The connection between tribe and racism

Updated: Jun 26




It is important to define tribe before tribalism because an attempt will be made to highlight the parallels between these words and how they have influenced and continue to inform our understanding of racism.


The English Oxford Dictionary defines a tribe as “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, typically having a recognized leader.”[1]


This standard definition uses words like traditional, dialect, and blood ties. Unfortunately, this idea of the tribe is somehow different from an ethnic group has persisted over time because those who coined the term we're trying to distinguish between the more advanced western ethnic groups compared to the primitive, less developed tribal people in other parts of the word.


This is why the Oxford Dictionary had to make this statement in an attempt to sanitize the word tribe and place it in its proper historical context. 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 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.”[2]


In other words, the word tribe was used in the past to justify calling other people primitive and uncivilized. These attitudes of the past have persisted to date because some of these negative stereotypes about people from different parts of the world still persist. Many people still look at them using this distorted tribal lens.


The Oxford dictionary is clearly advocating that the use of the term to tribe should be dropped and replaced by “community or people.” This is a step in the right direction, but it is not good enough because it has not gone far enough.

I say this has not gone far enough because there is no reason why the word “ethnic” should not be used to refer to subgroups of people, as is the case when referring to subgroups in the west. It is unfortunate that this colonial, biased, tinted name is still popularly being used when talking about people from different parts of the world.


Take, for example, when there was war in the Balkan that led to ethnic cleansing, no single news outlet described what happened in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo as some sort of tribal conflict. None. It was rightfully called an ethnic conflict.


But when there was a genocide in Rwanda, people were quick to report about the Tutsi and Hutu tribes cutting each other’s throats. The question is, what makes one sub-group of people a tribe and the other an ethnic group? The answer is obvious, but has been ignored and is still being ignored by many. They still continue to call Africans and other so-called uncivilized and primitive people “tribe” for lack of a better term. This is totally unacceptable in this day and age.


While the average person may not care about these subtle relics of stereotypes and bias, it is important to understand the contribution of such classifications on the prevalence of ethnocentrism, discrimination, and racism.

If you take a look at Oxford Dictionary’s definition of “ethnic”, you will understand the point I am trying to make here. Ethnic is defined as “relating to a population subgroup (within a larger or dominant national or cultural group) with a common national or cultural tradition.”[3]


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, typically having a recognized leader.”[4]


There is a lot in common between the two. Where you start finding some digression is the idea of blood ties, traditional society, religion, etc., but one can argue that all the so-called ethnic groups have blood ties and share a dominant religion as well. Then why interject tradition in the definition of the tribe to make it become something that it is not?


Traditional does not mean primitive, uncivilized, and backward as many mistakenly think. Traditional, in its purest sense, similarly means that an environment is in its original or natural state and has not been adulterated. How come this has been spun to mean something else? Just because something is in its natural state does not make it primitive and uncivilized.

I have taken a long run to try and explain where I am going because the final objective is to eliminate “tribe” the way it is currently being used to describe the African people and other so-called “primitive and uncivilized people” and replace it with “ethnic” because this is the proper way to look at it.


Now that we have established that the world is made up of different ethnic groups, I am going to circle back to tribalism and look at its propensity to lead to racism.

[1] English Oxford Living Dictionaries [2] English Oxford Living Dictionaries [3] English Oxford Living Dictionaries [4] English Oxford Living Dictionaries