Ana Marie Cox
Your memoir, “Born a Crime,” is a striking depiction of your life in South Africa both under and after apartheid. How has that experience formed your perspective on the divisions we’re seeing in America because of the election?
America is the place that always seems to treat the symptoms and not the cause. In South Africa, we’re very good at trying to go for the cause of racism. One thing that really never happened here, which is strange to me, was a period where white America had to reconcile with what it had done to black Americans.
I wonder if one difference is that in South Africa, no one could deny that the root of it all was racism, whereas here, people think there’s more ambiguity. What’s scary is how many people don’t realize that racism is written into your system in America. We had a very simple, blatant system. You could see where the tumor was, and you could cut it out. In America, the tumor masquerades as an organ, and you don’t know which parts to cut out because it’s hard to convince people that there’s a problem in the first place.
I hate to use the words “silver lining,” but one of the many things that have become evident because of this presidential campaign is that we don’t agree on a truth anymore. Yeah, the truth is now an opinion. Unfortunately, thanks to social media, you can live in your bubble of opinion truth for as long as you like.
I’m sure people would argue that “The Daily Show” has helped people to reinforce their own views of the world. There’s the ecosystem where, after a good segment, the next day, everyone on the internet talks about how you eviscerated so and so.
Oh, yes, the evisceration. I mean, I come from a place of reconciliation, of conversation. Where I’m from, evisceration is not something that is celebrated, because, unfortunately, evisceration was the only thing that was being used. Destroying another person’s argument is not an appealing thing.
You also talk a lot about being an outsider — because you’re biracial, because you had an abusive stepfather — which informed your solitary nature. Which came first?
My life began in a solitary fashion because of the world I was in: I couldn’t play in the streets because my grandmother and mother could get arrested. I couldn’t be known. I became used to being an outsider, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy what is on the inside, but it means you always maintain a mind-set that keeps you within your own space.
But you’ve clearly learned how to be adept at fitting in to various situations — you describe yourself as a chameleon throughout the book. Have you ever surprised yourself with your ability to adapt? “The Daily Show” is probably the biggest challenge that I’ve been working toward my entire life without even realizing it: I’m in a position where you are fundamentally against what many people believe. I had people — you know, people who are Democrats, fans of the old show — saying things like, “Go back to Djibouti, we want Jon Stewart back.” I knew liberal hatred existed, but I didn’t think it would come to me. I had to quell that feeling that people have lost what is theirs.
Do you feel that your job is to transform yourself into someone as unthreatening as possible? Yeah. Part of the job was to help people see that you have a bit of that color in yourself. Hey, there’s a bit of you in me. I’m not coming from a world where I don’t see you. If you look carefully, you’ll see yourself in me and what I’m saying.