Tribalism is a Social
Tribes, tribalism, savages – these are but a few of the
Western stereotypical images of Africans and
Such images appear widely in the Western world’s
output of film and print media. Historically,
through films and books, evidence of bigotry
toward Africans existed long before slaves came to
the “New World”.
Imperialists wish to impose their culture and
denigrate rural African culture in the process
Early Film Perpetuated
Among the first movements in film was the
travelogue, or safari film, of the 1920s.
In these films, the filmmakers portrayed people of
indigenous cultures as more primitive, bringing a
taste of the exotic to Western audiences.
Portraying indigenous cultures in this way also had
the effect of validating the belief system of Western
viewers, which unfortunately did not consider
Africans as peers, but rather primitive and
Frederick Jackson Turner
During Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency (1901-
1909), the “back to nature” movement was in full
Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian during this
era, published a paper on the importance of the
American frontier in shaping the character of the
His frontier thesis put forth the notion that in order
to progress, a man must first regress.
Is King Kong simply an action film, or does the
film carry racist undertones?
The film is replete with blatant metaphors of the
jungle savages of Africa.
Even when Kong becomes a sympathetic figure, he
is still an ape, in love with a White woman.
As disheartening as it may be, viewers at the time
likely considered Kong to be representative of a
crazed Black man.
The writing and reporting during the Kenya conflict
consistently used the words “tribes” and “tribal”
with no thought of the images that were being
generated of Africa and Africans.
The crisis captured the attention of the Western
media and population alike.
The Western media has a responsibility to cover
these conflict without perpetuating social constructs
that depict Africans as patriarchal nepotistic people.
Why Tribal Stereotypes are
Tribalism is associated with savagery.
This practice of labeling other cultures as tribal is an
elitist, vague and misrepresentative depiction.
The Maasia of Kenya live in rural villages.
The Maasia take great pride in their way of life.
To label them a tribe is shortsighted and
disrespectful, because Westerners define groups like
Tribal Labels Place No Emphasis
on the Individual
The diversity that exists within a group like the
Maasai, while not a priority to them, is something
that Westerners are obligated to take into
Living a communal life means so much more to the
Maasai than the it does to outside observers and
could never be summed up by one word.
Individuality in Africa is not appreciated by
Western Media. How many African individuals can
you name? Nelson Mandela… and, um…
Western Policy Regarding African
Conflicts is One Dimensional in Aproach
Whether dealing with Kenya, Rwanda,
Sudan or any other African nation that
experiences a conflict with ethnic
dimensions, the U.S. should ground its
policies in an implied understanding of
the particular context of each situation
rather than allowing the misleading and
simplistic “tribal conflict” interpretation
that so often enables policymakers to
African Self Image
Many Africans will refer to themselves as “tribes
people” when asked to speak about themselves in
The language probably does little to change African
self-image; every person, regardless of origin, has a
sense of their own individuality.
Westerners are incapable of defining non-Western
life. Western sensibilities are not “correct”, per se.
The reason we label others is that it gives us the
opportunity to rank and categorize them.
Scholarly Attitudes Regarding the
Stereotyping of Cultures
Today top scholars who study African society from
within, and from afar--agree that the idea of tribe
promotes misleading stereotypes.
What a tribe is can not be clearly defined.
It carries misleading historical and cultural
It blocks an accurate view of African reality.
African Aid is Misappropriated Due
At best, any interpretation of African events that
relies on the idea of “tribe” contributes no
understanding of specific issues in specific
At worst, it perpetuates the idea that African
identities and conflicts are in some way more
"primitive" than those in other parts of the world.
Such misunderstanding lead to inappropriate,
blanket solutions to complex problems.
Label Africans as We Label
Whatever the term one uses, it is essential to
understand that identities in Africa are as diverse,
ambiguous, complex, and modern.
Africa is the fastest developing continent in the
Without a deeper understanding of the African
world view, the rest of the world will struggle to
assist Africans to regain what the world has
Zulus, Hutus, Tutsi,
Life as a Zulu and life as a Tutsi are completely
Maasia and Hutu have little more in common than
the color of their skin.
The diversity that exists, even within these cultural
groups, and the distinctions that make them each
unique, are not often celebrated by Western media.
Western media has a responsibility to its audience.
When a blanket term, such as “tribal” is used to
define groups who are so obviously diverse, it
creates apathy among Westerners toward specific
and important issues.
Africa needs our help. In order to ensure that the
effect of Western aid is maximized, each situation
should be addressed specifically.
Terminology, for the innocent, can confuse and
muddle our understanding.
In some cases, terminology is used as a mechanism
to promote our elitist self-image by degrading
Africans should consider no longer using words like
“tribal”. The image that Westerners have of Africa
is crucial to the continents revival.