You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.
This quote illustrates Trevor's shrewd understanding of how racism, power, and oppression intersect. As someone who does not fit into a neat category, he is well-positioned to observe that most individuals are not that different from one another, no matter what their culture, race, or language is. However, by focusing on arbitrary distinctions, the apartheid government encourages individuals to see others as fundamentally different, and therefore not to be trusted. Because different groups, such as Black and colored people, would become preoccupied with power struggles and tensions, white colonial powers could more easily continue to maintain authority. With this quote, Trevor shows that none of the non-white groups in South Africa gained any power or influence as a result of racial separation, and that focusing on difference and mistrust is a way that individuals become trapped in cycles of being powerless.
Because a mixed person embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system, race-mixing becomes a crime worse than treason.
As a mixed-race person, Trevor is very aware that his existence challenges attempts at state control. Even under the oppressive influence of apartheid, people of different races experienced love and desire. Mixed-race people show that no system of laws can ever fully control or contain human impulses. Like most authoritarian systems, apartheid responded to challenges to control by trying to crush them entirely. Racial mixing is taken seriously and punished severely in South Africa because it shows that underneath the apartheid system, people are still more similar than they are different.
I'm scared I'm going to break him. I don't want to kill a white person. I'm so afraid. I'm not going to touch him.
Trevor's grandmother speaks this quote when she explains why she is uncomfortable hitting him, even though she disciplines her other Black grandchildren. Because Trevor has lighter skin, bruises and marks show up differently on him, and his grandmother therefore worries she might be causing him more severe injury. Also, in a world where a Black person attacking or injuring a white person has very serious consequences, Trevor's grandmother is so afraid of the idea of hurting a white person that she sees disciplining her grandson through the same lens. Even within his own family, Trevor's race and appearance set him apart. He is treated differently from his cousins, with whom he shares very similar genes, because his appearance leads him to be coded differently.
That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people.
South Africa operates according to a strict system of racial classification, where one's appearance largely determines what rights and privileges one has. However, in practice, Trevor finds that people base their ideas of whether someone fits in or not on whether that person can speak a shared language. Trevor learns to speak multiple languages, and this allows him to fit in with different groups, even if they initially assume he is an outsider. Over and over again, Trevor builds trust by being able to speak to someone in their language. While he can't alter the way he looks, language is a skill he can develop through his own agency, and this gives him a sense that he has some control over his fate.
When I look back, I realize she raised me like a white kid—not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.
Looking back on his childhood and the way Patricia approached raising him, Trevor realizes just how valuable the experience was. Even though they grew up poor in a country where they were denied many basic rights and freedom because of their race, Patricia wanted Trevor to be confident and ambitious. She encouraged him to think for himself, and to be curious and hopeful. As he gets older, Trevor recognizes that these values, which might seem simple on the surface, were usually experienced by children who had the privilege of knowing they could get a good education and make choices about what kind of future they wanted. For many black children growing up in poverty with nothing to look forward to, this kind of encouragement was unheard of.
I remember the thing that caused the trauma, but I don't hold on to the trauma. I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new.
In this quote, Trevor reflects on an outlook that he learned from his mother, an outlook which has served him well throughout his life. Patricia has shown incredible resilience and optimism even though many bad things have happened to her. Trevor, likewise, decides that when bad things happen in his life, he will try to learn from the experience, but he will never stop taking risks in order to avoid pain. Perhaps because he grows up witnessing suffering and injustice all around him, Trevor accepts that some amount of pain is a fact of life: the choice that people have is how they respond to that pain. Trevor's choice is to focus on moving forward and never getting stuck in the past. Even though many traumatic things happen to him, he uses these as fuel for comedy and storytelling rather than becoming embittered.
Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.
Trevor speaks this quote when he reunites with his father Robert after many years of estrangement. Trevor had assumed that Robert had lost interest in him, but he is surprised and moved to find that Robert has, in fact, been following his career very closely and is clearly very proud of his son. Trevor realizes just how much joy it gives him to know that his father cares, even though he could have easily lost interest in him. While Robert has not played an active role in his son's day to day life, he has chosen to be invested in the relationship, and that choice matters more to Trevor than anything else.
For all that black people have suffered, they know who they are. Colored people don't.
In this quote, Trevor unpacks some of the complexity around being a colored person in South Africa, and how it is different from being Black. While colored people are somewhat better treated legally and socially, they have an ambivalent history and often lack the strong sense of community and identity that Black South Africans have. The entire history of colored people is intertwined with a history of colonialism, oppression, and violence: they can't look back to a time before a European presence, nor can they take pride in historical roots. Unlike Black people, Trevor also observes, colored people often live in hope of being someday accepted as white, and that this makes them very quick to try to distinguish why they are "better" than the people around them.
I wasn't popular but I wasn't an outcast. I was everywhere with everybody, and at the same time I was all by myself.
Trevor speaks this quote to explain the social status he occupied in high school. While it most immediately describes the position he occupies in the school's social hierarchy, it also reflects how he doesn't really fit in anywhere within South African society. Trevor has to largely keep his identity and origins a secret, and he doesn't actually belong to any of the major racial groupings. Amongst other students, he learns to be skilled at highlighting the ways he resembles different groups, but he never actually experiences a deep sense of belonging.
Someone put a beautiful woman on my arm, and said "She's your girlfriend." I'd been mesmerized by her beauty and just the idea of her—I didn't know I was supposed to talk to her.
Trevor speaks this quote as he reflects on how he ended up in the bizarre situation with his prom date. He was excited that a beautiful girl was willing to go to prom with him, and he was also nervous and shy around her. The result was that he never spoke directly to her and did not realize that she did not speak any English until the night of the dance. While some of Trevor's confusion is understandable and results from his friend Tim tricking him, he also realizes that he did not try to learn anything about his date. He was fixated on her physical appearance rather than seeing her as another person with whom he could have a conversation.
Born a Crime Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Born a Crime is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.