Kenya: Nderitu - From Hashtag Ethnic Community to Hashtag Individual

A mixed race couple in Kenya have been trending this past week. All the ingredients in the making of a thriller exist in their story - a billionaire, a mystery man and a murder.

The billionaire went missing and the wife was arrested. When he was found dead, social media chatter rose to a frenzy. One would be forgiven for thinking there were enough angles to discuss but the focus quickly shifted to ethnic identity. Hashtag #Kikuyu woman.

On and on it went, and with it the counter responses--when a self-confessed serial killer was nabbed, his ethnic community was not blamed wholesale.

Not even when a governor was recently charged with the murder of a university student. His ethnic community was not condemned alongside him.

It happens in Nigeria too where it is common to blame "Fulani Herdsmen" for any crime committed without any reference to the thousands of Fulani who have been killed in the farmers and herders war.

The irony of Nigeria and Kenya being up in arms mobilising through hashtag when xenophobic hordes targeted their nationals is completely lost on the #Kikuyuwoman, #Fulani herdsman twiterrati.

ETHNICITY

Is it possible to avoid criminalising entire ethnic communities when one of their own commits a crime?

Richard Jenkins of Sheffield University argues that ethnicity does not cause people to do either good or bad things.

He posits; "Ethnicity doesn't always explain what people do, not even when they insist it does." This is partly because ethnicity is a historical construct, constructed by social processes and is "neither natural or inevitable."

So why does assigning criminality or negative attributes to some communities happen? Is it related to the collective significance of ethnic identity in specific contexts? Understanding socialisation helps.

Many of the hashtag commentators spoke of negative things taught by their parents about other communities. Some admitted their parents expressed opinions based on hearsay, on ethnic communities they have never met.

Socialisation helps people to classify people on characteristics such as skin colour, ethnicity or religion, and therefore, judge and assign stereotypes.

These characteristics may be real or imagined. Socialisation is internalised at an early age with parents and teachers often reinforcing stereotypes.

Stereotypes build up into actual discrimination and ensure the influence of ethnicity on people is exaggerated while the influence of people on ethnicity is underrated.

VALUES, BELIEFS AND ATTITUDES

Ethnic groups often find negative aspects of other groups and exaggerate cultural differences to enhance their own image. Assigning a crime to an entire community or characterising them as morally suspect is known as "othering."

"Othering" is often helped along by assigning emotions such as fear to legitimise injustices. What can help? Early socialisation of children to balanced information about different ethnic groups through the education system such as teaching histories and literatures on all ethnic communities as examinable subjects; Governments ensuring inequalities and inequities between ethnic groups are addressed; building capacities of teachers towards ending their own prejudice; teaching values that, rather than challenge tradition, emphasize pluralism; legislation and policies supporting inclusive practice; messages in public spaces emphasizing similarities rather than difference; provide positive inter-ethnic role models and affirmative action for historically excluded ethnic groups.

Is it possible to change values, beliefs and attitudes that are so deeply entrenched in society? Researchers have established that disrupting one aspect such as violent behaviour or insulting language can alter the values held by society.

Criminal activity may then be assigned to individuals and hashtags will bear individual names, not ethnic communities.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides.

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