This problem reminds me of an excellent, concise post by Jeremy Trombley, which I’ll quote in its entirety here:
We have to get past the idea that things that are socially constructed are somehow not real. I encountered it again today in something I was reading. "X is socially constructed" or "X are social constructs" as if to say they are only or just social constructs - as if to say X is not real. But social constructs are real - that's what makes them so powerful. Race, Class, Gender - these are all social constructs, but it is because they are socially constructed that they have tremendous effects on the lives of people who live in a particular society.
In fact, the only thing that saying something is socially constructed does is to indicate that it could have been (or could be) constructed differently - that it is historically and politically contingent. This is a first step (though maybe not a necessary step) towards creating the possibility for change, but it is not the change itself. Social constructions are powerful, deeply embedded structures, and change takes time and work. We've spent the last 30 years showing how socially constructed everything is - that was the easy part - now it's time to get to work on making change.
In Gravlee’s article, he maintains the spirit of the critique of race as a social construct, but embraces race as a “real” concept--real in the sense of having real consequences, and he argues to “take seriously the claim that race is a cultural construct that profoundly shapes life chances” (2009:48).
I completely agree and think is is a critical goal in teaching about anthropology and race to undergraduates. Despite Gravlee’s clear elucidation of the relationship between social contexts and biological outcomes, I feel that many of my students implicitly continue to think that any reality to race can be reduced to gene pools (Gravlee 2009:51). In the end, I think many come away thinking anthropologists are a bit full of shit--”race is a ‘social construct,’ so it’s not real, but I see the reality of race all around me.”
In thinking about how to best communicate the message of “Race Becomes Biology,” I was reminded of a case study I use in my courses--the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In that example, race has consequences that reductionist genetics cannot explain. It is an example of race not only becoming biology, but specifically, brutal mortality. This semester, I intend to begin with this extreme case and then slide back into Gravlee’s more nuanced argument, illustrating the consistency of explanation--from genocide in Rwanda to increased rates of hypertension in the United States.
Race in Rwanda
When I first started talking about Rwanda, I wanted the class to examine how the West often frames non-Western peoples. Those of my students that were familiar with the 1994 genocide usually offered explanations for it in terms of “tribal violence” and the boiling over of “ethnic/racial hatreds.” Such interpretations see African peoples as essentially primitive and violent and when the constraints of state government re removed, a fundamental, barbaric, “tribal” nature asserts itself through naked savagery. While I’m not focusing this post on this part of my discussion, student reaction represents one legacy of racial thinking.
The history of Rwanda clearly refutes such an interpretation, however, so I spend at least one class session going through it. As Prunier notes:
What we have witnessed in Rwanda is a historical product, not a biological fatality or a “spontaneous” bestial outburst. Tutsi and Hutu have not been created by God as cats and dogs, predestined from all eternity to disembowel each other because the tall thin men came from Egypt and the short stocky ones were born on the shores of Lake Kivu. This is a long story with complex roots, many contradictions, brutal twists of fate...the Rwandanese genocide is the result of a process which can be analyzed, studied and explained [Prunier 1997:xii]
A good part of the explanation Prunier mentions includes how the Western concept of race became interdigitated with the preexisting complicated social history of Rwanda. To be clear, the concept of race that will shape Rwandan history throughout the 20th Century is largely the same examined by Gravlee’s article. In it, he describes race as:
A central tenet of the racial worldview is that humans are naturally divided into a few biological subdivisions. These subdivisions, or races, are thought to be discrete, permanent and relatively homogeneous [Gravlee 2009:48]
As previously noted, at the core of the 1994 genocide were the categories of Hutu and Tutsi. History illustrates that these concepts, rather than being essential and static identities, were instead fluid social constructs. To be clear, at first, the concepts did not describe races, but they came to. I’ll quickly outline how the concepts of Hutu and Tutsi changed over the past 200 or so years, though it’s going to be bloggy and brief. Interested readers should consult Mamdani (2001) and Prunier (1997) for the thorough treatments that inform this post.
In discussions of distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi peoples, biology has been invoked as a basis. Phenotypic differences seem apparent between Hutu and Tutsi populations, such as the latter on average being taller than the former. Additionally, some quantitative genetic differences may suggest different migration histories, such as differences in the frequencies of the sickle cell allele and lactose tolerance (Mamdani 2001:46-47). But, it is critical to note that for the past few centuries::
Tutsi and Hutu did not live as separate cultural communities in Rwanda, but spoke the same language, practiced the same religion and lived on the same territory [Mamdani 2001:50]
So, generations of intermarriage have further blurred already clinal differences between the two populations.
Despite the ambiguous biological differences between Tutsi and Hutu, the cultural categories are mutually exclusive (though, as we’ll see, the nature of that exclusion changes over time). Originally, these seem to have developed as social categories central to the functioning of the Rwandan state. In the precolonial era, Mamdani argues that
While we may able to be speak of Tutsi as an ethnic identity preceding the formation of the state of Rwanda, we certainly cannot speak of Hutu with the same historical depth. For as a political identity, Hutu was constructed as a consequence of the formation and expansion of the state of Rwanda [Mamdani 2001:73]
During this formation and expansion, the Tutsi occupied the apex of the power system kingship or mwami, while the Hutu were subject to that power--though Hutu did hold lower political offices. In this social formation, Hutu and Tutsi were concepts built of an amalgam political, ethnic, occupational and social statuses--but at this point, not racial. For instance, especially upwardly mobile Hutu could become Tutsi.
Clearly, by the time of German and then Belgian colonial control of Rwanda, the concepts of Hutu and Tutsi were existing dimensions of Rwandan society. However, colonial administration altered the the categories in an important way--they were racialized. Colonial control requires the importation of new systems of administration and management designed to best use/exploit the resources and labor of the colony to the benefit of the colonial power. Part an parcel of these imported systems of control are worldviews about the nature of humans. In the case of European colonization, this included the concept of race mixed with cultural evolutionary assumptions.
European colonialists simplified the existing, complex and indigenous socio-political structure by interpreting the state of Rwanda as being designed and controlled by a superior race, the Tutsi, rightfully ruling the subordinate Hutu. For instance, Belgian administrator, Pierre Ryckmans noted:
The Batutsi were meant to reign. Their fine presence is in itself enough to give them a great prestige vis-a-vis the inferior races which surround...It is not surprising that those good Bahutu, less intelligent, more simple, more spontaneous, more trusting, have let themselves be enslaved without every daring to revolt [quoted from Prunier 1997:11]
The Germans and Belgians simply grafted on a racial understanding of political or “civilizational” ability onto Rwandans, reinforcing the power of the Tutsi to act as administrative intermediaries. Over the course of seven decades of colonial rule, racialized versions of Tutsi and Hutu shaped Rwandan understanding of the distinction. While it’s surely a generalization, Prunier describes how a racial worldview became internalized in Rwanda:
The racialisation of consciousness affected everybody, and even the “small Tutsi,” who did not benefit from the system in any way, started to believe that they were indeed a superior race and that under the same rags as their Hutu neighbours wore, a finer heart was beating
--And of course the Hutu, deprived of all political power and materially exploited by both the whites and the Tutsi, were told by everyone that they were inferiors who deserved their fate and came to believe it. As a consequence they began to hate all Tutsi, even those who were just as poor as they, since all Tutsi were members of the “superior race” [Prunier 1997:38-39]
Further, the division crystallized race through bureaucratic structures, limiting educational and employment opportunities for Hutu while favoring Tutsi. Hutu resentment built. By the 1950s, Rwandan society had become racialized, especially for Hutu, and many of those that advocated for independence from the whites and the Tutsi.
When Rwanda achieved independence in the mid-20th Century, control of the country was firmly in Hutu hands and would remain that way until 1994. During this time, Tutsi either became refugees in neighboring countries, or remained in Rwanda as second-class citizens. As the decades passed, Hutu growing up after independence began to see the Tutsi as the kings and rulers of a somewhat mythic past, one in which the demographic majority Hutu were unfairly and cruelly ruled by an alien race.
During the 1980s, the Hutu controlled government of Rwanda faced increasing challenges to its control. Population growth and economic decline contributed to growing instability in the country. This fragile situation was multiplied when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded from Uganda. The RPF was largely composed of the children of Tutsi refugees who had fled Rwanda in the early 1960s--the alien oppressors were returning.
By 1993, the RPF had made significant gains and the United Nations became involved to broker a peace deal. The Arusha Accords were the result that intended an end to the conflict with a power-sharing framework that integrated RPF with the existing Hutu controlled government. For extremist Hutu bent on retaining power, this represented a significant setback. The assassination of President Habyarimana on April 6, 1994 allowed extremist elements in the government to reestablish their power. The genocide then began.
To accomplish the slaughter of upwards of 800,000 people in about 100 days, those in power needed the assistance of the Rwandan Hutu population. Of several important factors, racial fears were exploited to encourage people to kill Tutsi neighbors. The infamous RTLM radio broadcasts goaded folks to stomp out the Tutsi cockroaches. While many Hutu were also slaughtered during the genocide, most notably moderate Hutu politicians, they were murdered as individuals, not because of a racial identity.
Social Constructs Have Real Consequences
The genocide in Rwanda is a horrifying example of the real consequences of a social construction. The changing nature of the concepts of Hutu and Tutsi clearly illustrate they were not the “permanent” or “homogeneous” populations expected by the race concept. However, the categories of Hutu and Tutsi as races were lethally important during the spring and summer of 1994 as 11% of the Rwandan population was annihilated.
Putting this case study in the context of Gravlee’s argument, this case study shows how race became a kind of biology--mortality. A racialized understanding of the world created a social context where one category could be murdered by membership in that category. Gravlee emphasizes how the social construct of race in the United States creates a context of discrimination and exclusion which contributes to a number of disparities in health indices.
2009 Race Becomes Biology: Embodiment of Social Inequality. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 139:45-57.
2001 When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the the Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton University Press.
1997 The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. Columbia University Press.