Recently I applauded Trevor Noah’s much-discussed satirically-laced congratulatory comments that Africa had won the World Cup, not France, a reference to the ethno-racial diversity of France’s largely African-descended national team. But especially how this diversity should not be viewed as a conspiratorial affront to France’s nationalism, and assimilationist aspirations for a common peoplehood.
While my cheeks ached from smiling so hard – with pride, at Noah’s unapologetic, ‘primetime celebration’ of Les Bleus victory but more so, the visibility/positive representation black and brown bodies of which the victors inhibit. It is with great sadness that I inform you that …This is no longer the case. The wattage of Noah’s hallowed-crown has dimmed, the balloons deflated and there’s a certain rancidity of the celebratory wine that has caused even the most fully-fleshed of lips to retreat to base and form the skin of prunes. What am I talking about? What has caused such melodrama? Well, just as 2018 has proven to be the year of the ‘Call-Out Culture’ in which every one of our problematic favourites from Kanye West and R-Kelly to Maya Jama and Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) have become politicians. That is, all their past transgressions, opinions and actions are fair game to the apparent ‘investigative journalism’ of the public and their unsolicited moral evaluations. Unfortunately, Noah – a soi-disant progressive and high-ranking officer of the Army of the ‘Social Justice Warriors’ – well, in my mind at least, has assumed his own pride of place among the slew of other twitterati ambushed, ‘dirt-dugged’ celebrities and public figures.
The issue here concerns the recent resurfacing of a YouTube clip from Trevor Noah’s 2013 stand-up special It’s My Culture which went viral on Twitter. The clip features the comedian discussing issues of race and beauty but has come under fire for his insensitive, racist, and sexist comments directed towards the appearance and presumed promiscuity of Australian Indigenous women.
In the footage, Noah said that “all women of every race can be beautiful,” then said: “And I know some of you are sitting there now going, ‘Oh Trevor, yeah, but I’ve never seen a beautiful Aborigine.’” He continued, “It’s not always about looks,” and then imitated the motion of one playing the didgeridoo, a long wooden wind instrument developed by Indigenous Australians, in a suggestive way. Understandingly, this has triggered a growing call for Trevor Noah’s upcoming tour of Australia later this month to be boycotted. The clip has since been removed from social media, after indigenous former-rugby player Joe Williams, said the comments were “utterly unacceptable” especially for “a man of colour”.
While Noah has since apologised – with his seemingly lackadaisical ‘Come to Jesus Moment’ tone that many celebrities adopt in their PR-encouraged attempt for damage control; to say that his comments – no matter how humorous to some – are problematic, is a gross understatement.
As someone who has researched, and is interested in, the historical materialism and contemporary continuities of colonialism in the present and especially as it relates to identities and lived-realities of black-and-brown minority communities. What was particularly irksome was that his comments have little to so with individual perceptions of beauty – solidly anchored in the old adage that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and everything to do with Australian ideas and normative assumptions about indigeneity and beauty - or lack thereof, which are necessarily historicised by and implicated in histories of colonialism. As such, Noah’s comments regurgitate and seemingly legitimises historical stereotypes and narratives which point to different standards of colonialism’s racialisation of beauty. Where Aboriginality is often assumed antithetical to (white/white-skinned) femininity, - or at best – the barrel scrapping bottom of racially-hierarchical ranks of Australian attractiveness. Worst still, Australian indigeneity as being intimately-tied to logical fallacies about their assumed primitive hypersexuality. A perception of hypersexuality which has rendered their bodies as “sex things” – mere curiosities of black flesh, that are not just “ugly”, and available for commodification and disposal but also, has little or no instinctual confrontation against the male racial-gendered trauma.
Such false ideas were comprehended when Europeans first set foot on Australian soil and declared it terra nullius, empty of human life; when indigenous humanity was denied. Colonisers regarded such people first as animals (named in the Australian Constitution as a part of the fauna and flora) and later as second-class citizens. When we understand this painful history, we start to understand why ‘prettiness’ is assumed contradictory or non-existent in Aboriginal femininity.
I say all this to stress that our words are not simply the grammatical formation of letters – innocent in tone, intention and appearance - rather they are powerful, as humour or otherwise, especially when they intersect, inform and are framed by our perceptions of minority “Others” that are fraught with often painful colonial histories. As such, Noah’s comments – with its abhorrent language in tow – implores an attitudinal shift, a re-positioning of Aboriginal bodies, femininity and sexualities to a place where their humanness is not understood in the semiosis of white and non-indigenous beings or negated by men – and especially fellow black men - who uphold unattainable Eurocentric beauty standards.
So yes, I couldn’t care less whether Trevor Noah finds Aboriginal women attractive. That’s not the point. I do however care that they are the punchline – as always. How unoriginal!