What is whiteness in North Africa?

What happens when we take the study of whiteness from settler colonial contexts into the postcolony?

Photo by Xingtu, via Flickr CC.

On the second day of Ramadan, in early May of 2019, the Doha-based television channel Libya al-Ahrar aired an episode of its hidden camera program in which the show’s star prankster blackens her face, adopts mocking versions of a “Sudanese” accent and attire, and then traps strangers in an elevator with two monkeys that she insistently describes as her children. Only a few days later, the show repeated the blackface gag. This time, the actor asked the waiter in a Lebanese restaurant in Libya to read the menu line by line with her as she responded with outrageous incomprehension, confusing things like “juice box” and exclaiming, “You have dog juice?!” The elevator episode circulated on social media platforms with some condemnation but remains available on YouTube; the restaurant episode seemingly aired without hesitation. The ostensible comedy in these depictions relies on anti-black racism and, in so doing, functions to ratify discourses of white supremacy. Like blackface performance practices elsewhere, these depictions reveal much more about those creating and consuming the racist portrayals than about those supposedly being portrayed. In these Libyan hidden camera clips and elsewhere in North African popular culture, who are the “white” Arabic speakers that these racist depictions aim to elevate? What is whiteness in this context?

How should we think about these questions—about whiteness and race—in North Africa? The answer requires consideration of Islam, slavery, indigeneity, Arabness, the Sahara, and colonial legacies in the region. It also requires accepting two claims.  First, there is analytical purchase to thinking whiteness in and through North Africa, even while this formation of whiteness only partially overlaps with the more dominant formations of whiteness attendant to and produced by European colonialism. Second, through a range of discourses and performances in both scholarship and popular culture, blackness is repeatedly constructed as if it were non-indigenous to North Africa. Ironically, this latter discursive practice is among many which, as Jemima Pierre has argued, “actually work to impede race analysis about the African continent (beyond southern Africa), entrapping us into a kind of race-blindness.” The North versus Sub-Saharan Africa divide, Pierre continues, “has shaped Africanist scholarship to the point that this distinction is often assumed rather than interrogated.” This naturalized division is racialized: colonial scholars painted light-skinned people of the southern Mediterranean as “closer” to Europe both geographically and in terms of civilization. By continuing to describe North Africa as inevitably distinct from “Black Africa,” we not only reinscribe this violent hierarchy, but we also prevent ourselves from seeing racialization as processual and dynamic. In so doing, we miss the opportunity to understand North and Saharan African spaces as sites for the ongoing production of race and white supremacy.

To offer a starting place: in a 1967 article, historian Leon Carl Brown described North Africa as “the great border zone where white ends meeting the area where black begins”—where, he contended, “native whites and native blacks have confronted each other since the beginning of history.” Brown’s essay goes on to incorporate a number of the key factors that I identify here, and compellingly illuminates a period of early postcolonial African hope and its emerging challenges by describing the ambivalent Pan-Africanism of Gamal Abdel Nasser and others in the 1950s and 1960s. But this formulation of a “great border zone” aptly illustrates the racialization of naturalized geography which has long characterized colonial (and some earlier) descriptions of northern Africa. When we take for granted the idea that the Sahara constitutes a natural border, we reify a logic that posits racial whiteness as indigenous to North Africa, racial Arabness as contributing to the maintenance of that whiteness, and racial blackness as non-indigenous. Amazigh (“Berber”) indigeneity is here simultaneously configured as racially white and erased insofar as indigenous modes of thinking difference are domesticated.

Here, and in my research on contemporary Libya, I am invested in understanding whiteness not as a static ontology but as “a problematic, or an analytical perspective: that is, a way of formulating questions about social relations.” Thinking in terms of both conceptual and embodied movement, I am especially interested in “the ways that whiteness seduces and rewards, becoming the subject of fantasy and desire,” and I agree with Steve Garner that “the best way to understand whiteness is to think both relationally and comparatively.” In Garner’s work and in more recent scholarship, this has primarily meant taking the critical study of whiteness beyond its “home” of the United States and into Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. But what happens when we take this study from settler colonial contexts into the postcolony? To turn again to Pierre, “how could any postcolonial society not be structured by its legacy of race and racialization—especially when colonialism was, in the most ideological, political, and practical way, racialized rule? How do we, in fact, analyze the persistence of white (and racialized Arab) privilege in postcolonial spaces?”

Whiteness is both productive and the product of affective force, and while it moves, it moves us. As Sara Ahmed has argued, “Whiteness could be described as an ongoing and un-finished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ space.” My argument here is not that (some) North Africans are in any stable sense white or have access to the top rungs of global hierarchies of white supremacy. Rather, I am interested in the array of things that formations of whiteness do and enable in the contexts of northern Africa.

Whiteness shapes both how bodies can take up space and what spaces are available to whom. As Ahmed writes,

If the world is made white, then the body-at-home is one that can inhabit whiteness. As Fanon’s work shows, after all, bodies are shaped by histories of colonialism, which makes the world ‘white’, a world that is inherited, or which is already given before the point of an individual’s arrival. This is the familiar world, the world of whiteness, as a world we know implicitly. Colonialism makes the world ‘white’, which is of course a world ‘ready’ for certain kinds of bodies, as a world that puts certain objects within their reach.

Ahmed is not describing North Africa here (even while a trace of North Africa haunts this passage with Fanon). But the “bodies-at-home” in North Africa are most often those that can inhabit whiteness. As I suggest above, both Western scholarship and local discursive practices make North African spaces white. In this way, whiteness in North Africa takes on valences of “Europeanness” as a colonial remnant, while it also operates in another register, as “our own” whiteness, a color-coded language of virtue and status. This includes but is not reducible to white-as-Western because a local articulation of whiteness can be valorized at the same time that Westernness is rejected. This local articulation of whiteness is bound up in histories that stretch back at least as far as the seventh-century Arab invasion of North Africa.

Blackness is produced as nonindigenous to North Africa through a racial imaginary that relies on the histories of racialized enslavement that have characterized the region. To offer an incomplete list, the slave trade was officially outlawed in Tunisia in 1841, Algeria in 1848, Libya in 1856, Egypt in 1887, Morocco in 1923, and Mauritania in 1980.

In each of these contexts, abolition involved a complex interplay of colonial politics with regional and local discourses and economic forces; in most cases, the practice continued for decades after its legal prohibition. The slave trades that moved across the Sahara, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea involved captives of a range of geographic and ethnic backgrounds, and, as a number of historians have shown, frequently were justified through moral-legal formations that marked non-Muslims as enslavable. Yet historians have also illustrated how enslavement came to specifically express a conception of blackness in these regions, producing a racialized distinction. John Hunwick, for example, argued that from the sixteenth century onward in the “Mediterranean Islamic world,” blackness became associated with slavery by virtue of the high proportion of enslaved black people. Similarly, and pushing back against a generation of scholarship which described “Islamic slavery” as a relatively “benign” institution, Chouki El Hamel more recently argued “that relying solely on Islamic ideology as a crucial key to explain social relations, particularly in the history of black slavery in the Muslim world, yields an inaccurate historical record of the people, institutions, and social practices of slavery in the Arab world.” More broadly, in the context of North Africa, the production of a category of blackness linked to enslavement and arrival also enabled the production of a formation of whiteness linked to Arabness, superiority, and normative belonging. 

The legal and social histories of Arab attempts to variously claim and disavow whiteness in the United States have received substantive scholarly attention. These studies have illustrated how nineteenth and early twentieth-century legal claims to whiteness by Arab immigrants were structured by the particular racial and legal regimes of their time. Primarily Christian immigrants who had come from greater Syria litigated claims to their whiteness as the route to naturalization in a period of Asian exclusion. This history is particular and contingent; that is to say, it might, in different circumstances, have been otherwise.

Even while describing a US context, such studies are relevant for conceptualizing whiteness in North Africa insofar as they enable us to observe some key aspects of the overlapping problematics at play between these two geopolitical sites, as well as the limitations of this overlap. Histories of Arab racialization in the US inflect globally circulating racial discourses. Further, even in a more contemporary US political context, one in which many Arab Americans do not actively seek access to whiteness, we find some popular and even scholarly articulations of Arabness that specifically occlude blackness. One finds this occlusion in, for example, discussions of shifting Arab American inclusion in whiteness, which leave out black Arab Americans for whom whiteness has never been accessible.

Historians have also traced notions of Arabness as whiteness in other geopolitical and historical contexts. Ibn Battuta, for example, wrote in the mid-fourteenth century of “whites” as he traveled through the West African Sahel and southern Sahara; for him, these included Arabs and Arabophone North Africans, but not Berbers, whose “distance and foreignness from the normative cultural practices of the Arab Muslim World” precluded whiteness. El Hamel demonstrates that this formulation of “white” Arabness may have included people of a variety of family lineages, so long as they could claim “one drop” of (paternal) “Arab blood.” Precolonial Arab and Arabophone social formations did not necessarily value whiteness in terms of color and in terms of Europeanness in the same way that these come to be valued through empire, but Arabophone anti-blackness is evident long before the European colonial period. In postcolonial North Africa, these intertwined legacies have enabled outcomes like that described by Afifa Ltifi in Bourguiba’s Tunisia, where colorblind family name policies constructed a normative whiteness and “reproduced the patron client relationships that bound slave and master’s descendants.” Across contexts, “Arab” proximity to and approximation of whiteness has historically been predicated on anti-blackness—on the ability to define themselves in opposition to a black Other.

Colonial representations in scholarship and popular media which utilize an oppositional framework for understanding “North Africa” as distinct from “Sub-Saharan Africa” suggest a racialized boundary of naturalized geography in the desert. A wave of scholarship in recent decades has attempted to alter this paradigm, describing the desert as a “bridge” and honing in on Saharan and “trans-Saharan” histories and lifeworlds. Some of this work has illuminated the racialization that the Arabophone states of the Mediterranean coast continue to extend to the descendants of enslaved peoples captured in West Africa and other places. This racialization, as I describe above, posits blackness as a referent of enslavement which sticks to an array of bodies, including those of more recent migrants and indigenous black North Africans. One result of this is the carving away of indigeneity from black North Africans. By linking blackness to enslavement, this discourse in both scholarship and popular practice dispossesses black North Africans of a natal claim to North Africa (and, in some instances, Arab identity) apart from a history of arrival. If, as Sara Ahmed has argued, “whiteness becomes worldly through the noticeability of the arrival of some bodies more than others,” then this is a distortion that contributes to the (re)production of whiteness in/as North Africa.

One of the quotidian ways these racial geopolitics are maintained is through the common third-person descriptor of black people in northern Africa as “Africans” distinct from an unspecified (unmarked) norm. This discursive practice also produces a tension-filled and ambivalent whiteness, one with which Algerian diasporic activist Houria Bouteldja recently danced in a polemic on “whites, Jews, and us.” She writes, “Fifty years after the independence movements, North Africa is the one subduing its own citizens and black Africans. I was going to say ‘my African brothers.’ But I no longer dare to, now that I have admitted my crime. Farewell Bandung.” In “no longer daring” to claim fraternal kinship, Bouteldja acknowledges the violence of North African anti-blackness. Yet, even then, in describing “North Africa” as “subduing its own citizens and black Africans,” she also seems to suggest that the end of the colonially constructed state system could end North African anti-blackness. But the latter runs far deeper than the postcolonial state. North African unmarked whiteness itself holds up the “and” in her phrase, “its own citizens and black Africans,” as though these categories are or have ever been mutually exclusive.

If whiteness needs maintenance to persist and racializations of all sorts are continually unfolding, popular culture is a privileged site in which this work occurs. In film, performance, visual art, and literature, representations mark bodies in and out of normative community, naturalize racialized language, entrench stereotypical figurations, and reify social hierarchies. Recent years have seen greater public controversies appear surrounding racist representations of black characters in North African (and other Arab) popular culture. Scholarship investigating race and popular culture in/and North Africa is relatively emerging, but has tackled a range of themes and questions surrounding nationalism, empire, alterity, and aesthetics across performance forms in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Continued work is needed. As of yet, scholars have more vigorously illustrated and theorized anti-black discourses, practices, and representations in popular culture than they have asked how these works produce and maintain whiteness.

Describing blackface performance in early twentieth-century Egypt, Eve Troutt Powell wrote of songs and plays in which “Nubian” (“berberi”) and “Sudanese” characters enacted Egyptian anticolonial, nationalist desires. As she explained, “In the absence of the ‘right’ kind of Sudanese political allies—that is, those who would proclaim a desire for the unity of the Nile Valley—the Egyptian artists and writers deeply involved in the promulgation of the nationalist message “made up their own Sudanese.” The Libyan hidden camera skits with which I opened this writing, and which drew directly from this long history of Egyptian caricatures of Sudanese people, illustrate the continued need to interrogate the racial work that blackface and other performance practices do in North African contexts. Through violently erasing the Others they purport to represent, both a century ago and in the recent past these practices have served to construct their performers’ and audiences’ visions of themselves. They utilize anti-black tropes to produce whiteness in their performers, audiences, and cultural milieus. In this way, they join myriad other discursive and performative practices that repeatedly construct blackness as not indigenous to North Africa. It is imperative that we do not stop at noting the anti-black racism that we rightly see in these, but rather go on additionally to theorize the racial and spatial whiteness that these practices enable and uphold.

Further Reading