Indigenous North Africans: Black or White?

The answer to racial controversy is not black and white. Enjoy that pun.

Race is a social construct. “But power dynamics!” Yes, my friend, power dynamics are branches of societal functions, but racial organization was created in order for a systemic hierarchy to exist. It contracts thousands of ethnicities into one group defined by color, be it black, white, brown, red, or yellow.

North African Twitter went from strongly telegraphing the authenticity of light-skinned North Africans considering the single mainstream brushstroke misconception of reducing the African continent, to a counter-extreme that almost falsifies the initial argument that native North Africans were indeed diverse in skin pigmentation. It is understandable that everyone wants to secure a position that validates an inclusive identity, but to say a light-skinned North African looks like someone with European DNA goes against such an idea. This is not counteracting the “erasure of North African Black Imazighen”, but a hypocritical and inaccurate rebuttal.

Key to this argument is defining Black and White while remembering we are talking exclusively about North Africa, and not the trans-regional space that meets West Africa or other countries outside of North Africa home to Imazighen. Since race is merely a social construct, at its core it has nothing to do with ethnic precision. It only concerns what someone passes as.

What does it mean to be Black? On a global level, if one has features similar to those of West-African origin, they are considered  “Black”. For many, “Black” doesn’t neglect strict ties with hair texture and nose shape, and is reflective of cool-undertoned ranges of melanin levels. This is why many East-Africans (not including the Diaspora) are reluctant to claim that label, considering their deemed “Eurocentric features”.  Those with yellow, red, or olive undertones are less likely to be called “Black” despite their naturally dark “tan”. This is why being “Black” is not a racial identity solely dependent on skin color, but widely accepted to be associated with features typical of many Subsaharan ethnicities, which explains those who have relatively lighter skin and keep a “Black” racial affiliation either by other phenotypes or parental background. Ethnically ambiguous people struggle to come to terms with a racial identity, especially in the case of North Africans.

It only comes down to our presentation, homogeneous or mixed, because race is not indicative of individualized genetic makeup. Some Afro-hispanics will often claim the Latinx “race” before the “Black” one, even if they are tremendously more “Black-passing”. It’s an attempt to avoid the social burden that comes with being “Black” in America, even if in reality one cannot escape prejudice just because one says they are otherwise. This reasoning is ineffective because, as far as everyone else is concerned they’ll be considered “Black” if their appearance calls for such a classification. Race is not to be confused with an interpersonal ethnic and cultural identity– it is merely one based on looks and fluctuates in meaning depending on demographic. For example, “Black culture” in America refers to the culture cultivated by African-Americans, not first generation immigrants from Uganda.

What does it mean to be White? Pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes? We cannot even say “European descent” in adjacency to that because those in the Mediterranean can tan easily, and Eastern Europeans display darker features. It is exhausting to outline this, because it should be painfully obvious that race does not say anything besides how society will classify you.

Applying race to a people with ancient roots makes nearly no sense. This is not a social dilemma, it is a scientific and historical one. People identified as tribes, not in skin color. Race is a modern concept that was birthed for the mere purpose of division and an outlet for domination by instilling a sense of innate superiority. It has no place in categorizing indigenous peoples.

Those saying Black North African Imazighen don’t exist are not saying dark-skinned North African Imazighen don’t exist. The definition of ‘Black’ being used is to mean Subsaharan descent. From here, it is easy to conclude that one who is native to Subsaharan Africa cannot also be native to the very Northern regions of North Africa. They were a nomadic people, but separate tribes nonetheless. “Black North African Imazighen” are referred to as Haratin, a people who were the product of enslavement. This mixed lineage is a result of interaction. There is a difference between being tan to the point of passing as a variation of “Black”, and actually having West-African blood. Since these people were forced to adopt the Amazigh culture, it is indecent to strip them of their imposed cultural identity as they embrace it today without choice. They shouldn’t be excluded by nationality or culture because of the past. However, to consider them more purely North African Amazigh than those of actual indigenous ethnic descent just because they have darker skin to fit the monolithic African mold goes against both logic and respect.

Ancient Egyptians depicted North African Imazighen as what could be seen as”light-skinned”, from beige, to olive, to rich caramel. Whether you want to call them White, Black, green, it does not matter. Race at this point is subjective. It is an almost abstract ideology.

Using ancient Romans to tack whatever perceived version of ‘Whiteness’ onto North Africans is fallacious. The expansion of the Roman Empire was not a form of colonization in the present-day use of the word. They established provinces but intermarriage was not forced upon society. A classic is, “How can you be light-skinned and handle the heat?! You can’t be native?!” Trust me, if light-skinned North Africans could not handle the Saharan climate, they would have all went extinct a long time ago. Middle Easterners share similar environmental conditions, are they suppose to look Nigerian too?

The Northernmost regions of North Africa, save for the mountains, border the Mediterranean. People across this sea come from European countries where they also tan in the summer and get proportionately lighter as temperatures are mildly less intense. This is called seasonal change, and luckily humans have the ability to adapt to such cycles, even if they are not drastic. Not to mention, many North Africans probably don’t know what sunscreen is. But this is all to say nothing because unfortunately North Africans will always be seen as, ironically, their own colonizers. They will look at you and say you are Arab, Italian, Spanish, French, even Turkish to spice it up. It is true many North Africans do not even subscribe to the African label, but remember you are speaking to a people who experienced multiple waves of ethnic cleansing and identity crises.

Few discuss the very real colorist problem in a way that directly supports those marginalized. Everyone deviates from combatting this prevalent issue, and where it stems from in MENA, to a debate about “who’s more indigenous”. Misconstruing ancient history to cushion someone’s belief does nothing to promote equality in the Maghreb. Criticism should be directed towards the culture and progression should be enforced by effective causes. All these miscommunicated arguments do is relieve personal adrenaline.



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