Within the dialogue of Trevor Noah’s “Afraid of the Dark” standup comedy act, various sociological sentiments are expressed. Throughout the course of his performance, topics laden with revealing word choices pertaining to Noah’s core beliefs rise to the forefront of discussion. In a manner which can only be described as classy when it comes to humor, Noah covers a number of subjects. He focuses on issues such as the underlying intentions of Brexit, the effects of Britain’s history of rampant colonization, how the Scottish drink, effective leadership qualities, and how speech affects perception. He also pokes fun at variations in the symbolic significance of stop lights throughout different regions of the world. A sociological analysis of important focal points of his show, as well as academic insights into his comments follows.
In his opening remarks, Noah notes his first experiences with traffic lights in New York City. He stresses how he initially found the amount of trust Americans hold in them to be strange. In his native country of South Africa, traffic lights are present but do not command drivers. Instead, they offer a recommendation. He cites that in his American experiences, red lights constantly urge drivers to “Stop!” However, he recalls that moments in South African are far different. In African towns, the lights are inquisitive. They alert drivers that it is perhaps a good time to, “Stop?”
Noah mentions that because of these opposing traffic light purposes, he was fearful when crossing the street upon initially visiting the Big Apple. Later, after witnessing locals cross without fear, he became aware of the differences in this cultural aspect between the United States and South Africa. This story offers prime examples of ethnocentrism, culture shock, and cultural relativism.
Initially, Noah judged American traffic lights (an aspect of our culture) by the standards of South African traffic lights (an aspect of his own culture). This is ethnocentrism. Noah also states he experienced an immediate response to protect people walking into the street upon the appearance of red lights. This seems to be indicative of his South African experiences with traffic lights. Thus, when he saw people in New York City not trying to avoid vehicles or shielding themselves in attempt to evade fatal impacts, he experienced culture shock. Further, when Noah finally acquainted himself with the way Americans perceive traffic signals, his views became cloaked in cultural relativism.
In Noah’s final line on this topic, he nods to the prevalence of struggles related to racism and discrimination in America. Racism is the belief that one racial category is innately superior or inferior to another, while discrimination is unequal treatment of various categories of people. In the words of Noah, “I’ve come to realize, in America, if you’ve got the white man on your side, you can do whatever you like.”
The real reason behind Brexit
According to Noah, economic issues were actually not the primary purpose of the social movement incased in Brexit-related affairs. Instead, he rationalizes that the underlying motive which propelled the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union was immigration. Noah states that the lack of assimilation by minorities of various races immigrating to the UK caused an uproar by Brits. Further, in Noah’s view, the native cultural transmission from each generation of immigrants to the next which occurred while they resided in Great Britain proved to be far too much for locals to handle. Essentially, during Brexit talks, the Brits experienced widespread culture shock and harbored ethnocentrism which led them to lash out and act irrationally. Noah boils Brexit down to a veiled conflict rooted in culture.
It seems Noah believes the behaviors of immigrants in Great Britain, who originated from differing societies, did not meet the expectations of locals. Upon gaining British citizenship, the immigrants did not attempt any sort of every day dramaturgical application or variety of self-presentation with intent to resemble British traits and to emulate those around them. Instead, they maintained their own beliefs, traditions, religions, ethnic identities, and languages. Simply put, they did not conform, and the unfamiliarity of subcultures they promoted infuriated the British. In doing this, the immigrants diminished the presence of Eurocentrism in very European countries. Basically, Noah believes Brexit was a masked attempt at social control. It appears Noah senses racism and prejudices were components of the call for Brexit. If he is correct in his opinions, the theme of race-conflict theory is certainly relevant to the Brexit situation.
It is due to the intense British colonization of the past, Noah asserts, that Britain is facing an unwanted influx of immigration now. In his words, “If there’s one country in the world that has no right to complain about immigration, it’s Great Britain. You do understand, they created the problem that they are now dealing with.” It is undeniable that prior colonialism played a role in this process. The impacts of British colonization, the mentality of many Brits regarding immigration, and the Brexit predicament perfectly align with features of the social conflict sociological perspective, which views society as an arena of inequality that generates conflict and change.
Upon the conclusion of introductory statements on British colonization, Noah gives us a look into what he believes it must have been like when the British arrived in India to begin this lengthy feat. It is very clear from the beginning of a skit he provides that the two individuals he portrays, a British soldier and an Indian farmer, are from entirely different societies. For instance, the idea of monarchy, which is briefly mentioned by the British soldier, seems to entirely surpass the scope of the Indian farmer’s knowledge. Additionally, during the course of Noah’s impersonation, confusion occurs between the two characters due to their differing belief systems. Further, attention is drawn to the fact that religion is a concept everyone understands. The ideology of religion is a cultural universal, although what individual religions entail varies.
How the Scottish drink
Noah also reminisced about his trip to Scotland by informing the audience of a memorable drinking story. During his tale, Noah jokingly stereotyped all Scots by saying “The Scottish don’t drink to enjoy, they drink to die.” Though this may be true for some individuals, it is hard to unequivocally reach this conclusion for the entirety of the Scottish population. Interestingly, this mention of drinking in a foreign country also serves as evidential support that the act is present in every culture. Like religion, drinking is cultural universal.
Barack Obama meets Nelson Mandela
Noah pays homage to two black leaders of achieved status, Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela, as well. He recalls what he believes it was like when Barack Obama met Nelson Mandela for the first time. Noah is certain that Obama perceived Mandela as an authority figure. He imagines that Mandela taught Obama how to speak like a leader, and that this meeting undoubtedly served as a session of anticipatory socialization for Obama. It is apparent by the conclusion of the meeting that Mandela, along with his young protégé, employ charisma and dramaturgical performances to inspire individuals to become followers.
How speech affects perception
In his final comedic bit, Noah discusses how incredible it is that people base so much of what they think they know about others on the speech patterns they process by those individuals. In the words of Noah, “You think you know if someone is smart or stupid because of their accent. And yet, an accent is not a measure of intelligence. It’s just someone speaking your language with the rules of theirs. Accents have connotations. . . Look at the French. We all believe that the French are romantic. Why? Because of their accent. . . Accents determine how we see people. [The] same thing happens with the Russians. The Russians [are] the most feared people on the planet. Why? Because of how they speak. I don’t care who you are, you cannot deny that when a Russian speaks, you are not comfortable.” A short satire in which Noah impersonates Germans and Russians at the Olympics demonstrates the large role accents play in social interactions. Further, Noah suggests all women should learn how to use a Russian accent as a defense mechanism if they are ever caught in threatening situations relating to sexual harassment, or even milder scenarios involving simple annoyances.
Through the analysis of Trevor Noah’s, “Afraid of the Dark” standup comedy act, many connections to sociological terms through brilliantly composed statements and examples are made. Noah’s pro-minority stances and vast worldliness certainly allow insight into how he has garnered massive success. It is with much optimism that his continued humorous works will be sought after by many.
Glossary of Terms (In Order of Appearance)
the practice of judging another culture by the standards of one’s own culture
personal disorientation when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life
the practice of judging a culture by its own standards
the belief that one racial category is innately superior or inferior to another
unequal treatment of various categories of people
organized activities in which people set out to encourage or discourage social change
the process by which minorities gradually adopt patterns of the dominant culture
categories of people distinguished by physical or cultural difference that a society sets apart and subordinates
socially constructed categories of people who share biologically transmitted traits that members of society consider important
the process by which one generation passes culture to the next
the ways of thinking, the ways of acting, and the material objects that together form a people’s way of life
people who live in defined territories and share a way of life
Erving Goffman’s term for the study of social interaction in terms of theatrical performance
specific ideas that people hold to be true
behaviors, values, and beliefs passed from generation to generation
social institutions involving beliefs and practices based on recognizing the sacred
systems of symbols that allow people to communicate with one another
cultural patterns that set apart some segment of a society’s population
The dominance of European (especially English) cultural patterns
attempts by society to regulate people’s thoughts and behavior
rigid and unfair generalizations about entire categories of people
the study of society that focuses on inequality and conflict between people of different racial and ethnic categories
the process by which some nations enrich themselves through political and economic control of other nations
a political system in which a single family rules from generation to generation
a trait that is part of every known culture
when something is viewed or represented as a stereotype; a simplified description applied to every person in some category
a social position a person takes on voluntarily that reflects personal ability and effort
power that people perceive as legitimate rather than coercive
learning that helps a person achieve a desired position
extraordinary personal qualities that can infuse people with emotion and turn them into followers
the processes by which people act and react in relation to others
comments, gestures, or physical contacts of a sexual nature that are deliberate, repeated, and unwelcome