Trevor Noah understands firsthand the negative impacts of racial segregation.
The 33-year-old Daily Show host was raised in South Africa during a time period when apartheid — a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination — was enforced. Born to a black mother and a white father just over three decades ago, the biracial comedian witnessed — and was victim to — the effects of governmental discrimination against nonwhites.
“I was born in South Africa during a time when there was apartheid,” Noah tells PEOPLE Editor-in-Chief Jess Cagle. “Apartheid was a system of laws that were racist laws designed to separate and segregate people in the country. One of the core tenants of these laws was that black and white people weren’t allowed to fraternize; weren’t allowed to share the same spaces; weren’t allowed to live in the same areas; and most importantly weren’t allowed to have, as they call it, carnal intercourse.”
Noah recently released his new book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, and explains that the title was inspired by his parents’ brave decision to have him, despite the risk of being arrested.
“My parents broke that law and I was a product of them breaking that law,” says Noah. “And so, in essence, I was born a crime.”
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“They weren’t allowed to get married. When I was born, marriage between a white person and a black person was illegal in South Africa,” he explains about the segregated society that he was raised in. “And so that wasn’t an option on the table. So from the very beginning, our lives had been separated in a way that very few people would understand.”
Despite his harrowing upbringing under apartheid, the Comedy Central host is grateful for the positive life lessons that his parents taught him.
“My mother and father taught me that the labels we put on a relationship define a relationship less than the relationship itself,” he says, and adds, “And that’s what I find fascinating about their story is that I came to learn that love can truly surmount any obstacle.”
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood is now available for purchase.
—With NATALIE STONE