Trevor Noah Asked Obama How He Navigated Through Discussions About Race

Noah has recently come under fire from African Americans for his outsider's perspective on race.

Race relations has never been an easy topic to talk about, and for Trevor Noah, a biracial man from South Africa, it's one he's been wading into tentatively — with highly controversial results. 

Last month, Noah invited conservative rabble-rouser Tomi Lahren, who is fond of calling Black Lives Matter protestors "the new KKK," onto his show. It was portrayed as an attempt to understand diehard Donald Trump supporters like herself, a shot at reaching beyond his own admittedly liberal bubble. Noah and Lahren largely had an amicable conversation; they neither succumbed to snark nor descended into a shouting match and remained polite throughout. 

The response to the interview was mixed. Some lauded Noah for how he seemed to respect Lahren's different, often personally insulting views. The Atlantic held it up as the moment Noah found his voice in the crowded field of late-night shows. But many others were outraged that Noah even engaged with Lahren, as it may have validated her opinions as worthy of debate. 

In a Medium post entitled "White People Are A Little Too Damn Happy About Trevor Noah Vs. Tomi Lahren," writer David Dennis Jr. wrote:

 Tomi Lahren spouted violent propaganda on national television while Noah tried to get her to value his black life. That's not a healthy debate. That type of conversation shouldn't be celebrated. And it damn sure isn't Trevor Noah's job to convince a white person why he shouldn't die.

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The backlash was just as fierce when Noah wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about unity and moderation. "We can be unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who've oppressed us," he wrote. 

The black community criticized Noah for his lack of understanding of racism in America. Having taken on the mantle as an outsider looking in the world of American comedy and commentary, Noah just didn't get how race relations worked here, some argued.

"The biggest problem with Trevor Noah," wrote Tomi Obaro at BuzzFeed News, "[is] his consistent need to placate, his cloying belief that everything will work out if liberals and conservatives just sit at a metaphorical dining table and hash things out. It's the luxury of his vantage point as a successful black foreigner, the miracle of his own birth, that lets him believe such solutions are feasible."

It's likely that Noah has seen this criticism since it's all over the internet. Engaging in a dynamic, productive discussion on race is not something everyone with a public platform has been able to do effectively. So while he had President Obama on the Daily Show on Monday for a full-episode interview that touched on Russia's role in the election and Donald Trump, Noah seized the opportunity to ask the first African American president just how he managed discussions on race.

"It is often difficult to navigate and skirt that line between speaking your mind and sharing your true opinions on race, whilst at the same time not being seen to alienate some of the people you are talking to," he said. "So the question I've always wanted to know is how did you navigate that? Because we watched you do it, but I always wanted to know how you navigated that through your two terms."

Obama responded:

My general theory is that if I was clear in my own mind about who I was; comfortable in my own skin; and had clarity about the way in which race continues to be this powerful factor in so many elements of our lives, but that it is not the only factor in so many aspects of our lives; that we have by no means overcome the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and racism, but that the progress we've made has been real and extraordinary; if I'm communicating my genuine belief that those who are not subject to racism can sometimes have blind spots or lack appreciation of what it feels to be on the receiving end of that — but that doesn't mean that they're not open to learning and caring about equality and justice — and that I can win them over, because there is goodness in the majority of people; I always felt that if I really knew that and I just communicated it as clearly as I could, that I'd be okay. 

He also talked about how he toes the line between being diplomatic and being honest. Sometimes, Obama said, he's had to call out racism for what it is. Other times he's had to take a more gentle, roundabout approach. 

"The challenge we face today, when it comes to race, is rarely the overt Klansman-style racism and typically has more to do with the fact that, you know, people got other stuff they want to talk about and it's sort of uncomfortable," Obama said. "It's somebody not getting called back for an interview, although it's never explicit. Or it's, you know, who gets the TV acting job, the actress who doesn't quite look the part, and what does that mean? And in that environment, where you're not talking necessarily about cut and dried racist behavior, but rather about the complex ways in which society is working these issues through, you know — trying to reach folks in ways that they can hear, I think, is important."

Obama also added that everyone's role in these sort of conversations is different. Chris Rock doing stand-up, he pointed out, is markedly different from his own approach to these discussions. "For one thing, you know, he doesn't have to edit his language quite as carefully because I am still subject to, you know, some restraints," Obama said. "I try to comport myself in a way that my mother would approve of."

Watch the full interview here:

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