Reflections on Race Formation in Comparative Context

Reflections on Race Formation in Comparative Context

Ann McDougall, University of Alberta, Canada

There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear . . .

[Buffalo Springfield, (song,1967)]

There is something happening here, indeed; something very interesting. It is not clear whether the particular geographic framing – ‘Africa and the Middle East’ – is responsible for an unusual, one might even say eclectic understanding of ‘race’, ‘racialization’ and ‘race formation’. Or whether it was taking the lens of race to view ‘Africa and the Middle East’ that gave the particular geographical perspective that emerges here. While some of the usual North African countries like Morocco (Silverstein, Bajalia) and Egypt (Abubakr, el Nabolsy) are included (see Hahonou on North Africa in general), the Middle East embraces not only Israel and Palestine, (Yerday, Abu-Laban & Bakan) Syria and Lebanon, but Yemen (al-Thawr, Alshaikh) and the Gulf States (Lori & Kuzomova; Le Renard & Vora, Mathews).[1] This subtle shift in geographical centering matters. It affects which parts of Africa come into focus, for example. Here, apart from the North African studies, light is shone on Sudan and South Sudan (Abubakar, Mondesire, Yoll), East Africa – Tanzania and Zanzibar, the Comoros Islands (as part of the Gulf States case studies), Madagascar (Regnier), and Cape Town, South Africa (Jacobs). The vision is towards (and around) the Indian Ocean rather than the more common Atlantic or Mediterranean. The Sahara, too, is largely invisible apart from two papers (King, Marsh). There is a third significant aspect of this particular collection of papers to factor in and that is its genuinely impressive range of interdisciplinarity. It becomes very apparent that much of the eclectic nature of these pieces also derives from their very different methodological and theoretical starting points.

“. . . but what it is ain’t exactly clear’. Again, indeed. Nevertheless, this is not necessarily a bad thing. There have been no attempts to shoehorn approaches or analyses. There has been a concerted effort by the editors to encourage cross-fertilization and discussion between contributors. A lot of this took place in the two days of intensive conferencing held in February 2021; however, an unusual effort was made post-conference to bring some of this discussion directly into the papers. So what one finds, reading through the full collection, is a sense of several themes around ‘racial formation’ developing out of the process of reflection and revision. Speaking as an historian, I would note that what provides a lot of cohesion to this particular set of case studies is a shared appreciation of the need to set any analysis – political, cultural, economic, social – firmly in its historical context. And that context provides a common foundation for case studies as wide ranging as Morocco, Cape Town and Oman.

I would also add that while not as apparent in the papers themselves, in the conference, the issue of how to get at ‘race’ and the process of ‘racialization’ through historical evidence was much discussed. Colonialism loomed large in both discussions. Its inherent beliefs in categorizing, tribalizing and racializing people everywhere in its domination, which includes the geographical area of study here,[2] is an integral part of the processes continuing today. (For example, Silverstein looks at the process with respect to Moroccan Amazigh; el-Nabolsy situates Egypt’s uneasy straddling of ‘North’ and ‘sub-Saharan’ Africa in the context of colonial-inspired academic discourse.) Its paper trail, its archives, remain one of the key sets of sources providing us access to that past. Frank, comparative discussions of what “reading against the grain” actually means in specific times and places, and what it means with respect to this particular issue of ‘race formation,’ is extremely important. It is gratifying to see what historians often think of as their particular albatross, shared across disciplinary approaches.

There is a very striking difference of approach evidenced in the collection between those looking to governments and national policies concerning such things as immigration and passports as shaping the process (a very large feature of the Gulf States discussions, for example), and those looking more at the level of personal or community interactions (as in Yemen or Cape Town). Yet even here we often see linkage through mobility – migration, more specifically. Some migration has its origins and/or destination in that ‘local’ context; this tends most often to be ‘economic migration,’ something measured on the personal, familial level. Other migrations are generated by government ‘push’ policies (sometimes rising to the level of genocide) or by wars, which have many different, causes but the same devastating consequences in uprooting tens of thousands of people. The ‘race formation’ we are looking at here ironically is both cause and consequence of such migrations be they local, regional or international (the Sudan and Gulf States studies in particular come to mind).

For many, this focus on fluid identity, movement and public policy will seem a rather roundabout way to get at race. Is phenotype really not in consideration at all? Are we jettisoning the role of skin colour and identifiable physical characteristics completely? There are no clear answers here either. But Montesire (in a study of Sudan) does pose the quintessential question: ‘who is black when everyone is black?’. Several papers approach this problem from a more theoretical perspective, tying the discussion to the ‘source’ of so much literature on racial formation and ‘racialization’ – namely, America (see Lori & Kuzmova). As they point out, because of America’s particular history, any understanding of ‘black’ is shaped by the assumption of a contrasting ‘white’ population. In terms of phenotype, neither needs to actually be ‘black’ or ‘white’, what is key is that there can be a distinction between them. Conceptually, red, yellow or brown can be ‘black’ in contradistinction to something seen as ‘lighter’ or ‘white’. But what is being questioned here is this assumed need for this kind of perceived ‘whiteness’ against which to measure ‘other’. Identifying the process as one rooted in the Trans-Atlantic world allows for the suggestion that it need not apply everywhere. And as noted above, the geographical shaping of this collection is focused more on a Middle East and Africa that looks towards the Indian Ocean world (see Vairizi). So this suggestion has fertile soil in which to be nurtured. It is very significant that even a deeply rooted assumption about ‘constructions of race,’ certainly one very familiar to and accepted by Africanists steeped in histories of the African diaspora in the Atlantic world, may not be as universal as we have thought.

Above, I speak of a Trans-Atlantic world and an African diaspora in that world; the crucial missing concept here is of course, slavery. Africans who were part of that diaspora were, historically speaking, mostly forced into their ‘migration’. The use of the ‘black-white’ opposition in creating racial classes in America was also overlaid by the opposition between ‘slave and free’. The ‘classic’ racial formation has been a process by which all who are African are black, all Africans (in America) are slaves, therefore black is the equivalent of slave. By defined contrast ‘Americans are white, Americans are free, white is the equivalent of free. Law may have changed that ‘slave’ reality but it did not erase the cultural associations the history of slavery embedded in America. (Hahonou makes a similar point in the context of the Saharan slave trade into North Africa, suggesting it may have helped define the concept of ‘blackness’ as it is understood in the contemporary Arab world.) Many of the case studies here engage with that association as it has been articulated in their own particular histories, which is to say they engage with the process of how racialization became a justification for discrimination and in some instances (especially concerning women), exploitation. So this collection indirectly – and indeed, in several instances directly, also speaks to issues of contemporary or ‘modern’ slavery. (Those permanently ‘excluded’ as in traditional understandings of ‘caste’ are addressed as well; see for example Abubakr, Hahonou, al-Thawr, Regnier, Kassamali, Kim, Matthews.). Because none of this research starts with the premise that we know what slavery is (any more than we know what ‘race’ is), it opens up the dynamic to closer, more subtle understandings.[3] Certainly, one sees here the intersection between the racialization of, say domestic labour, and the evolution of that labour into a form of direct exploitation (for example, the kafala system discussed by Kassamali, Abubakr and Mathews). Is it slavery? Is that a helpful construction of the situation? Various terms are used here but what is striking when reading across the collection is how often ‘servitude’ is linked to contemporary forms of ‘racialization’.

This is where I would like to weigh in by drawing on some recent work in my own area of research. In particular, I refer to two very recent (2020 and 2021) collections whose contents speak to several of the themes raised above but particularly the last one – how understanding ‘race formation’ becomes part and parcel of understanding the move from slavery through emancipation to what many now refer to as ‘post-slavery’ (or what Abubakr calls the ‘afterlives of slavery’). The studies in these collections and the work of the contributors to them more generally, overlap with some of the regions discussed here but for the most part, are complementary to them. Moreover, they tend to forefront the issue of ‘freedom’ (or lack thereof) and different forms of dependency, rather than race per se. And yet – the really interesting reason for bringing them into this discussion, is in the extent to which they seem to be talking about the same processes in which we can see similar points of intersection between historical constructions of ethnicity/identity, class and race.

The first research to which I draw attention is my edited collection on what much of the literature refers to as ‘black Mauritanians’ and ‘black Moroccans,’ people presumed to be of slave descent by virtue of their skin colour.[4] The collection’s title Becoming visible in the wake of slavery underscores the important point that historically, this particular class has been largely rendered invisible, their colour making them indistinguishable from ‘slaves’ but their status enforcing a kind of glass ceiling on their ability to ascend socially in free society.Known as haratine in Mauritania and asuqqi in southern Morocco, they know very different histories and are generally considered to have ‘opposite’ relations to slavery itself.  Haratine are ‘freed slaves’ and therefore were historically considered superior to slaves – with each generation that superiority grew but the status remained. Asuqqi deny slave heritage and are considered to be of a lower social class because unlike freed slaves, they cannot trace their ‘heritage’ through an elite, noble family. Manumitted slaves prefer to retain the term ‘abid’ – slaves – for this reason.[5]  Although there are some light-skinned haratine, for the most part both groups actually are darker than their former masters. That said, there are exceptions to the latter – very black skinned former masters who are considered white by virtue of their genealogy and class.

The Introduction to the volume poses the question ‘how important is race?’, meaning the phenotype rather than the construction. Bruce Hall, drawing largely on Chouki el-Hamel’s well-known Black Morocco, argues that indeed the association of blackness with slavery has limited the ability of haratine and asuqqi to fully integrate, to fully enjoy the rights of citizenship, in both Mauritania and Morocco.[6] This conclusion, however, is rooted in his own study of racialization in the Middle Niger; his book A History of Race in West Africa has strongly influenced how we talk about ‘race formation’ in the Saharan-Sahel. His work speaks most directly to the issue of the impact of colonial rule. Among Africanists, there has been a long-standing tendency to ascribe many (if not most) forms of tribalism, hierarchy and ‘racial preference’ to colonial policies. Hall has argued that we can see the development of race consciousness and discrimination against ‘blacks’ in the Arab literature dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as the writings of local (Middle Niger) clerics. But his suggestion that this process of racialization holds true for Mauritania’s and Morocco’s ‘servile blacks’ is not entirely supported by other studies in the collection. It is fair to say that what at first glance appears to be the ‘key’ shared issue across the two societies – skin colour that can be associated with a class of masters and one of slaves – is not generally seen as the most important. Drawing on Kim’s terminology here, they tend to explore identity more from a ‘sideways’ than a vertical (top-down or bottom up) perspective. That is, they tend to see haratine in particular as active agents drawing on Islamic law and local culture to shape their own identity. Haratine also ingested notions of ‘class’ based on ancestry (when manumission occurred, how many generations in the past), and Islamic purity (how manumission occurred – secular abolition or religious manumission). They also reflected the social class of their former masters.

One of the most revealing approaches parallels several pieces in this collection (e.g. Jacobs, Kassamali), namely a combination of etymology and evolution – an effort to uncover the etymology of a term or ‘name,’ followed by an exploration of how its usage has changed over time. For example, while the etymology of ‘haratine’ remains somewhat controversial,[7] it is considered to be a very generic term whose linguistic origins are the source of most of that controversy (Silverstein also addresses this question here.) However, two of the collection’s studies found people in different regions using other terms, both of which derived from colour; dark colours like green, brown or black-ish – but not black per se, or in one instance ‘red’. Both authors, Katherine Wiley[8] and Corrine Fortier,[9] argue that while colour was embedded in the terminology they encountered being used to identify specific social groups, the colours were not a reference to skin or to race. Fortier saw colour as a linguistic tool to group people for a variety of purposes. Wiley’s case study showed that terms could be used differently within the same region and during the same historical moment: people she observed self-identified differently, even while using the same colour-coded terms, according to context.

Other contributors equally rejected the notion that the colour-based terminology was ‘racial’ in essence. Benjamin Acloque worked among people of different classes who nevertheless shared a very light skin colour.  In this clan, it was status as defined by occupation that constituted the distinguishing ‘features,’ not phenotype. It was status, not colour that was on the one hand valued and on the other, exploited. Jean Schmitz emphasizes ‘purity’ in religious terms, in contrast to race. He essentially argues that in both Morocco and Mauritania, it is closeness to Islam that determines ‘race’: hence, in Morocco colour is associated with the Prophet Mohamed’s ‘servant’, Bilal while in Mauritania, the custom of keeping slaves ignorant of Islam translates into the association of black slaves with ignorance. While an analysis unlike others in the collection and definitely one opposed to Hall’s, Schmitz like Hall points to the consequences of these perceptions and associations of being black with being ignorant keeping Mauritanian haratine from fully participating as citizens in contemporary society, while simultaneously supporting the relative ‘superiority’ of those of slave descent vis-á-vis those of unknown origin, namely haratine, in Morocco.

What is most intriguing in reading across the various engagements with race – linguistic, anthropological, historical –  in the Becoming Visible volume is the extent to which all of them argue against skin-colour per se as a defining factor while continuing to acknowledge the use of ‘colour’ as discourse. It is here that I see connections with several of the studies in the current collection in two respects. First, there were repeated observations of the term ‘haratine’ (and in the case of one study based in Mali, ‘bella’) becoming pejorative over time and being replaced with other terms.[10] Also in this context: whether a term is considered pejorative in any given situation may also depend on who is using it and who is ‘hearing’ it.[11] Historical circumstances be they local, national or international (as discussed in several papers in this collection) shape that context in important and always dynamic ways.

Second, it also cannot be denied that skin-colour has long been and remains a social factor in these societies – again something evident in many of the case studies here. The questions must be ‘how is it acknowledged’ and ‘why is it acknowledged’ at any given moment. Certainly, colonial discourse was highly racialized, driven by its own needs and perceptions rather than by any on-the-ground realities (in the Mauritanian case, it often had to do with taxation). But Wiley’s paper in particular is instructive in showing how contemporary people, Mauritanians themselves, also reference skin-colour as it suits their needs and situation. As I summarize this section of the collection’s Introduction: To see only skin-colour would be to miss the full complexity of their self-selected identity; to ignore it would equally be to overlook a factor that influences their daily lives. In short, even as it is argued that social organization is not racial in that it is not based on skin-colour, it must be remembered that skin-colour does exist – it simply does not define ‘race’ in all instances. Understanding the evolving meaning and use of ‘ḥarāṭīn’, therefore, provides a useful commentary on the evolving meaning and use of ‘race’ itself.”[12]

Another reason I bring up this collection are the articles by Alessandra Guiffrida and Benedetta Rossi.[13]  Guiffrida’s research is focused in Mali. Her long experience there allowed her to identify shifting understandings of eghawelen (those of slave descent) in the context of Mali’s larger political economy. French policies distributed power in ways that excluded their former masters, leaving eghawelen in some circumstances, doubly marginalized and vulnerable. The irony here is that those who were given power were ‘black’ sahelian, sub-Saharan groups, while the Tuareg, the former master class were ‘white’ but still discriminated against in terms of access to national resources. However, the focus of her study in this collection is more contemporary. It targets a group into which large numbers of drought and civil-war-generated refugees had recently returned. It was a very complex and, by definition, dynamic situation, one resonant in both aspects of much of the work in the collection here – thinking especially of Sudan and Southern Sudan, and of Zanzibaris in the Gulf States. Guiffrida describes how extensive land reform, part of governmental ‘decentralization,’ upset traditional hierarchies rooted in socially-defined land-ownership/land-worker relationships. The return of refugees further complicated the implementation of these reforms.  Ironically, in some instances, eghawelen have negotiated improved social positions and achieved economic prosperity superior to their former masters. Guiffrida cautions that each set of social circumstances is specific to its historical and environmental contexts; generalizing an understanding of social groups like haratine, asuqqi and eghawelen from one study area to another can be misleading. Consequently, the kind of larger comparisons we are attempting here should be undertaken slowly and carefully – and with the benefit of much intensive research. In both recognizing the caution necessary (spelled out specifically here by Kim) and in appreciating the importance of historical context, the case studies in this collection reflect a similar approach to race formation.

The other article of interest is Rossi’s. Rossi’s research is rooted in Niger. She raises a question that strikes me as comparable to what Kim is asking here in the context of ‘being seduced by comparison’. Just as Kim ultimately does not reject comparison as useful but argues that we need to be careful about what criteria we use to justify and frame comparisons, Rossi challenges the project that underlay the Becoming Visible collection in terms of our assumed ‘base-line’. She asks us to question whether the most appropriate reason for comparing haratine and asuqqi is their relation to the institution of slavery. Put differently, should we assume that what we see of their situation (re: discrimination, poverty, exploitation etc.) is necessarily or even primarily, the consequence of their ‘slave status’? Or would it be more appropriate to look at conditions (of living) as the central criterion for comparison and then see where slave legacy – and by extension, race – ‘fit’ into the analysis? Whether the focus is race formation or emancipation, this alternative is both provocative and unsettling. Yet it opens the door not only for comparative work but situating discussions of race, slavery, and post-slavery in the same analytical framework. (Regnier, in the collection here, takes on exactly this challenge in exploring how, when, and why ‘post slavery’ became ‘racialization’ in Madagascar.)

The second publication I want to draw attention to, Inscriptions of Slavery on the African Urban Landscape, will appear shortly.[14] And I will be much shorter in my discussion of its relevance. This edited volume is also a collection of case studies and wherein more overlap with the current collection is evident. The case studies include Mauritania, Gambia and Niger but also coastal southern Tanzania and Madagascar; the Introduction has a lengthy historiographical section looking at South Africa, in particular Cape Town. One of the central points emerging from this historiography is a rejection of the paradigms generated by Trans-Atlantic slavery and an exploration of how approaching the subject more from the Indian Ocean perspective might change the discourse. The Gulf States papers, alongside Jacob’s study of Islam at the Cape will feel very much at home in this framework. For clearly while Inscriptions is looking at the historical and contemporary experience of ‘slavery’ and ‘post-slavery’ in an urban context, this collection is tracing exactly the same processes by which these groups came to be identified – call it ethnicity, religion or race. In Cape Town, the story of the Malays is in fact the story of all three (Jacobs).

But there is another reason this small set of case studies resonates with the collection here and its essence lies in the title, ‘inscriptions of slavery’. Several of the studies show, through historical analysis, how it was those who came to the city as slaves or freed-slaves in turn ‘inscribed’ themselves physically on its structure. Felicitas Becker[15] traces how particular places of origin came to be attached not only to its migrants, assumed to be of slave/former slave status, but to the urban neighbourhoods where they lived. Others who subsequently settled there were in turn associated with both the geographical and the status origins of the original (assumed) servile migrants. Marco Gardini[16] sees a similar process unfolding in Madagascar’s capital; the ‘lower quarters’ were associated with those of slave origin in spite of the fact that several waves of in-migration were coastal people of free origin simply looking for urban employment. His study is also revealing of how internal differentiation develops totally irrespective of perceived race or class. To outsiders, the people of this neighbourhood were all the same; to themselves, clear distinctions were recognized between those of slave and those of non-slave origins. The latter did not intermarry with the former and saw themselves as a separate and superior class. ‘Who is black when everyone is black?’ The answer is often invisible to those lying outside the group. (Regnier’s paper here probes the role of marriage as a stigmatizing ‘tool’ while providing a larger picture of this same class of slave descendants beyond Gardini’s urban context.)

The significant point is the parallelism these studies of ‘urban slavery’ (including urban post-slavery) show with the studies of race formation – the ways in which physical place can itself become a central part of the process of constructing identity, racial or otherwise (See Silverstein for an example of this same thinking in the rural context of southern Morocco). And given that the proportion of the populations of both Africa and the Middle East becoming not just seasonally but permanently ‘urban’ is growing exponentially, thinking about the questions of racialization and race formation (understanding that they are not synonymous in spite of the slippage probably evident elsewhere in this essay) as distinctly urban phenomena has significant research potential. Moreover, the whole process of urbanization is also one closely associated with migration, taking us full circle back to understanding migration itself as both personal and local, and policy-driven on national and international scales. This is yet another point of intersection between studies of race, class and power.

Which is really where I want to end. There is much more that can be drawn from this current collection and certainly much more that could be discussed in terms of other relevant literature. My intent in choosing to introduce work from my own recent edited volumes was simply to suggest ideas for some more fruitful conversations around the intersections, as well as the overlaps between, studies of race and studies of post-slavery. The historical process of emancipation would seem to have shaped important elements of both in many parts of Africa and the Middle East. This (current) collection will ‘unsettle’, as they say, many who think they know what ‘race’ is all about. The literatures, the historiographies generated in African studies have for the most part, followed different paths from those current in Middle Eastern studies. It is time they were brought together and time they were challenged in their geographical and theoretical frameworks; as we see here, the former can and does facilitate the latter. “There is something happening here, . . .what it is ain’t exactly clear’. But it certainly is exciting.




[1] For references to the studies included in this collection, I have simply used names, not article titles. Other references are complete.

[2] The term being broadly used to include forced dependencies like ‘protectorates’ and ‘mandates’.

[3] It is worth pointing to an important observation in Abu-Laban and Baklan, namely that because so many studies of ‘race’ engage very limiting understandings of the term – often based on phenotype and structured according to a ‘black-white’ dichotomy, important political racializations such as those we see in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are overlooked. Their paper makes a strong case for the kind of fluid, flexible historically conscious analyses that populate this collection.

[4] E Ann McDougall, Ed., Devinir visible dans le sillage de l’esclavage: le question haratine en Mauritanie et au Maroc/Becoming visible in the wake of slavery : the haratine question in Mauritania and Morocco. L’ouest saharien. Vols. 10-11, 2020.

[5] This is a simplified explanation. Silverstein’s paper in this collection provides more detail. However two points should be made. One, the observation he makes that ‘haratine’ today prefer to be called by other names (e.g. Khammas, Drawi) is an example of what I refer to below as evolution that often involves a term coming to be seen as perjorative. When our project work was done in the Dra’a Valley in 2010, none of these people referred to themselves as haratine; indeed, the term was considered an insult. Others, however, often did so – an example of another point made below about terminology being specific to who is using it and who is listening to it. Secondly, our research did not extend to desert oases. It is true that historically, the term haratine was used to refer to those of slave descent but also others who did the same kind of labour (see my discussion of this point in the Introduction to Becoming visible).

[6] Bruce Hall, “Memory, Slavery and Muslim Citizenship in the Post Emancipation circum-Saharan World, 95-108.

[7] Catherine Taine-Cheikh, «  ‘hartani’ : une enquete au pays des mots », 73-94.

[8] Katherine Wiley, “Being haratine? Being Hadriyyin? Fluid meanings of Ethnic Terms in Mauritania’s Assaba Region”, 209-224.

[9] Corrine Fortier, “Genre, statuts et ethnicisation des haratine de Mauritanie”, 171-186.

[10] Wiley; also Benjamin Acloque, “Les liens serviles en milieu rural:  le statut des haratine et leur attachements á l’agriculture et ál’élevage”, 125-144 ; Jean Schmitz, « Les haratine entre le baraka des escalves par Bilal (au sud Maroc) et la science coranique (sud de la Mauritanie), 145-170 ; Allessandra Guiffrida, « Briding the Divide : continuity and change among the Kel Antassar Eghawelen and other Tuareg clans ( District of Goundam, Mali), 249-271.

[11] Wiley; Fortier.

[12]  E. Ann McDougall, “Introduction: Who are the haratine? Asking the right questions. . . “, 33,34. Discussion of ‘What is the importance of race?’ is drawn from pages 30-34. For simplicity, I have chosen to use a purely anglicized spelling of haratine throughout this essay, rather than attempting to transcribe the Arabic.

[13] Guiffrida (as above); Benedetta Rossi, “From Slavery? Rethinking slavery as an analytical category. The case of the Mauritanian and Moroccan haratine”, 187-206.

[14] Inscriptions of Slavery on the African Urban Landscape: case studies in Emancipation and Post-Slavery. Special Issue of the Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage, E. Ann McDougall Ed. (Forthcoming, 2021).

[15] Felicitas Becker, “ ‘Looking for Life’:  Traces of Slavery in the Social Structures of Southern Swahili Towns”.

[16] Marco Gardini, “ Fear of the Dark: Urban Insecurities and Legacies of Slavery in Antananarivo, Madagascar”.