At and indigeneity have been used throughout history, and

At first
glance, one may perceive race, ethnicity and indigeneity as legitimate and non-negotiable
terms, however a small scratch at their surface leads one to see how little legitimacy
they have. Particularly in the case of the former two categories, I believe it
is not possible to separate them from the history and politics of their use. The
very notion that they are social constructs means that their history is precisely
what defines them. One can see that race and ethnicity in particular have been
used as a political tool for creating boundaries within societies in order to gain
control. As Eriksen has stated, “ethnicity is relative and somewhat situational”
(2015, p.334). The same can be said for race, as there is no definitive definition
of the categories, they are simply molded to suit the aims of their users. The
political and historical connotations that come with such a term as race or
ethnicity are so deeply linked to the term itself that I believe it is not
possible to separate the two. In particular the term race, which has, from its
conception been implemented and used to support subordination and has direct
links to power. To support my argument, I will be using ethnographic studies
that exemplify the way in which the categories of race, ethnicity and
indigeneity have been used throughout history, and why it is not possible to
separate the terms from these uses. One needs to differentiate between race and
ethnicity, and indigeneity as the former two have more negative connotations
due to their links to genocide, racism and apartheid throughout the world,
whereas one can argue that indigeneity is a more positive category. It has far
more relevance in today’s modern world, and features as a component of various political


and ‘ethnicity’ are not terms that have fixed referents, therefore indicating
that their definition is not concrete (Wade, 2010, p.4). Though it is clear the
categories of race, ethnicity and indigeneity cannot be separated from the
history and politics of their use, one does need to differentiate between the
connotations of the terms themselves. Indigeneity can be perceived as a more
positive category than the former two, it is one that draws one’s mind to the
hard work of indigenous peoples to reclaim their rights to land and resources, the
work of the Zapatista army in Chiapas being one example. In contrast, race and
ethnicity much more intertwined with ideas of power and subordination,
particularly in the case of race. Race as a form of classification is,
according to Eriksen, arbitrary and interesting to social and cultural
anthropologists only as a social construction that can be studied. The study of
race thus belongs to the anthropology of power and ideology (Eriksen, 2015.

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p.55). The existence of race depends on the collective agreement and acceptance
of people that it does indeed exist (Lusca, 2008). However, the notion that this
concept has any biological legitimacy has long since lost any credibility. It
is simply a social construct produced by the dominant group in a society and
their power to define its meaning. As Wade points out, “race and ethnicity are not terms that
refer in some neutral way to a transparent reality of which social science
gives us an ever more accurate picture; instead they are terms embedded in
academic, popular and political discourses”, which is precisely why they cannot
be separated from their history (2010, p.4).

history the concept of race has been used by the dominant group or power in
society in order to impose boundaries and create a sense of otherness by
defining race in terms of biology. This is exemplified in the case of America
and racial justification for slavery. Though white men were in hegemonic
control, they feared this would not last with an expanding free black
population (Lusca, 2008). Racial theorists such as Josiah Clark Nott sought to
add scientific claim to the subordination of the black ‘race’ by suggesting
physical and mental differences between that of black and white populations. In
their book Indigenous Races of the Earth (1857)
Nott and George Robert Gliddon argued that the races of mankind did not
originate from the same place, citing the idea that God created each one
separately. The French scientist Cuvier and his work on comparing bone and
skull measurements to assess racial difference is an early example of the use
of anatomical measurement to justify racial theory. Scientists paid great
attention to skull size as it was thought to correlate with levels of
intelligence (Wade, 2010, p.9). Similar measurements were carried out by both
the Nazis and colonial powers in Rwanda, thus displaying the way in which this
historical method has influenced racial theorists. These notions contribute to
the process of othering, used as a method of maintaining power and encouraging
divisions throughout history. As Wade has stated, it is no coincidence that
just as abolitionist opinion gained dominance in Europe, making the institutionalized
inferiority of blacks morally insecure, theories began to emerge that could
justify the continued dominance over blacks in terms of supposedly innate and
permanent inferiority (2010, p.10). this observation demonstrates how the category
of race has been moulded to suit
the needs of its user in a certain historical timeframe.


The 1994 Rwandan
genocide that claimed the lives of over 800,000 Tutsis, along with over 100,000
Hutu moderates, with its origins in the ethnic divide exacerbated by the
actions colonial powers. Rwanda was under the control of German and Belgian
powers through the colonial period and into much of the 20th century.

While economic and ethnic boundaries did exist between some of the Hutu and
Tutsi populations prior to colonial rule, it was the ethnicization of the
Rwandan population that paved the way for genocide and conflict in years to
come. Ethnicity, according to Vervust, does not exist in a vacuum as an independent
variable or substance (2012, p.76). This is precisely why it is not possible to
separate the category from the history and politics of its use, as its changing
use over time is what defines the term. The Hutu Tutsi divide in Rwanda
exemplifies the way in which ethnicity and race can, somewhat inadvertently in
this case, create violent divisions within a population.

the Hutus and Tutsis lived relatively harmoniously; with wealth, not race being the basis of
the ethnic distinction between them. It was colonial intervention that led to
the accentuation and even racialization of the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic division, paving
the way for violence to come in the latter part of the 20th century (Vervust,
2012, p.81). As Straus said, European rule did not invent the terms Hutu and Tutsi,
but the colonial intervention changed what the categories meant and how they
mattered (2006, p.20)

I want to
place a focus on the way in which colonial powers sought to shape the way in
which ethnicity was viewed in Rwanda, and the methods they used to achieve
this, even if it was somewhat inadvertent to create such deep divisions. As mentioned
previously, the categories of race and ethnicity are often used as a basis for
creating power structures, and the Rwandan example is no different. In general,
Hutus were farmers of lower social status, while Tutsis were pastoralists of
higher social status (Straus, 2006, p.20). European explorers used indirect
rule in combination with a system of classification and identification that led
to the perpetuation of the idea that Tutsis were a more powerful ethnic group,
destined to be in power. This was done through various methods of classification
and the use of scientific measurements to authenticate the supposed physical differences
between Hutu and Tutsi. In his book The
Order of Genocide: Race Power and War in Rwanda, Straus writes that “colonial
era documents consistently describe Hutus as short, stocky, dark skinned and
wide-nosed. By contrast the Tutsis are presented as tall, elegant, light
skinned and thin-nosed”. (2006, p.21). One of the Belgians more decisive moves
was to implement the use of identity cards for Rwandan
ethnic identification, as well as ethnicity based taxation that was set
according to the pre-supposed social class and wealth of the Hutu and Tutsi populations.

The Europeans practiced indirect rule, in so doing reinforcing Tutsi dominance.

Race became the central determinant of power, and thus became a symbol of oppression
(Straus, 2006, p.21). Returning to one of my initial points, race and ethnicity
are deeply connected to their use throughout history in particular due to the
links with power. Though there were ethnic divides between the Hutus and Tutsis
pre-colonial rule, it was the European ideas of racial theory and physical difference
between ethnic groups being used as an indicator of power and social status
that led to the negative divisions in Rwandan society. Consequentially, it is
evident that one cannot separate the categories of ethnicity and race from the history
and politics of their use. The Rwandan concept and categorisation of ethnicity was
warped by European powers, thus in turn changing how the world perceived Rwandan
ethnicity and our understanding of the category itself. “Under colonialism, race overshadowed
the organisation of society and became the country’s central political idiom”
(Straus, 2006, p.21).


The latter category, indigeneity, is somewhat different
to the others in its relation to power. Though still a category in the same socially
constructed vein as race and ethnicity, it perhaps has more legitimacy attached
to it. It is usually a term associated with disempowerment, victimhood and
loss, and when indigeneity features as a topic of political conversation it is
usually in relation to a struggle for power and autonomy. Jose Martinez Cobo,
the former UN rapporteur on discrimination against indigenous defines
Indigenous communities as peoples and nations which, having a historical
continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their
territories, and identify those territories as their homeland (Danzig, 2017). So,
while race tends to leave a bad taste in the mouths of those who speak about it
as a legitimate category, indigeneity is somewhat different. One can argue it
too, cannot be separated from the history and politics of it use, but one
cannot deny it has more political currency compared to say, race. The Zapatista
Army (EZLN) are an example of an indigenous people fighting for their rights to
land and resources. According to the International Service for Peace, half
of Chiapas indigenous population report no income at all, while 70% suffer from
high levels of malnutrition. The state is wealthy in natural resources, being
home to 30% of Mexico’s fresh water supply, yet it is one of most marginalized
states in the country. The indigenous population of Mexico have, throughout
history, been disregarded and excluded from the governmental decision-making
process. This became a far more prominent issue due to the North American Free
Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as it has been perceived as posing a threat to
indigenous interests (Godelmann, 2014). The Zapatista declared war on the Mexican
state in 1994 after the signing of the NAFTA agreement. Issues of globalisation
and neo liberalism are at the heart of the Zapatistas discontent, as well as
concerns over their indigenous rights to Chiapas’ natural resources due to
fears over US corporations exploiting their resources and leaving the
indigenous population of Chiapas in an even worse position than before.

To conclude; while it is easy to assume the notion that
race, ethnicity and indigeneity have a single, definitive meaning, looking at
the history and politics of the categories themselves brings one to the
conclusion that this is not the case. Consequentially, I believe it is not
possible to separate these categories from the history and politics of their use.

The social construction of such terms and their changing definitions over time
is evidence of why we cannot separate these categories from their uses throughout
history and within politics. There is, particularly in the case of race, a dark
history that comes along with this categorization that it cannot be discounted
or forgotten. Such categories are made by the way they are used throughout
history, and thus it is hard to view them from a neutral standpoint away from
their implementation throughout history.