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Race, Nation, and Resistance to State Symbolic Power in Rwanda since the 1994 Genocide

Global Historical Sociology of Race and Racism

ISBN: 978-1-80117-219-6, eISBN: 978-1-80117-218-9

Publication date: 30 September 2021


The social categories “Hutu” and “Tutsi” have long been central to Rwandan politics, though never more so than during the 1994 genocide, when they formed the ultimate divide: kill (Hutu) or be killed (Tutsi). Since then, the Rwandan government has sought to eliminate these categories and replace them with a new, national identity category of “Rwandan.” This chapter draws on theories of state symbolic power and legibility to analyze how top-down projects of remaking Rwandans are being received from below. Specifically, we examine ordinary Rwandans' responses to gacaca, a community justice practice central to the state's National Unity and Reconciliation Program, and find Rwandans resent efforts to “unmake race” in favor of “nation” because the state's account of genocide in gacaca does not allow them to sincerely express their experiences; it activates traumatic pasts for what they feel is superficial national reconciliation; and it detracts from their material needs. These findings highlight the importance of distinguishing between compliance and conviction in research on state efforts to transform civilian subjectivities. They also suggest directions for further research. Namely, future research on state symbolic power should attend to how individual experiences with violence mediate top-down efforts at remaking civilian subjectivities, to how different forms of governance shape civilian resistance to state categorization and classification projects, and to what kinds of interests are likely to motivate people to alter their self-perceptions. We conclude by arguing for more work on state race and nation-making from the perspectives of its targets.




We are deeply grateful to Rebecca Emigh, Jared McBride, katrina quisumbing king, Alexandre White, Julian Go, and to the anonymous reviewers for their feedback on previous drafts.


Luft, A. and Thomson, S. (2021), "Race, Nation, and Resistance to State Symbolic Power in Rwanda since the 1994 Genocide", White, A.I.R. and Quisumbing King, K. (Ed.) Global Historical Sociology of Race and Racism (Political Power and Social Theory, Vol. 38), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 105-134.



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