Trevor Noah tells UK students: Keep challenging the status quo on race, privilege

Trevor Noah, host of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” on Comedy Central, shot a selfie with some students Friday outside the Singletary Center for the Arts after his presentation.
Trevor Noah, host of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” on Comedy Central, shot a selfie with some students Friday outside the Singletary Center for the Arts after his presentation. UKphoto

It’s the proper role of young people to hold society accountable and challenge older generations who accept the status quo, the brainy stand-up comedian and author Trevor Noah told an audience at the University of Kentucky on Friday morning.

“But the older generation is going to resist,” the host of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” on Comedy Central said during an assembly at Memorial Coliseum. “That’s what older generations do. At some point an older person is like, ’Nah, I don’t want to change anymore. That’s what death is for.’”

It was a rare laugh line in a mostly sober conversation conducted on a stage with Julian Vasquez Heilig, the new dean of UK’s College of Education, about race, cultural diversity and the importance of equal access to education at every level.

The event, which kicked off a yearlong series of programs celebrating 70 years of racial integration on campus, included a tribute to Lyman T. Johnson, who became the university’s first African-American student in 1949. UK President Eli Capilouto also announced the awarding of an honorary doctorate for Doris Wilkinson, a retired professor of sociology at the university and one of its first black graduates. (Wilkinson was not able to attend due to health reasons.)

Noah, the 35-year-old biracial author of “Born a Crime,” a memoir about his life in South Africa during and after the apartheid era, talked about racial integration in both personal and global terms.

“I was in the first generation of people who got to go to integrated schools,” he recalled. “For all intents and purposes, for eight, nine hours in a day, we were equal. And the difference that made in my life, and the lives of many of the other kids I went to school with, is truly, truly priceless. We learn every single day that access to education and, more importantly, how you were able to access that education ... can truly define your generation and the next generation that follows.”

Noah noted that in New York City, where he now lives, wealthy school districts have rigged the school funding system in such a way that their tax dollars go only to schools in their own zip codes, effectively excluding children growing up in poor areas of the city and perpetuating income inequality.

“How do we get everybody into a space where people are treated as equally as possible?” he said. “Because once that happens to children, they grow up as adults who are easily integrated, they grow up as adults who are more inclined to be successful as human beings.”

While Noah praised university professors for their scholarship and argued that teachers at all levels should be given more respect and higher pay, he also held them accountable for their use of impenetrable academic jargon — a phenomenon that he said has potentially serious consequences in the world of politics.

“If you cannot finds ways to speak, or to pass your message along in everyday language … you exist in a space where you become mentally elite, and you look down on people who just don’t seem to understand what you’re saying,” he told the audience packed with faculty and graduate students. “And unfortunately, if you’re not careful, the academic stays in that space with other elites, whereas populists, as we’ve seen, are very good at using language that communicates and connects with people who feel like they’ve been left behind by academics and elites. And so those messages get across — not necessarily because they’re a better message, but because they’re a message that’s easier to understand.”

Turning an appraising eye on his own industry, Noah talked about the ways entertainment can shape racial attitudes, for good and ill.

“Your first interaction with an Italian person might be a Mafia movie. Your first interaction with an African person might be a movie about Wakanda,” he said, referring to the mythical African setting of the blockbuster film “Black Panther.” “Every story has the power to shape how you see people. ... You start to realize that when you represent people as they truly exist in the world, in the complex ways that they exist, you then create a world where people understand them more and are more accepting of them. That’s the power of entertainment, and the true power of representation.”