor walks into a theoretically integrated environment and realizes that the people around him have voluntarily separated into their respective racial groups. This happens once on a playground at school, where it is simply a matter of social awkwardness, but the second time, the stakes are much higher. He is in a holding cell with violent criminals, where attempting to align himself with a group that does not consider him a member might spark a fight.

On a broader scale, the region’s relationship with the end of apartheid can be seen as mirroring Trevor’s personal ambiguity. He is two contradictory things at once, and so is their society. Though the institution officially ends in 1994, theoretically freeing the nation’s citizens from its harsh edicts, this dismantling is not nearly so simple in practice. When a set of values is used to structure an entire social system, its systemic injustices do not disappear the minute the founding documents are determined to be invalid. Indeed, Trevor’s community continues to live with many of its consequences long after the country’s nominal policy has changed.

In his own life, Trevor copes with his sense of ambiguous statelessness by becoming someone who can belong everywhere. To ingratiate himself to those around him, he becomes a polyglot and learns as many languages as he can. In chapter 17, he explains his rationale:

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 . . . 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.”

Speaking to those around him in their native tongues, Trevor is able to signal his belonging in situations where he otherwise stands out as a natural outlier.

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Chapter Summaries