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  • Nia Alexander Campbell

Being Black in Morocco

"What was it like seeing so many people who look like you?"

"You went to the motherland! How was it?!"

"What was it like being in Africa?"

These were the kinds of questions I got after returning home from Morocco.

In addition to being curious about dress codes, language, and shopping, many of my black friends and family wanted to know what it was like for me to be an African-American person in Africa, the mysterious world of our ancestors that permeates our culture like an echo of a distant memory.

A person of African descent going back to Africa is a big deal.

Do you remember that moment in The Color Purple where Nettie is telling Celie about the people she saw in Africa? And she says she saw a city full of shining, blueblack people wearing brilliant blue robes with designs like fancy quilt patterns? And how being surrounded by so many people who looked like her made her feel as though she was seeing black for the first time, how it had a sort of magic to it?

That’s the kind of description people wanted me to give them, but it’s not what Morocco gave me. Africa isn’t simply a big blanket of “blueblack” people, it’s diverse in terms of culture, history, art, identity, and appearance. That said, Morocco possessed its own unique heritage and was magical in its own right, but it wasn’t the land full of distantly familiar faces that others were expecting me to experience. Why? Well, it’s in part due to where Morocco is located.

It’s in the Maghreb

Ready for a multilingual geography lesson?

In Arabic, the African countries within the Sahara Desert are the Maghreb, which means “west” (as in, the land west of the Arabian Peninsula). It used to be called the Barbary Coast by Europe, named after the area’s indigenous nomadic inhabitants, the Berbers. In the Berber language, this same part of Africa is called Tamazgha, a word that was more or less created in the 1970s.

Alternatively, you can just call it North Africa.

My point is that this part of Africa has had mad interaction and cross-pollination with Europe and the Middle East for centuries due to its geography. Morocco has been ruled by the Berbers, the Phoenicians, the Roman Empire, the Vandals, the Byzantine Empire, and the Islamic Empire. They had their own territory in Spain for a few medieval centuries, and then by 1912 Morocco was under French and Spanish rule.

As you can imagine, all these different cultural combinations affected Morocco both in terms of culture and peoples’ appearances, which is why we can’t define “the motherland” as a continent full of dark-skinned people speaking with clicks and wearing kente cloth; Africa is too diverse to be summarized like that.

So, did I see any familiar faces at all?

Aside from the other two black students on the trip, I saw exactly three people with dark brown skin and coarse hair, the black “look” that resembled mine the most. Like I said, people of African descent can have a wide array of appearances, and whether those three people were tourists or native Moroccans, they stuck out in a crowd and I couldn’t help but linger on the idea of colorism.

Ah, yes, colorism.

Let’s talk about that for a minute.

We can’t deny that in many parts of the world there have been hierarchies based on appearance. The American version of that is nuanced due to the incredible mix of ethnicities and appearances we have within the country, so for now I will focus on the one I am most familiar with: White Americans subjugating black Americans based on skin color. The issue has deep roots because of that whole 250-years-of-slavery thing, and we can all agree it’s a clear-cut example of racism, but there’s another sub-layer to it called colorism.

For decades within the black community, the idea of the lighter your skin (and the looser your curls, and the brighter your eyes) meant that you were just . . . better. You were prettier, smarter, well-spoken, well-mannered, more ambitious, and so forth. This issue can also be attributed to slavery, and it’s been gradually diminishing since the 1960s, but it does continue to linger. We could talk about it for hours, but the short version is this: Though being black effects the way you are treated, your individual level of visible “blackness” further effects your treatment, even by people in your own community.

So, having that my skin is “coconut brown”, my hair is a hardcore 4C, my eyes are dark pools of Dove chocolate, I don’t fall on the “smart & pretty” end of the black American colorism spectrum. Many of the people in Morocco, however, would have, and since I was so accustomed to my colorism experiences in the U.S., I was halfway expecting it to be similar in Morocco.

So, did I have any racist colorism issues in Morocco? No, actually.

But I wanted to talk about it because I came into Morocco expecting it to have America’s racist habits, not because I thought Morocco was deeply prejudice, but because for 20 years it had been my norm. In Morocco, I was given compliments about my appearance instead of suggestions to straighten my hair or wear honey-colored contacts, and it felt as though I had completely escaped some of the oppression I had grown up around.

But it’s not like my blackness went wholly unnoticed.

Just because I had temporarily escaped America’s particular brand of racism didn’t mean people in Morocco didn’t notice I was black.

So, how was I treated based on my blackness?

Well, that’s a bit tricky to answer because of intersectionality. Yeah, I’m black, but I’m also a young woman. So, whereas I was asked what hotel I was staying at by a flirtatious shopkeeper, the black male student was asked if he was a religious leader (due to his full beard). And when the 67-year-old black woman with a badass buzz cut was referred to as a “bald woman”, the cowry shells in my hair got me called a “power flower” (yes, more flirting).

My point is that even if you’re black, you may have other outward qualities that effect how much your blackness is acknowledged and in what way.

The most notable experiences I had regarding my race was when a Colombian man kept trying to guess what country I was from based on my appearance, as well as when the men at the leather tannery asked me and the only black American student if we were related to Obama or Muhammad Ali. In the former situation, the older man just continued to name places like “Ghana”, “Nigeria”, and “Latin America” until he guessed whichever land I hailed from. We had an awkwardly multilingual conversation (which you can read more about in the post Mais je ne Parle que L'anglais!), but at the end of the day I think he was simply a curious tourist. When it comes to the salesmen, I think they were just trying to be funny and make us feel comfortable, quite possibly so we’d be inclined to buy some stuff.

No harm done.

Ah, but there was that moment when two Arab-looking men chillin’ on the street shouted, “black power!” at me and the other black American guy. I didn’t quite know what to make of that, but there were other moments in the country that truly did highlight the similarities between myself and the Moroccan people I talked to.

I could still relate to folks

Even though I didn’t feel that magical sense of familiarity and heritage like Nettie, it didn’t mean I couldn’t relate to the people of Morocco in similar ways I could relate to the black community in the U.S.

Like the U.S., Morocco also has a history of oppression, only it manifested itself in different ways and on a slightly different timeline. The act of becoming an independent country, for example, was still in peoples’ living memories similar to how the Civil Rights movement is in peoples’ memories at home. For reference, Morocco gained independence from France in 1956 and the U.S. Civil Rights movement spanned 1954 – 1968.

Also, much to my surprise, they had similarities with the way I understood my native American heritage too.

Do you remember when I mentioned the Berbers, North Africa’s indigenous ethnic group? Well, the word “Berber” derives from the Greek word for “barbarian”, and even though some Berbers are comfortable with that title, it’s worth mentioning that they have another name too: The Amazighs. I thought it similar to how some indigenous American people are comfortable with the title “Indian” (or “American Indian”), but how they also have their own names for themselves (like the Algonquins, the Sioux, the Pueblo, etc.)

“Berber” is to “Indian” as Amazigh is to Algonquin (or Pueblo, or Sioux)

Further still, each subgroup of Amazighs has their own name, like the Soussi, the Tuareg, and the Siwi. This reminded me of the way indigenous American subgroups have their own names too, like how the Chickahominy and Pamunkey are examples of Algonquin tribes, or how the Hopi and Zuni are examples of Pueblo tribes.

Amazigh is to Algonquin as Soussi is to Chickahominy

Are you with me? The groups, subgroups, and misnomers were similar to how I understood it to be in the U.S. and it was a very interesting and unexpected learning moment.

But keep in mind:

I’m not claiming that Morocco is a perfect, prejudice-free land; there were still moments that made me question the seemingly unbiased status quo. I think about the way the Sudanese student was flirted with in contrast to the way I was flirted with, for example. For her, sometimes the “flirting” was straight up sexual harassment, but everything said to me was exclusively polite and flattering. This made me wonder if my status as American whitewashed me so that—even though I was black—I wasn’t really black. You can read more about all of that in the post What’s the Deal With Boys (When You’re Black)?

Even with the hints of possible prejudice, though, the truth of my experience is that I wasn’t blatantly discriminated against. I wasn’t called out for my race or complexion or hair . . . I was only ever complimented or asked neutral questions like “where are you from?” America never lets me forget I’m black, but for a while, Morocco did.


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