The 1994 Genocide in Rwanda
It wasn’t until 2019 that I finally learned the facts about the genocide that happened in Rwanda.
Photo credit: Kigali Genocide Memorial. Accessed October 29, 2021.
It was my first ever visit to Rwanda and its capital city of Kigali. I was there for work, and we had the opportunity to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where I learned that over 800,000 Tutsis were massacred by Hutus in just a few months.
Photo credit: Kigali Genocide Memorial. Accessed October 29, 2021.
Before this, I only had vague impressions of Rwanda being a violent and dangerous country. It’s a shameful part of my own anti-African racism and my white supremacy mindset that the genocide didn’t really register with me. I was a teenager in high school, old enough and educated enough that I should have known and remembered it.
If you are aware of the Rwandan genocide – what do you remember about it? What was the narrative, in your mind? How did you feel (if anything?)
Here’s what I recall of my thinking in 1994:
Some country in Africa erupted in violence – again.
This is normal, i.e. no need to worry, because African countries are dangerous and violent. Stuff like this happens all the time over there.
It has nothing to do with us (countries outside of Africa), it’s an internal conflict.
The United Nations had to get involved because Africans can’t resolve their own conflicts.
I’m deeply ashamed just writing this down. As I’m reading those thoughts in the year 2021, it’s obvious to me how terribly wrong this mindset is. I can come up with some justifications and excuses – media portrayal, youth, ignorance – but truthfully, I don’t want to defend it. As horrifying as it is, I need to recognize and face this truth about myself.
Connection between Genocide and Colonized
At the Kigali Genocide Memorial, I also learned that prior to colonization, Rwandans were fairly unified, and there were loosely structured tribes of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa people, slightly distinguished socially and occupationally, but not racially. A very simplistic summary of what happened is that the Belgian colonizers took these loose social groups and established them as distinct races, creating ethnic divisions between them. Basically, the Belgians made an arbitrary decision that established racial identity and superiority that didn’t previously exist. (Talk about divide and conquer!) They even went so far as to issue “identity cards” starting in 1933, which officially categorized all Rwandans as either Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. These cards made it easier to identify and kill Tutsis in the genocide.
As awful as this is, it’s even worse that Western countries which had the power to intervene knew what was happening and did not act; at least, not fast enough or powerfully enough.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial is not just a museum and learning centre, but also the burial place for over 250,000 victims. I can’t do justice to honouring these victims and what happened in a blog post, so I encourage you to visit the Memorial online or better yet, in person. It was a powerful experience I will carry with me always.
In the city of Kigali itself, you would never have known just by looking that there was a genocide only 25 years before. It’s a beautiful place, with warm and friendly people, and lots of fun things to do. (I highly recommend making this your next vacation destination when COVID permits!)
Photos by Rosie Yeung. Left: outside Kigali. Right: View of Kigali from the Memorial.
Colonized People are Divided People
Almost every country outside of Europe and Great Britain has been colonized at one point or another (and some still are); and the impacts of colonization are ongoing. Some impacts are public and obvious – like in Canada, where so-called residential “schools” were used to “kill the Indian in the child”. Some are less well-known, like the link between Rwanda’s genocide and Belgium’s racial assignments. And some are so subtle and socially normalized that they’re almost invisible.
Here are a few ways I’ve experienced the impact of colonization in my life:
First – and this is not an excuse or justification of racism by any means – but I can see how inter-racial racism is a natural consequence of colonization. I was born in Hong Kong while it was still a colony of Great Britain (GB). GB “won” Hong Kong as a trophy from the Opium Wars, which came about when China tried to stop GB from importing (i.e. dealing) this addictive drug into their country.
Photo: British attack on Canton (Guangzhou). Accessed October 29, 2021.
If you didn’t know this history, you might think GB did Hong Kong a great favour by “developing” this backwater island into a booming metropolis and economic powerhouse. Without getting into the politics and socio-economic details, suffice to say that when I asked my family about their experience as colonized people – the mildest response was, “We were always second-class citizens.”
Is it any wonder then that any people group who is deemed second-class or less-than, and has no way of overcoming that status, will look for ways to improve their situation – even if it means making other people less-than?
I have seen, heard, and (shamefully) perpetuated racism by Chinese people against other Asian ethnicities, usually ethnicities with darker skin, e.g. Indians, Filipinos, etc. And I’m not just talking about global racism like China’s human rights violations against the Uyghurs and other people groups (which I unequivocally condemn). Racist microaggressions are common, like “nicknames” for ethnicities which, if you understand the etymology, are derogatory. E.g. one Cantonese term for people from India essentially refers to their brown skin as charred or burnt.
Which leads me to another result of colonialism: colorism. I first heard this concept (though not by that name) in university, when my South Asian friends explained that lighter-skinned people in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, etc. and were considered more beautiful. So among brown people, being a lighter shade of brown is “better”. This colorism permeates everything from Bollywood/movies, castes and social status, marriage, and more.
I see this in more subtle ways in Hong Kong, Korea and Japan as well, in the abundance of cosmetics designed to make your skin white and blemish-free. I’ve seen women using umbrellas and wearing gloves on hot and sunny days, just to avoid getting tanned.
Photo credit: YesStyle. Accessed October 29, 2021.
Colorism is one reason I refer to myself as “racialized”, rather than as a “person of color”. My skin is not yellow, as is often attributed to Chinese people. I see plenty of East Asians with skin whiter than white people’s (thanks to their cosmetics and umbrellas)! And hundreds of years ago, Europeans recognized that some Asians were just as white-skinned as they were – that is, until they wanted to distinguish themselves as a superior race.
According to this article by Professor Michael Keevak of National Taiwan University, “’Yellow’ was thus a racial marker that had meaning only in relation to the other colors, all of which were defined as against white ‘normality.’ The yellow race became invested with associations that insured that its physical and cultural features were different (or, rather, deviant) from the white European norm.”
From Division to Solidarity
Race-on-race racism and colorism are just two legacies of colonialism that exist today. There’s a lot more to unpack here, including the connection to white supremacy culture (which I’ll cover in a separate article).
We need to be aware of these legacies so that we can move out of division into solidarity. I’ve heard it said that we should not engage in “oppression olympics”, i.e. a comparison of which people group has suffered more. Absolutely we shouldn’t, but we do need to recognize our own pain and trauma, and its source, so we can begin to heal from it – and stop oppressing others in turn.
Photo: championhumanity.com. Accessed October 29, 2021.
For example, saying that I believe #BlackLivesMatter is hypocritical if I continue to see Black men as potential criminals, or Black neighbourhoods as dangerous. I confess, I have been there, done that – because I thought the stereotypes were true.
Where (and from whom) do we get our ideas about different ethnicities? Why is it that we see increasing numbers of Asian people in corporate leadership, but hardly any Black people? What’s your gut reaction when you hear the words “white supremacy culture”, and why do you feel that way?
We need to move beyond standing in solidarity with underrepresented groups, and start acting with solidarity. We need to #decolonize our thinking, and understand what’s behind our worldviews.
In Changing Lenses-speak, we need to see the lens we wear, and then change our lens to see what’s beneath the surface.
Think: What is my biggest learning or take away?
Feel: What am I feeling most challenged by?
Act: What action will I commit to today, to build solidarity with racialized and underrepresented people?