Academia: The Imagined Genocide


Written June 2014

In just 100 days, the world saw some of the most horrific and senseless mass slaughter ever recorded. This was no war, no plague. The weapons, instead, were largely wielded by neighbours, fathers, daughters. If this defining characteristic of the Rwandan Genocide is not disturbing enough, delving into the causes and justifications given for this genocide are even more distressing, demonstrating the power of the mind. The factors fuelling this genocide were largely socially constructed. This means that the perceived differences between certain groups are socially defined, and therefore malleable, rather than inherent elements within a people. If biological determinism is used in a dangerous way, the risk is that the majority may discriminate against a minority purely based on perceived physical differences that are said to be natural and therefore undeniable. As seen in genocides throughout human history, the oppressors will argue that they have irrefutable ‘scientific’ reasons for discriminating against others, who are seen as racially inferior.
The Rwandan Genocide is a devastating example of what can happen when one group is seen as inherently inferior to another due to their biological make-up. However, it has recently been shown that people are more similar than they are different, hinting to biological determinists that there is not much actual scientific justification to see others as alien to you. Recent theorists have suggested that the Rwandan Genocide was ignited using completely false justifications, and that contrary to popular belief, the Hutus and Tutsis are not two different ethnic groups. This new research suggests that these two identity classifications are in fact social classes and that Hutus and Tutsis are actually from the same Bantu origins. Hutu was the name given to the working-classes, who would work for the land-owning Tutsis. As with all socially-constructed categories, this class system was flexible. If a Hutu accumulated enough land, they would become Tutsi, and accordingly, a Tutsi could become Hutu if they lost property. As expected, there were more Hutus than Tutsis since wealth was difficult to accumulate, building up some resentment between the classes that would later become deadly.
In an attempt to neatly categorise social groups, the German colonialists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries decided that an individual would be classed as Tutsi if they had more than 10 cattle and a long nose. This was an important landmark in the interpretation of these social classifications, as it added a physical way to distinguish between peoples that would later be exploited during the Rwandan Genocide. The importance of certain perceived physical differences between the two groups were further emphasised when Belgium took over control of Rwanda in the wake of World War I, as they passed more and more laws involving certain physical traits. Feeling that the Tutsis were superior to Hutus because of their wealth, the Belgians suggested that the Tutsis must have had Eurasian roots. Moise Jean writes of the Belgian argument that helped exacerbate the perceived importance of physical traits:

In the nineteenth century, Egyptologists revised this ‘Hamitic myth.’ They asserted that Hamites were from northeast Africa and represented a closer blood line to Europeans. The Belgians believed this idea of the Tutsi relation to the Hamities because they felt the most physically and socially superior group in Rwanda could not have their origins in Africa, they had to be of Eurasian decent. They used this theory to further divide the Tutsi and Hutu by placing control of the resources in the hands of the Tutsi monarchy and systematically oppressing the Hutu.

– The Rwandan Genocide: The True Motivations for Mass Killings, pg. 4


These perceived physical differences were given more merit due to external factors that began to change people’s looks. Due to being less adequately nourished and working in the sun more, Hutus eventually became shorter and darker. Generations of seeing the same physical traits within Hutu families would have cemented the perception that there was an inherent physical difference between the groups. Joseph C Miller summarises these events when he writes:

…generations of gene flow obliterated whatever clear-cut physical distinctions may have once existed between these two Bantu peoples – renowned to be height, body build, and facial features… With a spectrum of physical variation in the peoples, Belgian authorities legally mandated ethnic affiliation in the 1920s, based on economic criteria. Formal and discrete social divisions were consequently imposed upon ambiguous biological distinctions. To some extent, the permeability of these categories in the intervening decades helped to reify the biological distinctions, generating a taller elite and a shorter underclass, but with little relation to the gene pools that had existed a few centuries ago. The social categories are thus real, but there is little if any detectable genetic differentiation between Hutu and Tutsi

– New Encyclopedia of Africa, pg. 622

These new findings undermine the whole justification given by the aggressors in the Rwandan Genocide. Had it been known that these perceived differences were socially-constructed, and hence flexible, such atrocities could have been avoided. This is not an overly optimistic view of the past, as Carla Schrami found that many who survived the genocide did in fact later acknowledge that the differences between Hutus and Tutsis were based upon economic factors and precedents established by the colonial powers (2012, pg. 127) However, because the people perceived these things as biologically determined, it was enough to spark nation-wide bloodshed. The example of the Rwandan Genocide shows that if the similarities between people are emphasised, in certain situations where it is appropriate to do so, racism can be avoided as there will be no biological basis to discriminate upon.


Cutler, H. The Art of Happiness. USA: Barnes & Noble, 1998. Print

Fearon James D and Laitin David D. “Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity” University of Stanford. Web. 9 May 2014.

Jean, Moise. “The Rwandan Genocide: The True Motivations for Mass Killings” Emory University. Web. 9 May 2014.

Lee, D Gillian. “The Hutu and Tutsi Distinction” University of Toronto.  2009. Web. 9 May 2014.

Nardone, Jaclyn. “Intolerably Inferior Identity: How the Social Construction of Race Erased a Rwandan Population” Peace and Conflict Monitor. 2010. Web. 9 May 2014.

Schrami, Carla. The Dilemma of Recognition: Experienced Reality of Ethnicised Politics in Rwanda and Burundi. USA: Springer, 2012. Print.

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