PACS Student Profile: Katrina Janzen

In this journal, I reflect on my experience working with the Mennonite Central Committee’s partners in Rwanda - Transformational Leadership Center (TLC) an organization that runs the Peace Library where I was placed as an intern in 2022.

Since coming to Rwanda, I was met with special attention and treatment wherever I went. While I was expecting to stand out as a young White woman living in a part of Kigali where not many foreigners live, nothing could have prepared me for the extent of this attention. I was able to categorize the way I was treated into two types of interactions: Friendly curiosity, and obsessive admiration. The first type of interaction occurs when a local is extra friendly to me and greets me or chats with me in the street, when children call out “Muzungu!” (‘White person’ in Kinyarwanda) to me as I walk by, or people staring at me as I pass. On the other hand, the admiration I experience occurs when people follow me, or when young men call out to me on the street calling me beautiful, trying to get my phone number, or even saying that they love me.  

What surprised me most about both types of special treatment, is that they both have positive intentions. Although the admiration can become creepy after a while, it seemed there was no intent to harm me; rather it was a sense of fascination. This was surprising to me given the history of colonization experience in Rwanda. I would have expected to receive at least some negative emotions around seeing a White person arrive in their neighborhood. Like many other African countries, Rwanda’s history is impacted by colonialism and was colonized by both Germany and Belgium. In addition to the Eurocentric education and culture that was enforced during this time in history, this period of European rule is often linked to the escalation of conflict between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda. The tension between Hutu and Tutsi ultimately resulted in genocide in 1994. Given the strong connection between White colonialism and the start of genocide, I was convinced that I would experience some level of resentment or anger given my skin color.  

This interaction led me to research colonialism and its legacy in an African context, to learn of its larger impact on this time in Rwanda's history. I came across the term “internalized colonialism” which refers to attitudes, mindsets, or practices introduced during the colonial era that have been adopted into the culture and passed down to other generations. Internalized colonialism is often subconscious and becomes part of cultural norms. The internalization of colonization becomes harmful when the mentality of Western superiority becomes a common part of a culture. Tafari-Ama studies Jamaica as an example where skin bleaching and hair straightening have become a common practice that is encouraged (Tafari-Ama, 2016, p. 2). These actions demonstrate how Western and colonial lifestyles are perceived as superior to the culture of their ancestors. Although Jamaica is a different context from Rwanda and has its own unique relationship with North Americans due to the Atlantic slave trade, I found some of the learnings from this study to be transferrable to my context.  

Internalized colonialism can be used to explain some of the friendliness and special treatment of local Rwandans when they see me. People were very quick to greet and accommodate me and provide me with food that they thought I would enjoy more than their traditional dishes. At work, there was often the assumption that I had knowledge and strong opinions regarding problems or topics which I actually had no experience with. This mindset aligns with the theory that internalized colonialism can lead communities to “develop an admiration for the colonizer’s culture” which can continue for generations (Utsey et al., 2015, p. 199). Since Western culture has had an impact on shaping Rwanda, naturally Rwandans will be curious and grow fond of such an influential culture in their country’s history. This might explain why Rwandans seemed to want to learn about my culture. This motivated me to share about my Canadian culture as long as their curiosity remains at a healthy level and does not create harmful norms of Western idolization such as the findings from the research in Jamaica. 

While learning of internalized colonialism was insightful, I am still left wondering why this curiosity and admiration can become obsessive at times. As I mentioned earlier, colonialism was a harmful time in history for many African communities and resulted in many African oppression and unaddressed trauma. I struggled to understand how there can still be such a strong desire to obsess over White Westerners despite the harmful history between the two people groups or cultures. I was speaking with my host siblings about how men will often say that they love me on the street. My host sister brought up the role of social media as a cause for this behavior. She explained that for so many Rwandans, the majority of the media they are exposed to is from the West and is white-dominated. Movies set in the United States and North American influencers on social media portray a near-perfect lifestyle with unlimited resources and freedom.  

Due to the disproportionate White representation on social media, there is a “normalization and universalization of Whiteness” on social media (Frey et al., 2022 p. 926).  Whether this is intentional or not, there is a common sentiment of global coloniality that describes the power given to the Global North rather than the Global South (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2014, p. 181). Even in predominately Black communities, the effects of global coloniality in social media continue and are accepted as normal by those on the receiving end of this Western-based media. Large and successful Western influencers have their content pushed to the top of social media users’ feeds and heavily influence the global mindset of other cultures (Frey, p. 927). Given that the number of large influencers is disproportionately White, there are many people from my community in Rwanda who are exposed to this White-based content and associate success with the color of these influencers’ skin. I found that other scholars have found similar conclusions regarding the impact of White media as Guzzetti agrees with Frey that White-based media in international contexts creates a “form of exclusion” resulting in disempowerment (Guzzetti, 2022, p. 135).  Emphasizing the White influencers can lead other ethnic groups to feel undervalued and idolize other cultures.  

There is a strong link between the negative impacts of White-lead media and the way in which I received treatment of obsessive admiration. Since so many young Rwandans are only exposed to White people through unrealistic movies and fabricated overly successful social media influencers, I can understand that when they see a White person in their community, they could assume that I too live in that idealistic lifestyle. While this explanation does not make me any less frustrated when I get followed or when the young men constantly call out to me, I appreciate being able to understand some possible reasons and factors that are influencing this behavior.  

I am aware that there are many possible factors in each person’s individual decision-making process for how they treat me. However, I observed that the combination of internalized colonialism and the presence of White-based media in Rwanda was a helpful place to begin to explain the way I was treated there. The influence of colonialism has shaped some people of Rwanda and the perspective of White people and their assumptions and curiosity regarding their culture. On the other hand, the media has influenced my interactions with White admiration as it places an idealistic spotlight on the West. As a PACS (Peace and Conflict Studies) student, I value the importance of understanding the reasoning behind the actions and assumptions of others, especially when in a cross-cultural situation. I want to ensure that rather than becoming easily offended and angry at behaviors that would perhaps be unacceptable in Canada, I can respond with compassion and a sense of understanding while also ensuring that I do not condone or encourage any negative treatment. I was careful to respect my boundaries and comfort level with the attention I received and at times, I needed to spend some time alone or to avoid meeting certain people on the street. However, through researching the history and implications of being a White person living in Africa, I could respect and acknowledge the perspective of many local people when they see me for the first time.  


Frey, W.R., Ward, L.M., Weiss, A. and Cogburn, C.D. (2022), Digital White Racial Socialization: Social Media and the Case of Whiteness. J Res Adolesc, 32: 919-937. 

Guzzetti BJ. Stories of a Healing Way: A Navajo Woman’s Media Production for Cultural Representation and Identification. Reading research quarterly. 2022;57(1):131-148. doi:10.1002/rrq.377. 

Mehu, M. (2018). A Colony’s State of Sovereignty: Decolonization Has Yet to Take Place in Rwanda. City University of New York. Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects.  

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. (2014). Global Coloniality and the Challenges of Creating African Futures. Strategic Review for Southern Africa, 36(2), 181-202. Retrieved from 

Tafari-Ama, I. (2016). Historical Sociology of Beauty Practices: Internalized racism, skin bleaching and hair straightening. Ideaz, 14, 1-19,150. Retrieved from 

Utsey, S. O., Abrams, J. A., Opare-Henaku, A., Bolden, M. A., & Williams, O. (2015). Assessing the Psychological Consequences of Internalized Colonialism on the Psychological Well-Being of Young Adults in Ghana. Journal of Black Psychology, 41(3), 195–220.