Of Tribe And Pride: Deconstructing Alibi's Alibis For Racial Self-Hatred

Farooq Kperogi

I read Mr. Idang Alibi's response to my article entitled "What's my Tribe? None" with both amusement and bemusement. I was amused by what seems to me Alibi's now all-too-predictable predilection to invoke new alibis (no pun intended) to think the worst of Africans and bemused by his cherry-picking and distortion of my arguments to make his case.

Yet I know Mr. Alibi well enough to know that he is a good-natured, well-intentioned and clear-headed reservoir of great intellectual strength who would not deliberately set out to misrepresent my views. So what happened? Well, he was probably undergoing that familiar instinctive reaction that people evince when their settled certainties have been rudely ruptured. They go from disbelief, to denial, to anger, to introspection and possibly to acceptance.

For the benefit of people who have not had the benefit to read my original essay, my basic arguments are these: the word "tribe" is a pejorative label that Europeans reserve to describe non-Western ethnicities. The word is never used to describe Europeans and their descendants, except to advert to their dim and distant past. I argued that the subliminal import of this is: the past of the West is the present of the rest.

I therefore made the case, which has been made for several decades by countless scholars, that we should abandon the use of the word "tribe" to describe our cultural and linguistic formations in preference for more dignifying alternatives like "ethnic group," "community," "ethnic nationality," "nation," etc.

Now, although my argument encompasses the vast gamut of non-Western peoples who are held prisoner by this odious "naming practice," Mr. Alibi chose to understand my argument as being limited to Africa. He then proceeded on the basis of this faulty premise to theatrically avow his pride in belonging to some "tribe" in southern Nigeria, although I never argued anywhere in my piece that we should not be proud of who we are. Nor did I argue that we should erase our primordial identities.

So, in a grotesque simplification, he conflated my denunciation of the racist underpinnings of the word "tribe" with a lack of pride in our primordial identities. He failed to realize that it is the word I am rejecting, not the identity that the word incompetently describes at best and denigrates at worst.

If Alibi had read my article carefully, he would have realized that I made my case by first defining my terms. It was the French philosopher Francois Voltaire who once said, "If you want to converse with me, first define your terms."

I pointed out that even the Oxford dictionary admits that the word "tribe" is "sometimes offensive" and that it is used exclusively to describe peoples of "developing countries." I also pointed out that other English dictionaries define a "tribe" as a "social division of preliterate people."

So, even the English who "own" their language and codified it in their dictionaries concede that "tribe" is pejorative and discriminatory. Again, I cited one of several (white) scholars who take issue with the use of the word "tribe" to describe the people of Africa, Latin America, American Indians, etc.

Alibi didn't contest the accuracy of the dictionary definitions of "tribe," or engage with my interpretations of the dictionary definitions, or even confront the arguments of scholars who said the word should be trashed.

All Alibi did was to proceed, on the basis of the predetermined self-hating frames of reference he has sadly internalized, to commit what people who make a living by esoteric erudition call "vulgar empiricism" or "naïve pragmatism." These phrases are often used to describe the predisposition by some people to mistake symptoms for causes, or to "unproblematically" inaugurate surface impressions as substitutes for or representations of the deep structures that underlie these surface impressions.

For instance, when you dip a pen in a bucket of water, it usually looks bent. That is the impression that our sense of sight registers. But the pen is not really bent; its contorted appearance is an optical illusion, in much the same way as the mirage creates an illusion in which atmospheric refraction by a layer of hot air distorts or inverts reflections of distant objects. A vulgar empiricist or a naïve pragmatist would argue that the pen is a bent object or that because he can see a mirage, it must truly exist.

How did Mr. Alibi apply these notions in his analysis? In a variety of ways. He said, for instance, that if we are ashamed of the word "tribe," we should change our ways. This argument is faulty on many levels. First, it's not a question of shame or pride. It's simply a question of laying bare the power dimensions in a "naming practice" that unfairly ridicules a broad swath of humanity.

Second, the deployment of the word "tribe" to describe non-Western peoples is not a function of their state of development; it's a function of the notion of their "difference." (The normative descriptors Westerners use to encapsulate notions of slow or inferior "development" are "Third World," "developing countries," etc with which I have no problems whatsoever).

That is precisely why the word "detribalize" (or its inflection "detribalization"), which Nigerians misuse to denote freedom from compulsive or irrational ethnic loyalties, means "the act of causing tribal people to abandon their customs and adopt urban ways of living." In other words, it means Westernization or cultural annihilation.

Third, it's not only Africans who are pigeonholed as "tribes" by the Western media. Other non-Western peoples who feel violated by the nomenclatural despotism of the word are also resisting it. For instance, it has become customary these days for the Western media to refer to community leaders in Pakistan and the Arab word as "tribal leaders." Middle East intellectuals now protest these labels too. Similarly, the Native American populations whom white Americans habitually call "tribes," refer to themselves as "nations."

But if we go by Mr. Alibi's logic, more than half of the human family who are invidiously stereotyped as "tribes" by the white power structure should just go and examine themselves and change their ways so that they may some day "evolve" to "nations" or "ethnic groups" like Westerners.

Well, given Mr. Alibi's well-known fondness for racial self-hatred (recall his notoriously offensive support for James Watson who said Africans are intellectually inferior?), he would probably argue that since Africans occupy the lowest point in the "civilizational" totem pole, only they deserve to be stereotyped as "tribes." Until we put our house in order, Alibi says, we should learn to be content with being condemned to the worst forms of denigration. It amounts to inferiority complex for us to complain, he says. Hmm. Some logic!

Alibi rightly bemoans the endemic violence in our polity but wrongly invokes it as a reason we deserve to be called "tribes." Violence is not exclusive to Africa. Yugoslavia was gripped by a long-drawn fratricidal murdering spree. Northern Ireland is also still held hostage by episodic fits of communal violence. They were/are not called "tribes" on account of these facts. Belgium is still torn by the kind of primordial animosities that the West associates with African polities. Yet they are not called "tribes." Conversely, many parts of the developing world that are catching up "developmentally" with the West and that are not wracked by ethnic violence are still stereotyped as "tribal" societies. How does Alibi reconcile these facts?

This is a fight against the linguistic manifestation of or justification for oppression - and nothing more. By accepting the label "tribe" we legitimize the Western hegemonic consensus that reproduces narratives of our alterity and we therefore unwittingly participate in our own marginalization. As the Italian scholar Alberto Melucci argues, the real domination in contemporary society is the "exclusion from the power of naming."

My pleasure is that my intervention has already yielded modest results. A week after my initial article was posted on the Internet I got an email from the Chief Copy Editor of CNN International, James Schiffman, informing me that he would ban the use of the word "tribe" from CNN scripts. I am reproducing the full email below:

"Hi Farooq: I've been meaning to write-- I really enjoyed your piece on the word 'tribe.' We've actually puzzled about that with regard to Kenya and were assured by our people there that tribe was the appropriate word. But based on your piece, I'm going to ban the word and have our scripts talk about ethnic groups and not tribes.

"By the way, it may interest you to know that Jews, when speaking among themselves, use the word in the same way American blacks use the 'N' word. As in, you run into somebody and ask 'Are you a member of the tribe?' It would be highly offensive for a non-Jew to say that to a Jew. Language is funny, huh?"

So there you have it. While an African is straining very hard to defend and authorize his lingual denigration and dehumanization, a white American has already been persuaded by my modest efforts to draw attention to the semiotic oppression that inheres in the word "tribe."

But people who are familiar with Alibi's antecedents are not the least bit surprised. This is a man who once wrote that he is "so ashamed of" of his blackness that he "sometimes" feels that "I ought to have belonged to another race." Yet he talks about his pride in his "tribe." Some pride indeed!

Visit my blog at www.farooqkperogi.blogspot.com

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Re: Of Tribe And Pride: Deconstructing Alibi`s Alibis For Racial Self-Hatred
PAPIG posted on 03-28-2009, 15:49:41 PM
What can one say?

You would have thought that a patently superior argument would carry the day at least among people who profess to have above average cerebral abilities. But the world can be a very strange place.

May be this explains the confusion (or is it depravity?) of a black African academic of social studies, who chooses to lighten his/her skin colour using a caustic bleaching cream, he/she is well aware predisposes him/her to skin cancer.

An innate inferiority complex may not be mitigated by academic or intellectual excellence. Be very wary of people who have stopped learning.

Thanks for the enlightenment.
Re: Of Tribe And Pride: Deconstructing Alibi`s Alibis For Racial Self-Hatred
Pius72 posted on 03-28-2009, 15:54:29 PM
Idang Alibi needs to research this thing. He should look at the first chapter of Ngugi wa Thiong'o's new book, Something Torn and New. That should, hopefully, help him understand what Farooq and Moses Ochonu are trying to say about the politics of naming. He should also look up the history of the academic discipline called Anthropolgy - especially in Britain and France. He should pay attention to why that discipline was urgently invented by academe in those two countries at the onset of the colonial adventure. He should focus on why the said discipline needed to invent "tribes" and "dialects". Mr Alibi will not like the first chapter of Ngugi's new book. He'll see himself in it. I've learnt something from this back and forth between Farooq and Mr Alibi. So many things we take for granted in academia hardly get beyond that bubble. "Tribe" is in such bad taste in academia that one assumes that everyone understands that it's a horrible word. I didn't think it would take Farooq two articles - and possibly more - to get such an obvious fact across. Overall: nice exchanges between Alibi and Farooq!

Pius Adesanmi
Re: Of Tribe And Pride: Deconstructing Alibi`s Alibis For Racial Self-Hatred
Farooqkperogi posted on 03-28-2009, 17:16:33 PM
Thanks, Pius. You made a very important observation: that there is a HUGE disconnect between taken-for-granted assumptions in the academe and the reality of the "real-world." That's precisely the motivation for my intervention. While no respectable scholar uses the word "tribe" to describe Africans and other non-Western peoples any longer, many Africans use the word to describe their ethnicities so freely it makes me cringe in embarrassment.

It may be too late to get Alibi and his ilk to abandon their personal investment in that odious word, but we can at least educate younger people to understand the power of symbols and naming and perhaps persuade them to discontinue, even resist, use of terms that denigrate our people.
Re: Of Tribe And Pride: Deconstructing Alibi`s Alibis For Racial Self-Hatred
Ebe posted on 03-28-2009, 18:00:00 PM

You're absolutely right about the chasm between academe and the wider world. In some ways, the conversations of academe are incestuous ivory tower chatter and their relevant quotidian implications are lost to the world outside. Unfortunately, that's the world that needs the enlightenment.

That said, I am not entirely sure that in the case of Alibi, this is the culprit. I am not sure that his affliction is ignorance of the discredited trajectory of "tribe." His case seems more like that of a man steeped in self-hate. For him, tribe functions as a signifier of how he perceives himself (and by extension his and other African groups) vis a vis the Euro-American caucasian zone. It is clear that in this simplistic, self-violating cultural imagination of his, tribe is the great demarcator, which underlines present inadequacy (of Africans), the pragmatic acceptance of which may point the way to evolution towards "ethnic nationhood" and its supposed civilizational attributes.

He seems to be arguing that African ethnic collectivities deserve the label of tribe because of their inadequacy, backwardness, and inferiority, and that until they prove themselves worthy and measure up to some idyllic civilizational standard exemplified by Euro-America, they ought to remain "tribes" while Europeans remain ethnicities and nations.

It seems to me that, to make such a bizarre argument, you have to be at least aware of what tribe signifies in modern usage and its history in Orientalizing, colonial-anthropological, and hegemonic enterprises.

Sorry, but I am not inclined to cut Alibi any slack as I suspect that his obsession with "tribal" identity comes from a much deeper personal place. If you read his outrageous donation of "native" authenticity and credibility to Dr. Watson's racist outburst (referenced by Farooq), perhaps you'll agree with me on this point.
Re: Of Tribe And Pride: Deconstructing Alibi`s Alibis For Racial Self-Hatred
Austin posted on 03-28-2009, 18:11:19 PM
Thank you for a job very well done. Yours is by far more convincing, even to those of us who do not need convincing.
Re: Of Tribe And Pride: Deconstructing Alibi`s Alibis For Racial Self-Hatred
Farooqkperogi posted on 03-28-2009, 18:25:48 PM

That's an insightful perspective. However, I think Alibi's problem is the consequence both of (innocent) ignorance (initially, that is) and an internalization of the notion of his inferiority vis-a-vis white people. These two strains in his thoughts are in dialectical tension.

From his responses, it is obvious he had never been aware that "tribe" is a contested category; that scholars have expended stupendous scholarly energies to call attention to its racist significations over several decades. It was my essay obviously that jolted him to that reality, although this is a dead debate in the academe.

At the same time, because he has so thoroughly come to terms with, and even celebrates, his marginality as an African he is unwilling to be persuaded of the propriety of abandoning the racist signifier that "tribe" is. So ignorance and inferiority have become mutually reinforcing forces that animate his comical, intellectually bankrupt responses.
Re: Of Tribe And Pride: Deconstructing Alibi`s Alibis For Racial Self-Hatred
DeepThought posted on 03-28-2009, 21:55:00 PM
Calling a monkey a monkey is not offensive.
Calling a man a monkey is.

There are societies clearly still stuck at the tribal stage of evolution and calling those tribes, to my way of thinking is not being condescending.

The problem as I see it is when we erronously call highly evolved ethnic nationalities or ethnic groups, clearly at the post tribal stage of development, "tribes" simply on grounds of race.

Are there still tribes in Africa?
Definitely, though vanishing. There are very few African societies still at this stage of evolution

Are there post tribal societies in Africa?
Definitely and mostly so. Most societies in Nigeria that I know of are very much beyond the tribal state. Perhaps few like the recently "discovered" Koma people may still be correctly refered to as tribal. But to refer to as "tribal" highly organized and functional ancient empires which possibly predated many European societies, but which were toppled by barbaric means such as war, is clearly ignorant.

The European typically doesn't make that distinction, to them, we're all tribal.
This is not a problem for a person like me, I don't really care that much or expect much from the typical European, but this attitude is a big problem when members of those same post tribal ethnic groups that are being denigrated actually agree that they are "tribal" and begin to think like Europeans about themselves.

Now lets look at the tribal situation as applies to Europe.

Are there tribal groups in Europe?
By many standards, YES!
There is a matrix of metrics that can be used to define a tribal society and the use of technology is an important benchmark in the evolution of societies and a milestone which helps in seperating the tribal from the non tribal; but that is not the only benchmark.

Things like language, size, geography e.t.c help to define a tribal society.
Clearly, when we apply these metrics to some European societies, even with access to all the technology in the world, we know they are tribes.
Re: Of Tribe And Pride: Deconstructing Alibi`s Alibis For Racial Self-Hatred
Eire posted on 03-29-2009, 06:50:22 AM
Mr. Kperogi,

I think Idang Alibi saw through you like me and many other Nigerians did, especially after some articles you wrote a while ago in Ireland and in the US about 419 and Nigerians. Those were the most unbalanced, myopic and ill-informed case of inferiority aimed at appeasing the western medial cabal and its people.

Those articles did not have enough balance for example like David Mark's comments recently to the Irish delegation visiting Nigeria...Mark said "Nigeria has no apology for 419 victims" because they are themselves fraudsters with the original intention of defrauding their victims who are black Africans they think are stupid. These victims are protected by their home governments even if there actually committed crimes like attempted fraud and money laundry.

People like you are an example of what a nigerian should not be, you certainly do not represent a Nigerian nationalistic cause, you are the sort that the CIA or MI6 might recruit to spy for them in Nigeria.

You have written more negative and stereotypical articles about Nigeria than CNN and BBC have, you had the pleasure because you are a Nigerian.

I don't know what drives you but using the stamp of "calling a spade a spade" is a bit stale right now, you need new materials as the more your drivels get out of hand the more people see clearer about your real intentions.

I will like to hear what you actually say about Nigeria and Nigerians when you are in the company of non-Nigerians. uncle TOM comes to mind.
Re: Of Tribe And Pride: Deconstructing Alibi`s Alibis For Racial Self-Hatred
Farooqkperogi posted on 03-29-2009, 12:22:01 PM

What has what you wrote above got to do with anything? Yes, I wrote about 419 several times--both bemoaning how the participation of a minority of Nigerians in the scam has tarnished our image and pointing out also that it is not the most prevalent form of Internet scam; that Americans, in fact, perpetuate over 70 percent of Internet scams.

But what has this got to do with my discussion on "tribe"? Do you have any refutations of my take on "tribe"? What are they? Or are you saying because I had condemned scams committed by Nigerians in the past I have lost the moral authority to protest the linguistic manifestation of the oppression of non-Western peoples? Na wa for how some of my compatriots reason.
Re: Of Tribe And Pride: Deconstructing Alibi`s Alibis For Racial Self-Hatred
Pius72 posted on 03-29-2009, 12:36:07 PM

I just wrote in another thread about the depressing degree of ignorance that sometimes passes for commentary here. It's scary. And this Eire was in that thread, condemning a genre of writing that s/he doesn't even appear to understand. I guess dealing with some of these appalling, pseudonymous 'commentaries' comes with the territory in a forum of this nature. Look at some "comments" Moses Ochonu had to contend with in his own piece! The consolation is you do come across some that inform and enrich you even while disagreeing with you in substance.

Pius Adesanmi
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