Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

“In the skin of a black”: Senegalese students and young professionals in Rabat

Even student and young professional Senegalese migrants have to navigate the legacies of slavery in Morocco as ‘Africans’.

Laura Menin
13 February 2018

Essaouira, Morocco. Julien Lagarde/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In a 2012 interview titled “Dans la peau d’un noir au Maroc”, Bassirou Ba, a Senegalese professional, narrated his experience of being black-skinned person in Morocco. Like many Senegalese students, Ba arrived in Morocco on a scholarship to complete his studies and also found employment there. In 2007, he gained a master’s degree in journalism and communication in Rabat and worked as journalist for a number of francophone magazines. However, his experience was also marked by multiple everyday forms of racism that reveal, in his view, the sense of superiority that some Moroccans feel vis-à-vis sub-Saharan Africans, and their views of black people as ‘slaves’, ‘servants’, and ‘moral inferiors’.

Ba’s testimony is part of a debate underway in Morocco about the issue of ‘anti-black racism’ and its relationship with the racial legacies of slavery. The magazine Jeune Afrique helped begin this debate in the early 2000s by publishing personal testimonies of both black individuals from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africans on their own experiences with racism. The attention given to this question has substantially increased since 2013, however, following a spate of violent incidents between Moroccans and sub-Saharan migrants that included the murders of the Congolese Alexis Toussaint and the young Senegalese Ismail Faye.

In the aftermath of growing civil violence, the King Mohammed VI launched a new immigration policy, which included the regularisation of undocumented migrants in 2014. International NGOs, Moroccan human rights organisations, and sub-Saharan migrants’ associations came together to denounce institutional violence as well as widespread anti-black attitudes against sub-Saharan African migrants. The national campaign Je ne m’appelle pas ‘azzi was launched in 2014 to raise public awareness on racism in Moroccan society.

Many Moroccan human rights and anti-racist activists connected racism against sub-Saharan migrants to the stigmatising visions conveyed in media and political discourses, which were, in turn, the consequence of violent transnational migration policies. Another line of argument, popularised in independent press, interpreted the persistence of colour prejudices against black Africans as a fundamental racial legacy of slavery, drawing on the work of prominent scholars such as Chouki El Hamel, author of Black Morocco: A history of Slavery, Race and Islam. While both discourses captured important aspects surrounding ‘racism’ in Morocco, they risked reducing its complexity to either historical or political factors.

The narratives of the Senegalese students and young professionals I met in Rabat in 2014 pointed to something much more complicated. Unlike the stigmatised transit population, the people with whom I spoke occupied privileged positions as university students and professionals. Moreover, due to the historical commercial, religious, and cultural connections between Senegal and Morocco, most of them arrived in Morocco full of expectations for a country they imagined to be “the natural prolongation of his homeland” – as one person put it – and a very religious country. Upon arrival, however, they were confronted with racial prejudices, if not overt racism (from being insulted in the street, to having stones thrown at them, to being spat upon) and discovered that linguistic, social cultural and chromatic barriers made their integration difficult.

Let us start with Mohammed.

Mohammed’s story

When I met Mohammed in 2014 he was a 25-year-old masters student in Rabat and also worked in a Moroccan company. Recalling his arrival in 2009, he said, “before I left, my mother said: you have the opportunity to become more religious”. However, the reality he encountered in the cosmopolitan Rabat generated a sense of estrangement.

When he first ventured outside the university residence with a friend, he was confronted with racist insults. The son of the greengrocer called him ‘azzi, a derogatory term he had never heard before and which contextually means negro, black, slave. “The problem is the adults”, he said. “If the child is allowed to say this and his father does not react, he is the one who authorises him to insult the blacks”. Mohammed also recalled an incident that deeply marked him:

“When you see an elderly person, you respect him because he might be your uncle. One day I went out to go to the fac. I was awaiting a taxi in the street. I called the taxi, and when it stopped, an old man got up, and when I tried to get up, the elder man said in French: 'I don’t take a taxi with a negro'.”

When I asked him if he thought such racial prejudices were linked to his skin colour, Mohammed highlighted the extent to which the connection between slavery and blackness is rooted in Moroccans’ imagination. “Since there was slavery and there were Arabs who owned black slaves, Moroccans think that all blacks are slaves”, he said. “Also the King owned black slaves. When they see a black they think he is a slave”.

"When they see a black they think he is a slave."

For Mohammed, the history of racialised slavery in Morocco affects not only slave descendants, but also people who come from regions of sub-Saharan Africa regardless of their ancestry. Apart from Moroccans who have travelled or migrated abroad, who are more empathetic because they have experienced racism and discrimination in Europe, Mohammed thinks that in general racial prejudices pervade all sectors of society, including the university. While Mohammed’s reflections point to his deep sense of exclusion, Paul’s narrative further complicates this vision. 

Paul’s story

Originally from Dakar, the capital of Senegal, Paul arrived in Morocco in 2005 to start his university studies in medicine. When he started his specialisation at the hospital, he became part of a small group of predominantly Moroccan students and, for the first time, he was confronted with the local population at the ER. This enabled him to develop a deeper understanding of society and in his conversations with me he emphasised the widespread frustration felt by many Moroccans: “I am a foreigner and I have a college scholarship when there are Moroccans who cannot afford to study at university and don’t have a job. One must understand the attitude of these people, who are marginalised and who think ‘these foreigners study or work in the place of my son’”.

While emphasising the plight of the local population, he disclosed that he had been confronted with racist insults and violent attacks in popular neighbourhoods or outside the university residence. While he described these people as marginal, ignorant, poor, and seeking ways to survive, he said that racism is often a motivation to attack, verbally or physically, black Africans. “When you walk in a street and they throw stones at you, or spit on you, they aren’t seeking money. This is racism.”

“When you walk in a street and they throw stones at you, or spit on you, they aren’t seeking money. This is racism.”

Subtle forms of discrimination and racial prejudice are also present in the university. For Paul, some Moroccan students’ limited knowledge of Africa and its history and culture, along with the stereotypical representations conveyed by television programmes, contribute to racial prejudices. “In schools they don’t study the history of Africa, they only associate it war, famine, poverty”, he said. “Every time they see a black, they identify it with it. A student asked me, did you have schools? Do you have roads? Do people live on the trees? This shows that much is to be done on the educational and cultural level”.

Paul highlighted how racial prejudices against black Africans affect their intimate lives. When he was in the first years of university, he had love relationships with Moroccan female students, but these ended because of the social pressures. “People gossiped about me with her and said that she was an easy girl because they don’t conceive, or accept, that a Moroccan girl can be together with a young black man”. For Paul, the fact that some Moroccans consider black individuals as inferior does not affect only sub-Saharan Africans, but also black Moroccans. “Some families would not marry their daughter to a black Moroccan man because of his skin colour. It is changing, but this still exists”, he said.

The firm, anti-racist stance of a large part of Moroccan civil society clearly demonstrates that racism is not only enacted, but also locally debated, contested and struggled against. Along with the racial prejudices described by my interlocutors, the everyday exchanges between Moroccans and sub-Saharan Africans reveal different dynamics, including cooperation, dialogue, mutual curiosity, friendship and love. However, the ways Mohammed and Paul experience and interpret 'racism' reveal how intertwined historical and contemporary socio-political dynamics shape specific racial prejudices and forms of social exclusion against black Africans. Their perspectives suggest that the racial legacies of slavery invest not only marginalised undocumented migrants, but also the more privileged students and professionals with elements of the social inferior status historically accorded to black slaves. At the same time, Morocco's ambivalent positioning in international political arenas, media stigmatisation, poor knowledge of Africa and Africans, rising unemployment, and widespread poverty and social insecurity work together to nourish frustrations, social tensions and resentments vis-à-vis the 'newcomers'. Mohammed's and Paul's reflections invite us to reflect on, instead of taking it for granted, the relations between the historical and the contemporary in post-slavery contexts.


This Guest Week week presents the results of research carried out by the team of ERC GRANT, ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737). The team has researched in Tunisia, Chad, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Pakistan and Italy under the leadership of Alice Bellagamba. The team has invited Giupeppe Maimone, Luca Nevola, and an anonymous contributor to participate in the discussion.

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