The Romans interacted with and later conquered parts of Mauretania, an early state that covered modern Morocco, western Algeria, and the Spanish cities Ceuta and Melilla during classical period. The people of the region were noted in classical literature as Mauri, which was subsequently rendered as Moors in English.
Numerous communities of dark-skinned peoples are present in North Africa, some dating from prehistoric communities. Others descend from immigrants via the historical trans-Saharan trade or, after the Arab invasions of North Africa in the 7th century, from slaves from the Arab slave trade in North Africa.
In the 18th century, the Moroccan Sultan Moulay Ismail "the Warrior King" (1672–1727) raised a corps of 150,000 black soldiers, called his Black Guard.
According to Carlos Moore, resident scholar at Brazil's University of the State of Bahia, in the 21st century Afro-multiracials in the Arab world, including Arabs in North Africa, self-identify in ways that resemble multi-racials in Latin America. He claims that darker toned Arabs, much like darker toned Latin Americans, consider themselves white because they have some distant white ancestry.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had a mother who was a dark-skinned Nubian Sudanese (Sudanese Arab) woman and a father who was a lighter-skinned Egyptian. In response to an advertisement for an acting position, as a young man he said, "I am not white but I am not exactly black either. My blackness is tending to reddish".
Due to the patriarchal nature of Arab society, Arab men, including during the slave trade in North Africa, enslaved more African women than men. They used more enslaved African female in domestic service and agriculture than males. The men interpreted the Quran to permit sexual relations between a male master and his enslaved females outside of marriage (see Ma malakat aymanukum and sex), leading to many mixed-race children. When an enslaved woman became pregnant with her Arab master's child, she was considered as umm walad or "mother of a child", a status that granted her privileged rights. The child was given rights of inheritance to the father's property, so mixed-race children could share in any wealth of the father. Because the society was patrilineal, the children took their fathers' social status at birth and were born free.
Some succeeded their fathers as rulers, such as Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, who ruled Morocco from 1578 to 1608. He was not technically considered as a mixed-race child of a slave; his mother was Fulani and a concubine of his father.
In early 1991, non-Arabs of the Zaghawa people of Sudan attested that they were victims of an intensifying Arab apartheid campaign, segregating Arabs and non-Arabs (specifically, people of Nilotic ancestry). Sudanese Arabs, who controlled the government, were widely referred to as practicing apartheid against Sudan's non-Arab citizens. The government was accused of "deftly manipulat(ing) Arab solidarity" to carry out policies of apartheid and ethnic cleansing.
American University economist George Ayittey accused the Arab government of Sudan of practicing acts of racism against black citizens. According to Ayittey, "In Sudan... the Arabs monopolized power and excluded blacks – Arab apartheid." Many African commentators joined Ayittey in accusing Sudan of practising Arab apartheid.
In the Sahara, the native Tuareg Berber populations kept "negro" slaves. Most of these captives were of Nilotic extraction, and were either purchased by the Tuareg nobles from slave markets in the Western Sudan or taken during raids. Their origin is denoted via the Ahaggar Berber word Ibenheren (sing. Ébenher), which alludes to slaves that only speak a Nilo-Saharan language. These slaves were also sometimes known by the borrowed Songhay term Bella.
Similarly, the Sahrawi indigenous peoples of the Western Sahara observed a class system consisting of high castes and low castes. Outside of these traditional tribal boundaries were "Negro" slaves, who were drawn from the surrounding areas.
Horn of Africa
In parts of the Horn of Africa, the local Afroasiatic speaking populations have long adhered to a construct similar to that of the Sahara, Nile and Maghreb. In Ethiopia and Somalia, the slave classes mainly consisted of individuals of Nilotic and Bantu origin who were collectively known as Shanqella and Adone (both denoting "negro"). These captives and others of analogous morphology were distinguished as tsalim barya (dark-skinned slave) in contrast with the Afroasiatic-speaking nobles or saba qayh ("red men") or light-skinned people. The earliest representation of this tradition dates from a seventh or eighth century BC inscription belonging to the Kingdom of Damat.
In South Africa, the period of colonization resulted in many unions and marriages between European men and Bantu and Khoisan women from various tribes, resulting in mixed-race children. As the European settlers acquired control of territory, they generally pushed the mixed-race and Bantu and Khoisan populations into second-class status. During the first half of the 20th century, the Afrikaaner-dominated government classified the population according to four main racial groups: Black, White, Asian (mostly Indian), and Coloured. The Coloured group included people of mixed Bantu, Khoisan, and European descent (with some Malay ancestry, especially in the Western Cape). The Coloured definition occupied an intermediary political position between the Black and White definitions in South Africa. It imposed a system of legal racial segregation, a complex of laws known as apartheid.
The apartheid bureaucracy devised complex (and often arbitrary) criteria in the Population Registration Act of 1945 to determine who belonged in which group. Minor officials administered tests to enforce the classifications. When it was unclear from a person's physical appearance whether the individual should be considered Coloured or Black, the "pencil test" was used. A pencil was inserted into a person's hair to determine if the hair was kinky enough to hold the pencil, rather than having it pass through, as it would with smoother hair. If so, the person was classified as Black. Such classifications sometimes divided families.
Sandra Laing is a South African woman who was classified as Coloured by authorities during the apartheid era, due to her skin colour and hair texture, although her parents could prove at least three generations of European ancestors. At age 10, she was expelled from her all-white school. The officials' decisions based on her anomalous appearance disrupted her family and adult life. She was the subject of the 2008 biographical dramatic film Skin, which won numerous awards. During the apartheid era, those classed as "Coloured" were oppressed and discriminated against. But, they had limited rights and overall had slightly better socioeconomic conditions than those classed as "Black". The government required that Blacks and Coloureds live in areas separate from Whites, creating large townships located away from the cities as areas for Blacks.
In the post-apartheid era, the Constitution of South Africa has declared the country to be a "Non-racial democracy". In an effort to redress past injustices, the ANC government has introduced laws in support of affirmative action policies for Blacks; under these they define "Black" people to include "Africans", "Coloureds" and "Asians". Some affirmative action policies favor "Africans" over "Coloureds" in terms of qualifying for certain benefits. Some South Africans categorized as "African Black" say that "Coloureds" did not suffer as much as they did during apartheid. "Coloured" South Africans are known to discuss their dilemma by saying, "we were not white enough under apartheid, and we are not black enough under the ANC (African National Congress)".
In 2008, the High Court in South Africa ruled that Chinese South Africans who were residents during the apartheid era (and their descendants) are to be reclassified as "Black people," solely for the purposes of accessing affirmative action benefits, because they were also "disadvantaged" by racial discrimination. Chinese people who arrived in the country after the end of apartheid do not qualify for such benefits.
Other than by appearance, "Coloureds" can usually be distinguished from "Blacks" by language. Most speak Afrikaans or English as a first language, as opposed to Bantu languages such as Zulu or Xhosa. They also tend to have more European-sounding names than Bantu names.