The majority of the population of Mogador [Essaouira] are coloured people, the Moors of Fez resident here alone are white. What would the Yankees say at nearly all the great dignitaries of this immense empire being a coloured race, some of them of the blackest Guinea dye; even the emperor himself being also a fourth or fifth caste!
—The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Reporter, May 1844, p 77.
Most Moroccans who do not perceive of themselves within the binaries of white vs. black will marvel at the above statement. The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Reporter, a colonial tool that promoted a hierarchized idea of race, is a useful example of the precariousness of racial categorizations and their deployment as tools of control by the colonial state. The statement above demonstrates the colonial desire to confine a population that does not conform to the Eurocentric binary opposition of black vs. white. Ironically, the statement also stands in contrast with a contemporary US hegemonic race discourse that has constructed the majority population of North Africa as white. This is further complicated by the postcolonial project of nation-building which promoted the image of Northern Africans as ethnically Arab (i.e., not African, i.e., not Amazigh/indigenous, i.e., not black) suppressing the legacy of slavery and Moroccans’ ancestral ties to other parts of the continent. That is why the label “coloured” used by The British Reporter to describe the majority of Moroccan populations, is equally troubling to many Moroccans who have been long conditioned to see themselves as part of the Middle East, and as a result, do not identify with blackness or Africanness. It is this ethno-Arab identity, in its territorial displacement and in its racial ambiguity, that continues to serve many populations in Morocco, especially the elite, who have adopted an Arab-Islamic identity and asserted themselves as the upholders of its Andalusian heritage—a heritage, that according to many historians, has always been Amazigh.
It is only in the last fifteen years, and while confronted with the growing presence of a new African diaspora in Morocco, the hundreds of documented and undocumented migrants from West and Central Africa, that many Moroccans began to question the historical and racial dimensions of their identity. The presence of these migrant communities has even brought into focus the social stigmatization of dark-skinned Moroccans, linked to both the history of slavery and to the legacy of colonialism, forcing new conversations about racism and color hierarchies that remain largely unexamined in Moroccan society.
The racialization of these new migrant populations is linked, on the one hand, to the legacy of slavery and the colonial racialization discourse, and on the other, to the post-independence nationalist agenda and its promotion of Arab ethnicity. My examination of the limitations of the racial binary of black vs. white as an analytical category to address the racialization of migrants in the North African context allows for a more nuanced approach to racial categorizations—one that challenges these simplified binaries without erasing the psychic violence of racial labeling or the historical stigmatization of blackness produced by the legacy of slavery, colonialism, and the project of nation-building. This approach is necessary to challenge the construction of migrants as the ‘racial other’ and to support their human right to mobility and belonging.
The labeling of northern Africans as white in the US academic discourse is deeply problematic. It not only compartmentalizes the so-called ‘Maghreb’ and the ‘sub-Sahara’ as two separate entities, but it also indicates a process of erasure that de-Africanizes northern Africans and obscures their historical and ancestral ties to other regions of the continent. This labeling also silences the experiences of northern African diasporic communities living in Europe and who continue to be racialized, marginalized, and discriminated against precisely because of their non-white status.
It is worth noting that many of the scholars from the Global North who coin the populations of North Africa as white, remain unaware of the politics of representation and self-representation in the region and do not differentiate between whiteness as a historical project and a system of power as opposed to whiteness as a visual marker. The racial categories of black and white in the Global North, and specifically in the US, are tied to the historical discourse of race and power that can be traced to the language of modernity and to the history of the Black Atlantic. When the political category of white is stripped of its historical meaning (i.e. colonial violence) and imposed on postcolonial nations such as Morocco with a long history of resistance to white colonial powers, it not only perpetuates an orientalist discourse that has long situated Africa and its populations outside history, it also contributes to the historical erasure of third world pan-African resistance politics.
What this type of scholarship continually fails to do, is engage with the historical and the cultural memory of the nation. The dimensions of whiteness as a marker of colonial violence, is acutely present in the historical memory of most northern Africans, especially those who lived through the colonial era and remember being othered, racialized, and coined ‘dirty natives’, ‘dirty Arabs,’ etc. I evoke Eric Calderwood’s Colonial Al-Andalus: Spain and the Making of Modern Moroccan Culture as an example of scholarship that de-historicizes Morocco by erasing the violence of European colonialism and collapsing the power dynamics between the colonizer (Spain) and (the colonized) Morocco. The author, instead, reconstructs these dynamics as “intercultural,” except that the disposable bodies of Moroccan soldiers who were forced to fight for Spain in the Second World War and in the Spanish Civil War, and the Moroccan Guerilla fighters who were decimated in the fight against Spanish occupation, tell another story and it is not one of “intercultural” exchange.
I am in no way implying that northern Africans’ ‘visual proximity’ to whiteness has not benefitted them. In fact, many Moroccans who grow up with light skin privilege have a rude awakening when they move to Europe and realize they are racialized as black and brown. In the US, however, northern Africans have been classified as white by the federal government. The US census states that white is “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.” The reinvention of migrant communities in the US as white is not unique to northern Africans, and while this racial coding may appear random, it is in fact invented intentionally to statistically insure that whites are majority population in the US. But one can imagine the shock of many Moroccan migrants when they get to the US and discover they have been placed in the same category as Europeans. Some have rejoiced in this privilege, and others, like myself, found this designation violent and deeply insulting. I grew up near the Moroccan-Spanish border of Ceuta, an intense land border that separates the African continent from Europe. This made me profoundly aware of the tangible implications of race and power and how racial categorizations are spatially manipulated to control populations of the Global South. The racial profiling that takes place at the Ceuta border—the sad spectacle of Moroccans, Sudanese, Syrians, Malians, Yemenis, Senegalese, Congolese and others flocking around the police-controlled fences that separate them from Europe—is the ultimate site of European hegemonic power and its assault on Southern bodies, mimicking old colonial patterns of territorial and spatial control of ‘native’ populations. This is also why I am intent on writing this piece—to point to the precariousness of racial categorizations with the hope of forging a space for racial solidarity with migrants in the region and helping mobilize for a sustainable immigration policy. We, as northern Africans, as populations of the Global South, cannot mimic Global North rhetoric on migration. It is crucial that we challenge our own racialization of other African migrants and question our own oppressive immigration policies—the same ones being used against us in the Global North.
Historically, racial identity in the continent has been inextricably linked to the European orientalist discourse. The French colonial presence in the continent has imposed its own ethnic and racial definitions on populations they knew very little about. These definitions continue to play a role in the way racial classifications function in contemporary Africa. Social Darwinism, a white supremacist ideology which has deployed the biological principles of Darwin’s scientific theory of evolution to human society, was instrumentalized by France to promote a hierarchized idea of the races in order to divide and rule its African populations. It constructed ‘North Africans’ as racially and culturally inferior to white Europeans and superior to ‘sub-Saharan’ Africans, a perception that was also reinforced in the post-independence era by both North and West African intellectual elites. In “Slavery, Anthropological Knowledge, and the Racialization of Africans,” Jemima Pierre’s thoroughly and carefully demonstrates how Social Darwinism was applied to African ethnography and how it continues to shape the field of Anthropology where the colonial and racist demarcation of North Africans/sub-Saharan Africans continues to go unnoticed. The British too manipulated Social Darwinism to control their African colonies. In “The Cruel Legacy of Social Darwinism in Nigeria,” Olufemi Oluniyi discusses the current ramifications of the British racial categorization of the Muslim Fulani of Northern Nigeria as superior in the evolutionary ladder to the rest of the Nigerian populations because of their lighter complexion.
The views on migrants in Morocco are a significant indication of how Moroccans negotiate their cultural and historical sense of belonging and ‘fumble’ to find the right terms to connect to these populations (and by extension to their own Africanness.) This is partly the result of the persistence of a nationalist, Arab-centric discourse that has de-Africanized Moroccans and re-invented Amazigh identity as Arab, as I already mentioned. School curricula continue to endorse and disseminate an inaccurate account of our genealogy tracing the origins of the Amazigh people to the Arabian Peninsula. My first introduction to the discipline of History, for instance, was in 1983, in third grade. The opening sentence of the textbook was, and I quote, “the ancient populations of Morocco are the descendants of the Amazigh people, they came from Yamen and the Levant by way of Abyssinia and Egypt.” This sentence was taught as a mantra for decades in every public primary school in Morocco. It is still stuck in my memory and the memory of thousands of Moroccans who attended public schools at the time.
However, the post-independence discourse of nation-building has been unsuccessful in articulating who we are ethnically and racially by suppressing the legacy of slavery that connects us ancestrally to West Africa and the Sahel. It has failed to reconcile the legacy of Morocco as a postcolonial African nation (with a long history of Pan-Africanism and resistance to white colonial powers) with its oppressive legacy of slavery and stigmatization of blackness. However, there is currently a shift in ideas about belonging and what it means to be Moroccan and African, which is directly connected to the growth in the number of migrant populations. Brahim El Guabli investigates how this shift is shaping literary production in Morocco, arguing that Black African migrants have “thrust Moroccan society into an era of racial consciousness.”
Over the last thirty years, Morocco has gradually turned into a de facto residence for a large number of migrants from West and Central Africa who could not make the passage to Europe. About 50 thousand of these migrants became regularized between 2014 and 2017, but the number of those who are unregularized is significant. According to the latest statistics from January 2023, the current number of undocumented migrants in Morocco is estimated at 30-50 thousand according to the Moroccan media center ENASS. This is a loose estimate, since the reality of these migrants is precarious, clandestine, and often escapes statistics. These figures often come from the number of migrants detained by the authorities, but in no way account for the hundreds who live in the shadows and those who are disappeared or are trafficked. The number also varies according to the level of securitization at the Moroccan borders and on the conditions in the neighboring African countries and how they affect the migratory routes. AVIS, the Moroccan national economic, social, and environmental council estimates the number of undocumented African migrants settled in Morocco (i.e., not in transit) at 20 thousand. The number of refugees and asylum seekers has also skyrocketed since 2007, according to ENASS, at an estimated 13 thousand from West and Central Africa as of March 2022. It is worth noting that Moroccan authorities don't make a distinction between undocumented migrants and those seeking asylum, subjecting both to the same levels of arrests and forced displacement.
The growing presence of African migrants began to challenge a false public discourse that has constructed them as inherently different to us. A fear of blackness and Africanness emerged in some media outlets that used apocalyptic language to warn against ‘these new intruders.’ Terms such as ‘black locusts,’ the loathed creatures that are known to destroy everything on their way, was deployed as an analogy by the local Tangier newspaper, Al-Chamal, in a 2015 issue to describe the large number of migrants ‘swarming’ the Northern Moroccan-Spanish border of Ceuta. This anti-migrant narrative has been further fueled by anxiety over sharing limited economic and social resources in a country with poor public health services and a high unemployment rate (unlike in Europe or the U.S. where migrants perform low-skilled jobs, in Morocco both Moroccans and migrants have to compete for the same jobs). Yet, interestingly, the country was not facing a ‘foreign’ presence, but a familiar one since the boundaries between what we consider the “North” and “sub-Sahara” have always been fluid and permeable and goes against the colonial invention of this spatial division that has only served to obscure the history of the region.
The silencing that surrounds slavery, a subject never broached in public discourses or in school curricula, has left most Moroccans with a very amorphous idea of their past and their ancestral ties to the Sahel and West Africa. Slavery in Morocco lasted until the early twentieth century and until recently that memory lived with us through parents and grandparents who grew up in the 1910s and 1920s and remembered slave markets in their towns and villages; many remembered growing up and being raised by enslaved people, and many remembered grandparents who were enslaved people. Yet, slavery remains a taboo topic. The legacy of slavery in North Africa has stigmatized blackness and produced embedded color hierarchies and racism to the extent that the terms ‘black’ and ‘servant/slave’ are often used interchangeably. Both Chouki El Hamel in Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race and Islam and Deborah Kapchan in Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace address this history in their scholarship. El Hamel argues that the intensification of the trans-Saharan slave trade in the 17th century has deeply shaped contemporary conceptions of blackness in Morocco to the extent that dark-skinned persons (Moroccan and others) are still referred to as ‘abd’ (slave) in everyday’s parlance. Kapchan, who worked extensively with Gnawa Musicians, highlights the contradictions within contemporary Moroccan society between an official public discourse that suppresses the history of slavery and the lived experiences of Moroccans whose connection to that past cannot be erased because it is ontological and epistemic, and therefore embedded in all aspects of life from language to music to ritual. The colonial ideas about race and blackness that were internalized and perpetuated in the post-independence era have also contributed to and maintained the silencing surrounding slavery. The result is an incoherent public and political discourse on Africanness, blackness, and belonging that has emerged as the number of sub-Saharan migrants continues to grow.
Tunisia’s President Kais Saied’s recent commentary against West and Central African migrants is a good example. Said claimed that they were turning Tunisia into an African country and threatening its ties to the Arab and Islamic worlds. His words, unfortunately, instigated waves of violence against these migrant populations. To Said, the categories of African, Arab, and Muslim are irreconcilable—all of which I discuss in a previous article on “The Africanness of North Africa.” They articulate an ongoing nationalist discourse that invents this tension between Africanness, Arab ethnicity, and Islam. The result is an incoherent narrative of belonging in the region (cultural, racial, historical, and linguistic) mirrored in a distancing from Africanness (associated with blackness, with heathenism and constructed as foreign to North African), from Arab ethnicity (ontologically and epistemologically challenged by Amazigh majority populations) and from Islamic belonging (seen as irreconcilable with Africanness).
The rise in the number of African migrants in Morocco is not only changing notions of belonging, it also pushed Morocco to adopt legislative measures to protect migrant rights. To that extent, Morocco has shown a serious commitment to international laws and human rights by adopting a global immigration policy in 2014—the first of its kind in North Africa—and which led to the regularization of about twenty-five thousand undocumented migrants from West and Central Africa. This was followed by a second phase that was launched in 2017 with the regularization of another twenty-five thousand. This initiative, although far from being perfect, came as a result of many incidents of violence that angered civil society and prompted a Royal Decree that asked the government to develop a policy of immigration. This, of course, signifies an important legal step, but it only addresses some of the issue. Those who are not eligible to apply for regularization are presented with formidable obstacles, especially women. Many live in unsafe conditions in encampments in the forest. They are likely to be sexually exploited by male migrants, and many live in constant fear of being trafficked.
Imane El Fakkaoui addresses this bitter reality in her article “Taper Salam” which explores the lived realities of migrant women who reside in forests and live off the practice of begging.
March 2014 also marked a turning point in Morocco’s history with the launching of the first official anti-racism campaign that carved a space for the first public discussions about discrimination, racism, and belonging. The campaign slogan was “My name is not AZZI”—a derogatory term for blackness. In addition to tackling racism, the goal of the campaign was to push for the regularization agenda. Human Rights activists, intellectuals, artists, and athletes joined to protest against the racist language used against African migrants. Despite a changing immigration policy, and despite the fact that the Moroccan constitution prohibits discrimination, social and cultural norms still prevail. The campaign was couched in the language of humanism, constructing racism as an expression of self-hate and anti-racism as a sign of civility and humanity. Quite radically, the campaign also addressed color hierarchy by pointing out internal racism and discrimination against dark-skinned Moroccans, a taboo subject that has been tackled for the first time publicly. The protesters were also for the first time engaging publicly with Morocco’s African identity with slogans such as ‘we are all Africans’, a huge step for a nation that has been uneasy about its Africanness and frames its cultural identity as well as its religious genealogy in relation to the Middle East.
This was clearly a positive step towards combating racism and xenophobia and mobilizing for a more inclusive immigration agenda. But what was absent from the demonstrations was a coherent race discourse to convey the sense of solidarity civil society felt towards migrants. The very notion of migrants as the ‘racial other,’ consumed by the majority of Moroccans through news media, disintegrated as demonstrators struggled to find the right language for advocacy. With slogans in French and Arabic, some were chanting “Nor black nor white, we are all Africans,” and others were chanting, “We are a little black and a little white, we are all Africans.” The ambiguity of these categorizations used in the campaign mirrors the dilemma of a population that is trying to fit into imposed racial categories that do not reflect their ontological and epistemological realities. This confusion points to three things: 1) the persistence of the colonial definition of race as fixed and binary (black vs. white, African Vs. Moroccan), 2) the disintegration of the racial othering of Central and West Africans that cannot be sustained because of our Africanness and ancestral ties to these very populations, 3) the absence of a critical understanding of how racial identification contributes to shaping coalitions and forging alliances. The ambiguity of the ethno-racial category of “Arab” situated between whiteness and blackness in the racial ladder of French Social Darwinism (and reinforced in the post-independence era) also contributes to this confusion. Ultimately, it is the absence of a domestic, home-based coherent critical race discourse that creates a barrier to advancing pan-African solidarity with migrants. It is also what makes it difficult for many scholars from the Global North to read the semantic complexities of racial categories in the region and therefore quick to subscribe whiteness to non-white, postcolonial nations without critically engaging with their histories. The slogan of the campaign aforementioned should have simply been, “Let’s stop the violence, let’s stop racism, we are all Africans.”
The racialization of migrants is also tied to an Arab-centric Islamic discourse. ‘Sub-Saharan’ Africa is still associated with “heathenism” in the minds of many Moroccans. West and Central African migrants, especially those who are undocumented, are only too aware of this reality. Many who are Muslim are asked by locals at times to recite the Quran or perform prayers “to prove” their Muslim identity. Those who are not Muslim, sometimes adopt Moroccan Muslim names and learn the daily Islamic lexicon of Moroccans in order to (partially) integrate into Moroccan society. This is necessary for their survival as many live from appealing to Muslim charity. This association of migrants with heathenism is closely tied to the history of slavery in Morocco and the silence that surrounds it. Ironically, part of the reason the legacy of slavery is buried has to do with the reluctance of many who may have a family past in slavery to admit to a possible ancestral past in “heathenism.”
Studies conducted between 2000 and 2019 by AMERM, a major research center on migration in Morocco, show how the perceived difference between ‘North Africans’ and ‘sub-Saharan’ Africans is being reproduced in Moroccan society and reveal the ambivalence Moroccans feel about their Africanness and their ancestral past. In interviews conducted in 2008, most migrants believe that Moroccans view them in a negative light and do not value their civilizations and cultural heritage. Many see this discrimination as emanating from the collective memory of slavery as well as a perceived religious difference. The number of those who believe Moroccans perceive them positively or are empathetic towards them is much smaller. It was obvious to me while reviewing several of these interviews that even Moroccans who express their solidarity with migrants they still view them as the Other racially. They relate to them through the lens of a shared economic and political reality (poverty, underdevelopment, migration) but not on the grounds of ancestral association. This is contrary to migrants who are cognizant of their ancestral affiliation with Moroccans making comments such as “we are all brothers and sisters” and “we are all one big family,” perhaps puzzled at how Moroccans refuse to recognize this kinship.
The recent presence of West and Central African migrant communities in Morocco has succeeded in mobilizing civil society and in challenging homogenizing discourses about North Africa as ethnically and racially uniform. There is a shift in ideas about belonging and what it means to be Moroccan and African. Anti-racism campaigns continue to carve a public space for iterative discussions about race, raising racial consciousness and emphasizing Morocco’s Africanness. It is crucial to challenge the myth of otherness associated with West and Central Africans and propose a vision of Africanness that acknowledges our ancestral ties to these communities in order to advance a discourse on pan-African solidarity and work towards a more sustainable immigration policy.