Revulsion against the use of the word “tribe” to exclusively refer to black and brown people in the world dates back to at least the 1960s, and most careful writers avoid the word. I have written several articles to call attention to the pejorative, even racist, signification of the word and to discourage its use. Ingrained linguistic habits die hard, so I don’t expect that pointing out the racist denotations and connotations of the word will cause people to stop using it.
My inspiration to revisit the issue came from a Twitter spat I had with a Dr. Joe Abah whom I later learned is a former director-general of Nigeria’s Bureau of Public Service Reforms. In early September, he wrote the following tweet: “I am not a ‘detribalized Nigerian.’ I have a tribe. I am Igbo. Even my soul is Igbo. I am more likely to resurrect from the dead at the sound of the Ogene than Angel Gabriel’s trumpet. I am proudly Igbo, but I am not a bigoted Nigerian. Important difference!”
The tweet appeared on my Twitter feed, and I thought it provided an opportunity to once again call attention to the inappropriateness of the term “tribe” to refer to any group of people. So I tweeted: “Tribe means a group of primitive, preliterate people. Modern Igbo are clearly not a tribe. Detribalize… means to civilize, to take away from a tribal, i.e., primitive setting to a civilized setting, as the British did to some Aborigines in Australia.”
And all hell broke loose. Apparently, hell has no fury like a self-important lawyer publicly corrected! Abah blazed away at me with snarky, ill-informed remarks and even blocked me for a while. My tweet was swarmed with his supporters who barracked him, retweeted his comebacks, and insulted me. Twitter is no forum for reasoned intellectual exchange.
Denotative meaning of “Tribe”
Oxford Dictionary’s definition of “tribe,” which Abah posted to defend his use of the word and to counter my objection to his use of it, says tribe is, “A social division in a traditional society consisting of families, or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties with a common culture and dialect.” Cambridge Dictionary defines it as, “a group of people, often of related families, who live together, sharing the same language, culture, and history, especially those who do not live in towns or cities.”
So even at the basic, denotative level, it’s hard to find modern people, except perhaps the Koma people in former Gongola, who fall within these definitional categories. Let’s take the Igbo as an example. Contemporary Igbo society isn’t a traditional society. Not all Igbos are related by blood or by marriage. In fact, most are not. There are millions of Igbo people, and it’s impossible for all of them to be related by blood or by marriage. And Igbos certainly don’t all speak the same dialect of their common language. Some Igbo dialects are, in fact, mutually unintelligible.
The Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of tribe also doesn’t entirely describe the Igbo people. Although they have a common language and culture, Igbos are not all related by families, don’t have a common history (Nsukka and Onitsha Igbo, for instance, trace descent to Igala and Benin respectively) and don’t all live in villages. What I said of the Igbos is true of most ethnic groups in Nigeria and in Africa.
Even Achebe said Igbos not a “Tribe”
Before I turn to the connotative meaning of “tribe” it’s good to point out that Chinua Achebe, the most prominent novelist to emerge from Africa, who is Igbo, took exception to his people being called a “tribe.” In his collection of essays titled Home and Exile, Achebe quoted Oxford Dictionary’s earlier definition of tribe, which went as follows: “group of (esp. primitive) families or communities linked by social, religious or blood ties and usually having a common culture and dialect and a recognized leader.”
Achebe said this definition was woefully deficient in describing his people, insisting that “nation,” which the Oxford Dictionary of the time defined as “a community of people of mainly common descent, history or language, etc., forming a state or inhabiting a territory,” is a better word. “I like it [i.e., the word ‘nation’] because, unlike the word tribe, which was given to me, nation is not loaded or derogatory, and there is really no good reason to continue answering a derogatory name simply because somebody has given it to you,” Achebe wrote.
During my undergraduate studies at the Bayero University in Kano, most of our teachers in the humanities and the social sciences discouraged students from using the word “tribe” to describe ethnic groups. In fact, many had a grading policy to deduct points from students who used the word. I was shocked that Abah, who appears to be either my contemporary or older, had no clue that “tribe” was a derogatory word that educated, self-aware Africans resent and avoid.
“Tribe” means primitive, uncivilized people
The trouble with the word tribe isn’t just that it no longer adequately describes any modern people, it also carries with it connotations of primitivism. Even the latest edition of Oxford Dictionary, whose definition Abah cited, admitted, in its usage note, that the word is pejorative.
It says, “In historical contexts the word tribe is broadly accepted (the area was inhabited by Slavic tribes), but in contemporary contexts it is problematic when used to refer to a community living within a traditional society. It is strongly associated with past attitudes of white colonialists towards so-called primitive or uncivilized peoples living in remote undeveloped places. For this reason it is generally preferable to use alternative terms such as community or people.”
That was why when former US President Bill Clinton visited Nigeria and other African countries in 1998, experts told him to steer clear of the word “tribe” and its inflections such as “tribal,” “tribalism,” “tribalistic,” etc.
An influential web-only American newspaper called Politico contrasted Clinton’s studied avoidance of the word “tribe” and Obama’s liberal use of it. “Keep in mind that the word ‘tribal conflict’ is extremely insulting to Africans,” the paper quoted a scholar by the name of Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to have told American reporters who would cover the presidential visit. “Don’t write about ‘century-old tribal conflicts in African countries’… Yet, when Obama uttered the phrase ‘tribal conflicts’ at a press conference Friday as he discussed his planned trip to Africa, it went virtually unremarked upon. So, too did several references he made in his Ghana speech to battles among ‘tribes.’” “Another president,” the paper concluded, “might have been accused of racism…”
In 2009, I caused CNN International to eliminate the use of the word “tribe” from its style guide. I told its chief copy editor at the time that although most Africans refer to themselves as “tribes,” they do so in ignorance. I showed him anthropological literature that affirms that the word is straight-up belittling. He was persuaded. This shows that many, perhaps most, contemporary white people who call nonwhite people “tribes” don’t intend to cause offense. They are simply the products of their prevailing sociolinguistic cultures, which take the inferiority of nonwhite people as a given.
Most people also don’t know that one of the reasons the national anthem we inherited from British colonialists was discarded in 1978 was that it contained the word “tribe” in it. The third line of the anthem has the following words: “Though tribe and tongue may differ.” Nationalists called out the colonialist condescension in calling us “tribes.” Sadly, in 2018, our elites not only still call us “tribes”; they defend doing so. Lillian Jean Williams, the British colonial who wrote the anthem, would be proud.
In my August 3, 2014 column titled, “5 Words Native English Speakers Never Ever Use for Themselves,” I pointed out that, “No modern person of European descent belongs to a ‘tribe.’ Only nonwhite people do. The only occasions when native English speakers use ‘tribe’ to talk about themselves is when they talk about their dim and distant past, as in ‘the Germanic tribes that invaded England in prehistoric times’ or the ‘12 tribes of Israel.’ The other occasion is when they use the word figuratively, as in ‘tribes of journalists gathered there,’ etc.”
Many people who are reluctant to give up the word say although “tribe” is clearly derogatory, Nigerians have appropriated and resemanticized it, that is, have adopted and given it a new, non-derogatory meaning. That may be so, but I come to grammar from a communication standpoint. To effectively communicate, you have to speak the same language and the same codes. Native English speakers would never call themselves “tribes” and understand the word to mean a group of primitive, nonwhite people who are still stuck at the lower end of the civilizational hierarchy.
You may understand the word differently, but if you tell a native speaker you belong to a tribe, you are inadvertently authorizing your inferiorization. That’s why when anybody asks me, “What is your tribe?” I always say, “You mean my ethnic group? I don’t belong to a tribe.”