Trevor Noah, host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, spoke with University of Michigan students in an event hosted by the University Musical Society in collaboration with the Ford School Tuesday night. Noah discussed race, division, the power of comedy and the arts and the importance of voting.
U-M students were able to submit questions when they registered for the event. These questions were reviewed by the four students participating in the event who used them in determining what questions they would ultimately ask.
One of the first questions was posed by Public Policy graduate student J’Taime Lyons, who asked about race in America. Lyons specifically asked about the role Black women play in democracy, a topic Noah has previously discussed, given the discrimination his mother faced as a Black South African woman.
Noah said Black women can serve as the compasses for democracies because poor policy decisions impact them the most, noting how important their votes are.
“If America wants to find its conscience, it should always look toward Black women,” Noah said. “And the reason I say that is not because Black women inhabit a superior position mentally or emotionally or even in a moral way, but it’s because Black women statistically experienced the brunt of bad policy decisions more than any other group in this country … Black women have never been given the opportunity to take a chance with their vote because their vote is a determining factor in how their lives will be lived.”
Lyons told The Daily after the event that it exceeded all of her expectations. She was especially impressed with Noah’s answer to her question about Black women in America.
“I was blown away,” Lyons said. “He does a really good job of amplifying the voices of Black women and his answer was everything I wanted to hear, plus more. He was able to show the historical perspective, provide metaphors, and I just can’t get it out of my head that Black women are the moral compass of America.”
Noah’s response, Lyons added, “just kind of reminds me to keep fighting.”
Public Policy graduate student Danny Rosa asked about how people of color can find a balance between engaging in important conversations with white peers while recognizing that it is not their responsibility to educate others.
Noah said both in the past and now, those who are oppressed have always been responsible for engaging with those oppressing them. He said he personally always tries to interact with those who are willing to ask questions and have a conversation. Noah also emphasized, however, people should understand when they have the capacity to engage or when they do not.
“I think that in any conversation around any group who has been oppressed in some way, shape or form, unfortunately, the burden is on us to engage with the oppressor,” Noah said. “And I say this as somebody who came from a country where it was the responsibility of Black people to remove the apartheid government policies and to then get people in society to understand why they need to vote for (Black people) to be free … And so I don’t think we can ever step away from the conversation. If we say we’re fighting for freedom and we’re fighting for equality, then we’re gonna fight.”
In an interview following the event, Rosa discussed Noah’s response to the question. He said getting validation that it is okay to not always engage was helpful.
“I’ll just be very frank, it sucks,” Rosa said. “And it’s a struggle I’ve had. Sometimes I just want to chill out, have a beer, play a board game with my friends and not kind of be the social justice police, in my circles. But at the same time, I feel this obligation of needing to step in when a comment is said that I disagree with or needing to correct someone. But I think in his response, he said it is okay to take that step back and say, ‘I don’t have the capacity to do that. But maybe tomorrow I’ll have that capacity.’”
Noah described how to engage with family or friends who may have different political views.
“And so one thing I would encourage people to do is to not think about changing the minds of people in their lives, but rather find the ways to connect and why you have that person in your life,” Noah said. “Then, once we build a foundation of understanding that we both share a common space as human beings, I think then we can start embarking on a journey of getting into the difficult subject of politics.”
Music, Theatre & Dance senior Shannon Nulf asked Noah how he balances creating comedy with his personal ideology. Noah said art can allow people to convey important messages about issues while providing opportunities to escape them.
“In the space of the arts, we shouldn’t take for granted our ability to do two things,” Noah said. “One, to highlight issues that are affecting society, but to also give people the opportunity to take a break from the issues that are affecting society. … You can use art to tell stories that breakthrough to people in a way that they don’t even realize is happening. Because oftentimes, we try to change people’s minds. And what’s so powerful, if you think about it from the time we were children, is stories are often what changed our minds.”
Lyons also asked Noah about his work in comedy, specifically how he uses comedy as a form of relief.
“One thing I’ve come to learn is comedy relies on truth,” Noah said. “You don’t laugh at it because it’s not true, you laugh because it relies on truth … And so that’s what makes comedy so powerful in my opinion. What makes comedy amazing, as well, is it reminds people to laugh. And I think the power of laughter is it can remind you who you are. You are your truest self when you laugh.”
Much of the discussion focused on the importance of voting and civic engagement. Josiah Walker, LSA senior and president of voting engagement organization Turn Up Turnout, asked what Noah thought about young people who were not going to vote because they don’t think it will make a difference.
Noah said while voting may not be revolutionary, it can be an important step toward seeing the changes people hope to make.
“I don’t judge anybody if they say ‘I don’t want to vote,’” Noah said. “What I want to say to them, though, is when you don’t vote and somebody votes against you, then what you’re now allowing to happen is for somebody to take you backwards in life. And although voting may not be the revolutionary act that you wish it would be that would change the world overnight, sometimes part of a revolution is preventing the enemy forces from completely swarming what you worked on up until that point.”
Noah added, “But ask yourself this question, do you truly believe that doing nothing is better than doing something?”
Though young people often say they are not interested in politics, Noah explained, politics affect every part of people’s lives. In addition to voting, Noah stressed the importance of different forms of civic engagement, such as protesting or talking to elected representatives.
“At some point, you can bother them enough that they will make something change,” Noah said.
Noah also said voter suppression and the work of politicians to restrict groups’ access to voting demonstrate how powerful a vote truly is.
“Voting isn’t a cure for everything but, man, if you don’t take it seriously your vote gets taken away from you,” Noah said. “And then what happens from that is someone took your vote more seriously than you took your own. So that’s what I say to people is, you don’t think your vote counts, but if it didn’t count, why are people working so hard to take it away from you? That should tell you something.”
Daily Staff Reporter Emma Ruberg can be reached at email@example.com.
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