To kick off the spring semester Africa at Noon lineup, African Cultural Studies Ph.D. candidate Kathryn Mara will give a presentation about her paper “We are All Rwandan’: Identifying and Indexing the People Formerly Known as Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa”
As other scholars note, language changes in the aftermath of mass violence (Brinkman 2004; Bhatia 2005; Peteet 2005). For example, after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, legislation was passed forbidding references to ethnic identity; however, these labels are still employed in historical discussions of the genocide. Furthermore, other terms are used to allude to ethnicity without explicitly mentioning it (e.g. victim, perpetrator), since Rwandans’ experiences during the genocide are often understood as indexing ethnic identity. This paper then asks: does avoidance of ethnic labels signal a shift away from ethnic identification? I address this question through participant observation of events commemorating the 1994 genocide, ethnographic interviews with people of Rwandan heritage living in and around Toronto, and critical discourse analysis of my interlocutors’ commentary. In this paper, I argue that, despite the effort to eliminate terms of ethnic identity, Rwandans still identify themselves and others along similar lines. In the absence of ethnic labels, Rwandans use terms that index ethnic identity, assigning characteristics to Rwandans based on their ethnicity and limiting the parameters of what it means to be Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. Thus, the transition away from ethnic labels does not necessarily signal a movement away from ethnic identification; instead, it allows ideologies regarding ethnicity to operate more opaquely in and through language.
Kathryn Mara is a PhD candidate in African Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in language, cultural practices, and representations of violence, particularly in an east-/central-African context. Her dissertation, “Memory Abroad: Narrative and Discursive Practices Surrounding the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi,” is an interdisciplinary study of the social context of genocide representations, that is, how people talk about it. Through a focus on language and commemoration, she examines narrative practices, attitudes, and processes of socialization among people of Rwandan heritage living in Toronto.