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Essay
Last Updated: 04/08/2010
Intolerably Inferior Identity: How the Social Construction of Race Erased a Rwandan Population
Jaclyn Nardone

The creation of racial identity in Rwanda, which predated the days of the genocide, may very well have been socially constructed. Aside from considering the dominant roles that the church and media played, this essay seeks to particularly explore how the Belgian inspired identification cards were used as policy instruments, serving as one of the primary tools that aided in the genocide. Racial differences were distinctly classified between the hierarchical Hutus and the inferior Tutsis. The cards said it all; they decided the fate of who would survive the 100 days of violence and who would not.


The 1994 Rwandan genocide, which was primarily conducted by the Hutus and lasted approximately 100 days, was responsible for the death of “between 500,000 to one million Tutsis” (Mamdani, 5). During these days of massacre, racial segregation distinguished Hutus from Tutsis. Tracing back through these days of carnage leads to the question of what initiated this brutal divide; moreover, how Rwandan identification (ID) cards, which acted as the “facilitating factor in the commission of genocide” (Fussell, 59), were utilized. In order to understand the specific role ID documents played in the genocide, one must answer the central question of how Rwandan ID cards were used as policy instruments, via Belgian colonization. This essay will take a theoretical approach in deciphering how Rwandan racial identity was socially constructed, and furthermore how ID cards were actively used to racially organize social bodies, how they functioned as objects of modern scientific knowledge, and how they formed structures within bureaucratic systems of society. In specific, this essay will pave the route to genocide, via exploring the photographic, scientific, political (and thus violent), bureaucratic, and counterfeit roles of the Rwandan ID card.

The racial divide between the Hutus and Tutsis dates back to Rwandan colonization. After Belgium established control over the African Ruanda-Urundi territory, they “implemented a system of indirect rule based on the principles of racial hierarchy” (Longman, 352). Less than 20 years later, they introduced group classified ID cards, which deepened a “rigid racial concept of group identity where it had not previously existed” (Fussell, 64). Before colonization, the exact origins of the Hutus and Tutsis were unknown, because both groups shared the same language and territory, and “acknowledged the same Tutsi king, hence the Hutu and the Tutsi could never even be described correctly as two different ethnic groups” (Hogan, 4- 5). However, with the ID cards, this all changed. Suddenly, the Tutsis went from being the naturally superior race, to being the marginalized minority (Longman, 354). Rwandan leaders used the ID cards to construct two separate races, thus “their usage by colonial and postcolonial governments nevertheless helped to transform the manner in which Rwandans regarded identity” (Longman, 347).

Photography was used as evidence to facilitate in the social domination and subordination of the Tutsis, by the Hutus. Green notes that the “status of the photograph as a commodity item and as a cultural form is indicative of the widespread and decisive changes within social organization” (3). ID cards introduced the new establishment of “social classes and class factions” (3), hence separating the hierarchical Hutu class from the oppressed Tutsi class. Furthermore, “Eugenics offered an understanding of the social structure of society, in which social hierarchy was seen as the result of predetermined differences between individuals” (Green, 8); via eugenics, Longman reveals that the Belgians predetermined and socially constructed the racial divide and maintained the “official registration of ethnic identities and reinforced group divisions” (347).

Rwandan political authorities used ID cards “as a means of attempting to fix group identities, [which] clearly had an impact on how individuals themselves perceive their identities” (Longman 345). Differentiating between the physical features of the Hutu and Tutsi tribes was essential to forming their separate group identities (Longman, 352). Fracis Galton used photography to visually “trace and define the manifestations of innate and hereditary differences of human faculties within physiognomic characteristics” (Green, 14), hence his notion of ‘eugenics’ instituted the “hereditable differences of physical traits amongst individuals, classes and races” (Green, 8). This indicates how biological features identified the genocidal victims from the instigators.

The Belgians instituted the ID cards as a “system of rigid ethnic classification, involving such ‘modern scientific’ methods as the measurement of nose and skull size” (Longman, 346). Anthropometry, the measurement of humans, uses methods and techniques that regimentally measure the “head and body, the description of the key physical features of the face, and the calibration of non-statistical features such as the color of the skin, hair and eyes” (Green, 10). Physically different from Tutsis, Longman observes how the Hutus had broader features and were noticeably heavier, shorter, and darker (352). In contrast, Tutsi were thin, tall, and appeared to look more European. Gnomic differences between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes divided people of the same race, who pre-colonization and pre-genocide, were physically akin.

Among other noted theorist, Paul Gilory classifies our current era as “post-biological” (Vanouse, 2), indicating that contemporary science identifies human differences molecularly and computationally (gnomically), rather than through “epidermal and cellular traits used in the past” (2). Facilitated by the Human Genome Project (HGP), and with help from the Relative Velocity Inscription Device (RVID), which gnomically measures race, the post-biological era testifies there are more genetic DNA differences within races, than among races. Thus, science explains how the Hutus and Tutsis were considered different, even though they shared the same race. Pessimistically, science continues to “maintain existing hierarchies and will thus be manipulated for new varieties of discrimination” (2), hence the ongoing Tutsi segregation from the Hutu leaders in 20th century Rwanda. Bill Egginton theorizes that HGP is “a race about race in which the body has been erased” (2). Through genocide, the Hutus attempted to erase the Tutsi race.

Cesare Lombroso believes the innate criminality of humans can be determined by biological/physical features; head measurements, facial features, and hair, eye, and skin colour (Green 10). Lombroso’s theory of innate criminality leads to the social construction of devious racial identities, based on physical features. This led the Hutus to believe that since the Tutsis looked different, they were in fact racially, callously and viciously different. The Tutsi’s opposing physical appearance gave the Hutus evidence and reason to believe they were the innocent race, while the Tutsis were not. In the 1920s, the Belgians supported the Tutsi race as being superior, thus permitting them to control the Hutu majority. Innately criminal, according to this interpretation of the Lombroso theory, the Tutsi treated the Hutus with violence and cruelty. This interpretation would suggest that the Hutus did nothing to instigate such treatment, hence the notion that the Tutsi were born with innately criminal traits and tendencies. However, it would not be long before the Hutus fought back.

The 1950s revolts initiated the Hutu Ethnonationalist Movement, “which stemmed directly from elements of [Rwandan] state failure” (Stoddard, 1), and eventually led the Hutus to win power over Rwanda by decade’s end. The Tutsi refugees, who resided the neighboring African countries, formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel group. These criminal deviants made their way back into Rwanda, unwelcomed, thus initiating “the civil war that began with the RPF invasion in 1990” (Mamdani 230). Out to seek revenge, the Tutsi minority has been known to have murdered Juvenal Habyarimana, the Rwandan Hutu President (Longman, 354-355), and thus, the Hutu imposed genocide began. The Belgian imposed ID card system was the perfect way to physically, and thus indisputably, indentify the Tutsis from the Hutus. However, the tables eventually turned, and the innately criminal became subjugated and subordinate. Eventually recognized as physically and thus racially different, the Hutus were granted superiority over the originally unlawful Tutsi leaders. By 1959, “the Hutu became the ‘good guys’ who had been dominated by the Tutsi and the Belgians now expressed sympathy for suppressed masses’” (Hogan, 5). Possibly as an act of apology, or to promote equality, the Belgians socially constructed the Hutus as the new superior race.

Green informs that the “forms which photography takes, and the meanings which such forms engender, are always to be seen as contingent with other social practices” (15). This explains how the Rwandan ID cards were not only used as tools for physical identification, but as Tutsi ‘death certificates’ and Hutu ‘pass-go-for-free’ cards, if you will. Lyon and Bennett explain how ID cards were used as ‘detecting tools,’ for “examination, inspection, monitoring, and watching [over] a wide range of objects’” (13). Stadler and Lyon theorize how the ‘New Penology’ theory was used as a technique for “identifying, classifying, and managing groups sorted by levels of dangerousness” (89). Innately criminal, the Tutsis were seen as Hutu enemies, and were thus considered dangerous. This theory explains how “individualized suspicion with reasonable cause gives way to categorical suspicion where, for example, policy may stop and search vehicles in a given locality” (89).

Tutsis were given special attention at checkpoints, experiencing increased discrimination on behalf of the Hutu controlled state. The Rwandan ID card functioned much like the passport, in regards to John Torpey’s theory, in that it was used as a “monopoly in the means of movement” (Lyon, Bennett, 11); “People who guarded barricades demanded that everyone show their cards before being allowed to pass” (Longman, 355). The Hutu authorities (employees of the state bureaucracy) controlled who passed check points and who did not, depending on their racial status; “Once cards are mandatory, then they may be used to harass visible minorities” (Lyon, Bennett 9) and “single out population groups for special treatment” (Stadler, Lyon, 87). Mamdani reaffirms that whether one was Hutu or Tutsi, showing an ID card was never a voluntary modus operandi [mode of operation] (21). Since it was compulsory to carry an ID card at all times (Lyon, Bennett, 4), Rwandans had no choice but to identify themselves before law enforcement (4), and failure to do so would lead to “suspicion and risk-based targeted searching” (Amoore, 21). Upon claiming who they were, as racially segregated subjects of the state, Hutus were let free, while Tutsis were killed on the spot. This proves how government issued ID cards made it more convenient for federal Rwandan militias to engage in human rights violations against Tutsi subjects (Fussell, 59).

Guillory and Vismann generalize how bureaucracies have a grave impact on the documentation process, hence the relationship between the ID card and the bureaucratic regimes/structures of which it is a part. The abusive ways in which the ID cards were used by Rwandan Hutu authorities against the Tutsis, via creating structures within bureaucratic system of society, proves that “powerful actors [governments] profited from the introduction of ID cards, independently of their actual usefulness” (Stadler, Lyon 86). This indicates how ID cards were not simply used to physically identify Rwandan citizens, but rather to fulfill bureaucratic priorities of tracking, targeting, and classifying the Tutsis. The concept of ‘card cartel’ demonstrates a “bureaucratic system of administration that keeps tabs on all who are included as members of a bounded territory or jurisdiction” (Lyon, Bennett, 7- 8). This theory explains how the government used ID cards as tools of surveillance, to keep the Rwandan citizen in order, reinforcing the hierarchy of one race over the other. With “power in the hands of government authorities” (Fussell 58), Belgian influence allowed authorities to classify Hutus and Tutsi, and thus fix and reify group identities. The government sought to control the socially constructed Rwandan races, and in doing so, Lyon and Bennett indicate how ID cards were “just the overt manifestation of a complex system of identity control and management” (4).

“Identity management policy in one country is nearly always influenced by events elsewhere” (Lyon, Bennett, 8). Execution of the Rwandan genocide was very similar to the Nazi Holocaust; “Tutsis were killed as a group, recalling the German designs to extinguish the country’s Jewish population” (Mamdani, 5). Much like how the Germans used “Hollerith Technology” (Michael, Michael, 8) and IBM mechanisms to calculably organize the deceased Jews, the Rwandan government used ID cards to document and organize the late Tutsis. When Tutsis were murdered at Hutu checkpoints, soldiers were ordered to confiscate their ID cards and turn them over to the government. This was the government’s way to compartmentalize the classified ID documents and withhold secret knowledge of the deceased Tutsis, within the bureaucratic system. “According to one witness, Nizeyimana regularly received these cards from his men as they reported on the progress of the killings. They often appeared at his house shortly after a volley of gunfire was heard and handed the cards to the captain with the report” (Fussell 65). Unknown at the time, but in following decades to come, the information that the German and Rwandan ID apparatuses documented would be repurposed and used against the governments of Germany and Rwanda.

The gruesome documentation of the Rwandan genocide is comparable to that of the Holocaust, as seen in the documentary film “Nuit et Brouillard” (Resnais, 1955). Alain Resnais acted as a passive spectator, what Nichols describes as an ‘observer,’ documenting the Nazi horrors, rather than proactively trying to help save the Jewish victims. Similarly, the Hutu soldiers systematically assisted in documenting the ethnic cleaning of their Tutsi foes, rather than trying to help save the Tutsi. However inhumane their actions may have seemed, had Resnais and the Hutus not have done what they did, detailed elements about these genocides, such as who and how many were killed and on what dates, would never be known. It was within these instances that “the secret world began to exceed the open eye” (Galison, 242). The actions of Resnais and the Hutu soldiers helped develop databases, “structured collections of data” (Manovich 39), which made it possible trace back evidence that would unfold the detailed stories behind the German and Rwandan imposed genocides.

Stadler and Lyon indicate how the government issued Rwandan ID cards were a way to impose “administrative identities” (84) and were often known to be the strongest “accuracy of identification” (84). However, the innately criminal Tutsis found ways to breach the governmental identification system, in order to escape death. Fussell reinforces that socially constructed racial segregation was a new, and thus potentially flawless, concept in Rwanda (56). Komar elaborates on Fussell’s observations; “while victims of racially motivated violence may be identified through observation of morphological features, those targeted because of their ethnic, religious, or national identity are not easily recognized” (Komar 1). Among other variables, Fussell and Komar indicate how the ‘newness’ of the system left significant room for error, within the process of identification, thus leading the Tutsis to employ counterfeit ID cards. Stoddard explains how this illegal practice was inspired by the Rwandan state, forcing “individuals to shift their identifications out of rational self-interest” (4). In order to keep alive, the Tutsi’s would attempt to transform their identities and become Hutus; one would change their identity, by changing their documentation. In reference to the transformation and falsification of documentation (Gallant, Sands 1), the practice of using phony ID cards counters the notion that “when individuals identify themselves they are making a claim about who they are” (Lyon, Bennett 3).

ID cards were used systematically to extrapolate from characteristics of a person’s suggested background; “family name, place of birth, place of residence or the person’s face in a photograph” (Fussell, 56). However, Fussell reinforces that they did not always “provide a definitive answer to someone seeking to determine a group identity” (56). This made it possible for Rwandan ID cards to be reproduced as counterfeit, which explains Guillory’s observation that “information is not [always] identical to face – hence the possibility is misinformation and disinformation” (109- 110). Once the Tutsis realized they could create fake ID cards and documents being “resurfaced again and again” (Stadler, Lyon, 84), they engaged in “using official connections, bribes, and other means to receive new identity cards” (Longman, 355). Should these measures have worked, the Tutsi would prove to have ‘beaten the system,’ so to speak. “The possibility of bribing officials to issue a genuine document containing incorrect information further reduces the overall accuracy of the system” (Stadler, Lyon, 84). Moreover, in presenting new convincing Hutu ID cards, the Tutsi would lead Hutus to believe that “whatever information happened to be on the certificate” (84) was correct and acceptable.

Within time, the secret counterfeit ID cards became not so secret after all. Longman confirms that amidst complications with counterfeit ID cards, Rwandans began to “not necessarily trust identity cards to accurately reveal individual identities” (356). The 1994 genocide, and all violent events leading up to it, exemplified Tutsi victimization based on documentation. After the massacre was over, the Rwandan government soon realized they had no choice but to seek new ways to identify their people, and inevitably rid the racial segregation that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis. By 1996, the Rwandan ID card had been abolished (Lyon, Bennett 8). Signing the Arusha Peace Agreement proved a way forward for Rwanda, as it held the government responsible for imposing new peaceful protocols, amid its new found policies. The Rwandan genocide gave rise to international human rights laws and genocide conventions, such as the 1951 United Nations Treaty, which is known as the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Neil, 1).

Much will change in the Rwandan years to come. However, this essay gives grave evidence to the fact that Rwanda’s horrific past will never be forgotten. Back in the 20th century, and amidst years of colonization, the Belgians used ID card as policy instruments to socially construct two separate Rwandan races, via science and bureaucracy, which thus imposed conflicting fixed identities. Eventually, the Hutu imposed genocide would subside and the ID card would become history. Eradicating the ID card will never reverse what the Hutus did to Rwanda’s Tutsis, and prior, what the Tutsis did to the Hutus. However, it does prove that an unstable government is able to transform itself, in hopes that ‘tomorrow will see a better day.’


Works Cited

Amoore, Louise. “Governing by Identity” in Lyon, David and Bennett, Colin J. “Playing the ID card: understanding the significance of identity card systems” in Bennett, Colin J. and Lyon, David ed. Playing the Identity Card: Surveillance and Identification in Global Perspective. (London: Routledge, 2008).

Fussell, Jim. “Genocide and Group Classification on National ID Cards,” in Watner, Carl and McElroy, Wendy. National Identification Systems: Essays in Opposition, (USA: McFarland, 2004), 55-69.

Galison, Peter. “Removing Knowledge” Critical Inquiry 31:1 (2004): 145-164.

Gallant, Laura and Sands, Sean. “Documents, Records, and Bureaucracies.” Seminar Presentation, 40-440: Documentary Culture, Department of Communication Studies, University of Windsor, 03 Feb.2009.

“Genocide in Rwanda: Fundamental Questions,” Ed. Liam Hogan, 10 Jan. 2003, IL5052: Origins, Development & Conflict Resolution, 1-24. 05 April 2009, .

Green, David. “Veins of Resemblance: Photography and Eugenics.” Oxford Art Journal 7:2 (1984): 3-16.

Guillory, John. “The Memo and Modernity.” Critical Inquiry 31 (2004), 108-132.

Komar, Debra A. "Variables Influencing Victim Selection in Genocide." Journal of Forensic Science 53:1 (2008): 172-177. Abstract. 05 April 2009, < http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/119392805/abstract>.

Lewis, Neil A. “Crisis In The Balkans: The Law: Genocide, as Defined by a 1951 U.N. Treaty.” New York Times Online, 31 Mar. 1999, 05 April 2009, .

Longman, Timothy. “Identity Cards, Ethnic Self-Perception, and Genocide in Rwanda,” in Caplan, Jane and Torpey, John C. Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in The Modern World. (Princeton University Press, United States of America, 2001). 345-358.

Lyon, David and Bennett, Colin J. “Playing the ID card: understanding the significance of identity card systems” in Bennett, Colin J. and Lyon, David ed. Playing the Identity Card: Surveillance and Identification in Global Perspective (London: Routledge, 2008).

Mamdani, Mahmood. When Victims Become Killer: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. (USA: Princeton University Press, 2002).

Manovich, Lev. “Database as Symbolic Form,” in Vesna, Victoria ed. Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 39-60.

Michael, K. and Michael, M.G. “Historical lessons on ID technology and the consequence of an unchecked trajectory.” University of Wollongog, Faculty of Informatics, 2006, 1-24. 05 April 2009, . Originally published in Prometheus 24:4 (2006): 359-364.

Nichols, Bill. “Axiographics: Ethical Space in Documentary Film,” Representing Reality. (Blooming, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991), 76-103.

“Nuit et Brouillard,” Dir. Alain Resnais, France, 1955.

Stadler, Felix and Lyon, David. “Electronic Identity Cards and Social Classification” in Lyon, David ed. Survaillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk, and Digital Discrimination (London: Routledge, 2003), 77-93.

Stoddard, Abby. “Ethnonationalism and the Failed State: Sources of Civil State Fragmentation in the International Political Economy.” E-Merge: A Graduate Journal of International Affairs 3(2002): 4-5. 05 April 2009, .

Vanouse, Paul. “The Relative Velocity Inscription Device.” VIDA 5.0, Art & Artificial Life International Competition, 2nd Prize. New York and Seattle, 2002.

Vismann, Cornelia. “From the Bureau to Data Protection.” Files: Law and Media Technology. 2000. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, trans. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 123-160.


Jaclyn Nardone is currently a candidate for her Master´s in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies from the University for Peace and a regular contributor to the Peace and Conflict Monitor.
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