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Why Trevor Noah’s Semenya tweet matters

By Gcobani Qambela

The former secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, says: “All the cruel and brutal things, even genocide, starts with the humiliation of one individual.” I was reminded of this quote this past Friday when I logged into my Twitter feed to find the mixed reactions to South African comedian Trevor Noah’s tweet about Caster Semenya. In the tweet he says: “Happy Women’s Day ladies. Hope you all have a great day. Even you Caster.”

While there was a lot of outrage from many users, there was even more laughter from his thousands of followers. What was disturbing to me beyond the tweet itself and the people laughing was the large number of people who did not see why some people found it problematic. One person on my feed for instance said (paraphrase) “if you are more concerned about a Trevor Noah tweet about Caster than actual atrocities aimed at women in South Africa your priorities are screwed up”.

At first glance this may seem like a legitimate position in a country like ours with well-documented violence against women and children. Why worry and express outrage about a tweet from a comedian when four-month-old babies are being raped and murdered without any justice or the same outrage as Noah?

About two months back a very close family friend was raped at knife point at her house in a rural area in the Eastern Cape. She was 76 years old and a retired government servant who spent her working life teaching young South Africans. She consequently had to be put on ARVs and she died a few weeks later. There were no news outlets covering her story, no Twitter outrage and no public officials condemning such violation of a woman’s body. Her story, like thousands of other women in South Africa, will remain largely erased from our narrative.

So why did I join the number of people expressing outrage at Noah’s tweet when violent crimes are being inflicted on South African women? I expressed my outrage because to me what Noah tweeted and the man who raped our family friend are all part of the same misogyny, (violent) patriarchy and intersex/transphobia that ultimately allows violent crime against women, children and even men to happen.

Noah’s tweet is not only a micro-aggression, it others and unapologetically humiliates a 22-year-old woman in the face of millions of people because of her gender. He is erasing her humanity and says there is something lacking that should be fixed about her. This is the one time as a man he will be generous enough to grant her humanity because it is Women’s Day. This is the same patriarchal rhetoric used by men who rape and murder (lesbian) women to “correct” them, because they do not perceive them as complete women simply because they do not identify as heterosexual and must consequently be “corrected” by force.

Noah joins the long list of men who have experienced personal tragedy in the face of violent patriarchy, but are not self-reflective enough to realise when they perpetuate the very same system that allowed those tragedies to happen in their own lives. In March 2012 it was reported that Noah and his younger brother suffered years of trauma at the hands of his “abusive” ex-stepfather who shot Noah’s mother, threatened him with violence and attacked his mother’s husband as well. Noah’s stepfather is a perfect example of violent patriarchy at its best and a man claiming full ownership of a woman without her consent simply because he can.

When people criticised his tweet he refused to apologise because this was comedy to him and a joke. But it is not a joke, by othering and humiliating Semenya he is opening a gate for other misogynists to take it further and abuse her because he is saying she is something less of being a woman and not worthy of full respect and dignity. Noah’s stepfather had to learn somewhere that it was okay to emotionally and physically abuse his mother. In an email to City Press Noah said his step-father’s abuse prevented her from living freely. This is a reality that many South Africans live with, but this is further intensified for the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) communities, which are constantly harassed, physically assaulted, raped and murdered because of their gender.

The biggest irony for me, is that when Noah spoke out about his abuse from his stepfather he blamed the justice system for not doing something, yet here he is today refusing to self-correct his heteronormative patriarchal thinking despite hundreds of people saying “no” — stop humiliating this young woman. He is just like the police officer who watched his mother being violently humiliated and did nothing to help her. How many times did she beg for her dignity before ending up in hospital for months? And how many LGBTIQ people die begging for respect and dignity over their bodies? Can you see how seemingly harmless micro-aggressions perpetuate violence?

Physical abuse always starts with micro-aggressions – telling people they are inadequate, that they do not matter and eventually seducing them into believing they are worthy of the humiliation and the physical abuse that follows. We have to connect the micro-aggressions, like Noah’s tweet, to the “larger” violent crimes of rape, assault and murder. This is not an either-or situation — we have to speak out at all levels, especially when these (micro)aggressions are being perpetuated by people with a considerable following. This is why I spoke out against the tweet and the same reason I speak out against patriarchal, physical violence.

Gcobani Qambela is an Anglo-Gold Ashanti (2011) One Young World Ambassador.

Author

  • Senior Anthropologist at the University of Johannesburg and Researcher at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), Oxford University. Co-author of the "Anti-Racist Teaching Practices and Learning Strategies Workbook" with Warren Chalklen, PhD. Available: https://bit.ly/3huUEMP

38 Comments

  1. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 12 August 2013

    This is a difficult one.
    Trevor Noah isn’t renowned for being malicious. He pokes rather gentle fun at people and situations with no malice – sometimes sadness and discombobulation, but not malice. If the written word could adequately convey intonation, it would probably be easier to judge his words. Unfortunately, the written word is one dimensional.

    I am dreadfully afraid that we are going to become so politically correct that humour is outlawed completely. There always seems to be someone who needs to micro-analyse every comment until it something is found in it that can be taken as a slur on something, somewhere. If Caster had complained about the comment, I would have backed her 100%. She hasn’t and, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has even asked her what her take on it was.

  2. Dale Roberts Dale Roberts 12 August 2013

    Thank you Gcobani for echoing my sentiments so eloquently. I agree. To stop intolerance of any kind we must voice our displeasure when it is expressed and do so loudly till the meme becomes a moral. And thereby condemnatory by all.

  3. Vusi Vusi 13 August 2013

    On the spot! I do believe that Noah got it all wrong. He also missed an opportunity to change the stigma around gender based discrimination.

  4. Dave Harris Dave Harris 13 August 2013

    Even though Noah is a comedian and he meant it to be funny, the joke nonetheless is tasteless and demeaning to our LGBTIQ community. Noah of all people should know what its like to be marginalized.
    If he values his career and respects his own humanity, he should simply apologize to Caster Semenya and move on.

  5. Rob Price Rob Price 13 August 2013

    I like your article and agree with many of the points that you put forward. I think that physical abuse does often originate from petty vocal abuse.

    I know you don’t mention it in your article BUT I think it should also be made clear that Trevor Noah remains more than entitled and justified in saying whatever he likes. Caster (as with Jacob Zuma’s) dignity/pride/self-confidence/worth is something that is built internally and not externally by others. No matter what Trevor Noah says he shouldn’t be able to change Casters dignity with Caster allowing him to do so. The Fact is that he has made no physical alteration to Caster’s life.

    So as much as I don’t like what Trevor Noah said and as much as I think it would be better if people didn’t make sexist/racist jokes like this one I will continue to guard against his freedom of speech.

  6. Clinton Clinton 13 August 2013

    This is a brilliant & accurate article! You have summarized it perfectly…congratulations.

  7. Matt Black Matt Black 13 August 2013

    Has anyone asked Caster what she thinks? She’s the butt of this joke and if she finds it funny, everyone who expressed outrage is screwed.

  8. N.Craig N.Craig 13 August 2013

    Well said Gcobani Qambela!

  9. Rod MacKenzie Rod MacKenzie 13 August 2013

    I am certainly uncomfortable with the joke.

  10. Tofolux Tofolux 13 August 2013

    May many responsible voices such as yourself be heard. This is a good example of how one corrects and alert others of inappropriate behaviour. Clearly no debate is needed other than pointing us to where we should be. ie holding to account and allowing a sense of responsibility and respect to prevail.

  11. Yaj Yaj 13 August 2013

    good article. Good idea for Trevor to self-reflect about his apparent arrogance lack of empathy.

  12. Mike Green Mike Green 13 August 2013

    I’m going to take a little lie-down…. I never thought I’d say this, but I agree with what ‘Dave Harris’ said.

    Just once, ‘Dave’, just once!

  13. Clarence P. Esau Clarence P. Esau 13 August 2013

    I’m with Momma Cyndi and find it VERY interesting that there has been absolutely NO response to what he or she has said.

    I do believe that a person deserves SOME flexibility within the context of previous behaviour and this might well be what is motivating Trevor’s refusal to apologise.

    Trevor is NOT known for malice. While his comment is certainly well left of centre particularly on Womens’ day, why is nobody acknowledging that transgender as an issue on the day is indeed relevant?

    And not only as something that is acknowledged and affirmed but as something that the majority of South Africans actually still struggle with.

    Why do we not acknowledge that we have a long way to go in this country. Posts on women’s day specifying well wishes to the exclusion of “hoes” and other fringe figures in society attest to this.

    Our reality is NOT politically correct. Commentary should take this into account.

    In fact, i would go as far as to say that in this country of ours, political correctness is limited to the academe and the liberal fringe.

    Great article. Relevance to the great unwashed? Well – fortunately they are not your target audience.

  14. siavash siavash 13 August 2013

    “Its Freedom Day today in South Africa!! Lets all celebrate it Black and White, even you coloureds”

  15. Mark Mark 13 August 2013

    @Gcobani, surely if there is a causal link between what a comedian tweeted and how women/womon/womyn are treated in RSA, can i ask you why I didnt see an article from you condeming JZ for singing shoot the boer, when in reality farmers are attacked and killed on their properties? There is definitely a link here if you use your logic. The most recent farm murder took place on Sunday 11th August 2013, so it must be a lingering after effect of JZ singing incitefull struggle songs.

  16. Mr. Direct Mr. Direct 13 August 2013

    I love a good joke. That is why I always read Dave Harris’ posts.

  17. Stephen Stephen 13 August 2013

    Nice article. But a bit rude, Trevor.

  18. Barb Eh Barb Eh 13 August 2013

    A very interesting article, and the comments equally so. The facelessness of the internet allows the use of words that Trevor Noah would probably not have said had the person been in front of him unless they were most excellent friends. I struggle to remind my nephew (and sometimes myself) of the hurt words unconsciously said will cause. It is too early to worry about whether we are too political correct on this issue. Remember the Shakespearean quote below:

    If you prick us do we not bleed?
    If you tickle us do we not laugh?
    If you poison us do we not die?
    And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?

  19. Patience Patience 13 August 2013

    Very True Gcobani

    Every thing nowadays is laughed at or made a joke of. Respect for others is now a thing of the past…as long as its not you that’s being laughed at or affected ..its okay to laugh and joke about a serious matter….#currentagemindset#

  20. Charlene Smith Charlene Smith 13 August 2013

    Dear Gcobani,

    I can see why you are an ambassador. I am so very proud of you for this piece. I’d like to stand on a roof and wave a flag and yell my support for you. But this will have to suffice.

    Trevor Noah’s comment was that of a bully and an insensitive jerk.

    I expected better of him, but fame often impacts on brain cells and weakens them.

    His lack of courage in personally apologizing to Ms Semenya tells us all we need to know about him. None of it is good. I hope that he develops the heart and the courage to rectify this.

    And you are absolutely right, his comment represents the sort of conduct and attitudes of a nation that profoundly disrespects and harms women. He clearly has issues and if he would like fame to remain his friend, he needs to man up, express regret where he is wrong, and remedy.

    Rapists are bullies too, they get someone they consider weaker and persecute them. Am I saying Noah is a rapist, of course now, but as a person with the power that fame affords he is one of those who helps cultivate attitude. I regret that as someone who experienced harm, he lacks the wisdom to be a positive role model.

  21. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 13 August 2013

    Could I ask why only transgender and homosexual WOMEN should be taken into consideration in this piece? You get transgender and homosexual males too. If Trevor had tweeted “Happy Women’s Day ladies. Hope you all have a great day. Even you Tannie Evita.” – would it have been funny? I’m sure Peter Dirk Uys would have thought so. Some kind of cheeky remark would have come back to Trevor (no doubt about it) but it would have been in the same spirit.

  22. Vytjie Mentor Vytjie Mentor 13 August 2013

    No one laughed at him or ridiculed him when he was growing up with identity issues. Why does he do this now? How must we sanction him as society is the question we need to ask.

  23. Miss O Miss O 13 August 2013

    Brilliant and well-argued article. Trevor Noah’s tweet is sexist and racist. By all mean poke fun at the powerful but don’t attack and try to humiliate a hard-working young woman like Castrer who has taken so much flack in recent years. It is so annoying to keep hearing Noah go on about his mother being black- as if that’s a valid excuse excuse for his routine attacks and humiliation of black women during his “comedy” skits.

  24. NRH NRH 14 August 2013

    Caster jokes? Seriously? That’s a bit of an old material if you’re not going to give it a new angle. Clearly it’s tiring to be a comedian on twitter – you end up saying some mediocre stuff just because you need to tweet…

  25. Marie Marie 14 August 2013

    maybe just maybe…this kind of thing should receive no reaction whatsoever, the author/s should be left with zero reaction – how disappointing would that be to those needy of attention? the more we “ooh” and “aaah” the more it fuels the limelight! same applies to the things some of those not so smart (…to be kind) “politicians”

  26. Peter Terry Peter Terry 14 August 2013

    I tweeted to Noah that humour is often high risk and when a joke blows up in your face the simplest and best thing to do is apologise sincerely and move on. (Yes, I occasionally work in the humour industry, and I speak from a position of empathy.) It appeared that he then blocked me on Twitter, which is a rather childish thing to do, I think. I would go so far as to say that Trevor Noah is one of our best and funniest comedians, so there is nothing personal from my side. His joke was awful. Jokes (we all know this) often rely on taking the piss out of stereotype, but this wasn’t poking fun at gender sterotypes; it was just yukky and personal and wrong.

  27. sello mtshali sello mtshali 15 August 2013

    Great article. Trevor is wrong on this one and he should apologize.

  28. hippiegoth hippiegoth 15 August 2013

    @Momma Cyndi: I don’t think Tannie Evita is an appropriate example, since she is Uys’ stage alter-ego – a construct, used and intended for humour. Pieter-Dirk Uys uses a trans-persona, that he created, to deliver socio-political commentary. Ms Semenya’s identity is not of her choosing, and (in my opinion) rather irrelevant to her career – athletics.

    Noah is nie snaaks nie.

  29. Gavin De Wet Gavin De Wet 15 August 2013

    I have admired Trevor for his way with words. It seems that he is running dry on material. His ability to turn anything topical into a good joke is what helps when you can not slap the politician yourself. Getting personal with Caster for the sake of a laugh is not the same. My respect and admiration has deteriorated. His comments in the name of show business is no longer as entertaining. I am giving his upcoming tour a miss.

  30. sandy sandy 15 August 2013

    Excellent article Gcobani Qambela. Trevor Noah is a jerk not to have apologised and insensitive to have made this “joke”.

  31. David David 15 August 2013

    There is nothing on earth that shouldn’t be joked about. It is a natural human defence mechanism that allows every one of us to deal with difficult, strange and sometime horrific circumstances. Failure to recognise this is typical of the po-faced, PC, gody-two shoes brigade who are determined to force everyone to act and speak in a manner which only they can determine. Trevor has nothing to apologise for – the point he made through humouor was in fact quite perceptive. It certainly made me think about male/female crossovers and how they would relate to “Woman’s Day” given their circumstances. Something I would not even considered had Trevor not tweeeted about it. The article by Qambela certainly says more about her own obsessions, her obvious malephobias and hang-ups thanTrevor and his amusing tweet. Qambela’s bizarre logic and irrational conclusions would have us all believe that the Holocaust was caused because someone told a Jewish joke. Her article is in fact a mirror image of Trevor’s tweet and she is guilty of all the things she unjusly acuses him of. I had to laugh about that.

  32. Tam Tam 15 August 2013

    Too right, Gcobani Qambela. Thank you.

  33. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 15 August 2013

    hippiegoth

    Peter Dirk-Uys’ sexuality isn’t of his choosing either.
    Let us substitute Nathaniel instead of Tannie Evita. Would that have caused a stir? A snappy comeback along the lines of being a ‘queen’, maybe, but I doubt the animosity would have been the same.

    Nobody has yet told me if Caster is offended. It seems like a lot of people are taking it on themselves to tell her how she should feel about this

  34. Jack Sparrow Jack Sparrow 18 August 2013

    I think freedom of speech is just that provided it is not hate speech that suggests harming others. This allows Noah to tweet; insensitive and thoughtless for sure, but the same freedom gives Gcobani et al the right to reply in the strongest terms but short of threatening harm (particularly physical harm) to Mr Noah.

    Now I guess TL will censor my freedom to speak out for this but utterances by people like Malema about Boers do threaten physical harm and he was correctly sanctioned.

  35. wakarimaska wakarimaska 19 August 2013

    This isn’t an LGBTI issue only – this is an issue of humanity, it affects all of us. This doesn’t need for Caster to say she’s offended by Trevor’s tweet first in order for criticism to carry some kind of ‘legitimacy’.

    What kind of thinking is that?

    An injustice to one is an injustice to all.

    Thanks for the article Gcobani.

  36. Karen Karen 19 August 2013

    It was rather tasteless of Trevor. I always admired his satire and jokes but this one does cross the limits. However he has made me think about what does “Women’s Day / month” really mean?. We have exclusions that we need to take cognisance of in terms of Gender Equality.

  37. Mikail Mikail 26 August 2013

    Gcobani, thank you for the article – it has given me an opportunity to reflect on the diversity of all our human experiences.

    Do we care about Caster? Would our society not be better if we considered seriously the positions of others, and how our comments might affect them? Sure, we are free to say whatever we like. Supercalimasemoer. See? But do we not have a responsibility in our words? Perhaps the reader doesn’t take offence, perhaps they do – meaning is unbelievably complex and non-deterministic. We simply cannot predict with certainty what others will interpret from our words (comedians play on this very synthesis of diverse meanings and connotations). We do control our intentions, however, and can develop the capacity to control our emotions. In other words, if we could, would we not want others to consider us the same way in which we consider ourselves? If that is the case, surely we should be sensitive to our social, cultural and biological differences when communicating to others. If we do not, the ease of inconsiderate communication on social media will leave us in a world of hurt hypocrites.

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