Last month, the Journal of Hospital Medicine published an article titled, “Tribalism: The Good, the Bad, and the Future.” It proposed strategies for medical professionals to overcome some of the natural group clustering that occurs in any large workspace: launch interdepartmental projects, socialize outside of the office, etc.
Blandly inoffensive, right? Wrong.
The article’s authors issued an apology last week for using insensitive language and thus committing a microaggression against marginalized people. “Despite pre- and post-acceptance manuscript review and discussion by a diverse and thoughtful team of editors, we did not appreciate how particular language in this article would be hurtful to some communities,” they wrote in a statement.
The problem, evidently, was the use of the words tribe and tribalism. While no one who reviewed or edited the piece within the Journal itself had any objection to this terminology—which is widely used in the media, particularly political journalism—a few people on Twitter complained about it. In response, the writers unpublished the article, purged the offensive words, and republished it with silos and siloing in place of tribes and tribalism.
The authors explain:
From this experience, we learned that the words “tribe” and “tribalism” have no consistent meaning, are associated with negative historical and cultural assumptions, and can promote misleading stereotypes.4 The term “tribe” became popular as a colonial construct to describe forms of social organization considered “uncivilized” or “primitive.” In using the term “tribe” to describe members of medical communities, we ignored the complex and dynamic identities of Native American, African, and other Indigenous Peoples and the history of their oppression.
Their statement links to a Learning for Justice article on “The Trouble With Tribe.” But this piece doesn’t make a very strong argument that tribe fails as an apt metaphor: It really just objects to the Western practice of associating African peoples with the word. Tribe may be an imprecise way to refer to groups of Africans, Native Americans, or other Indigenous people who suffered colonization—it may not fit their actual culture or living arrangements—but that’s really a different matter from saying the word itself is offensive.
Another article consulted by the Journal—an op-ed in The Washington Post—says that tribalism fails as proper terminology because it’s historically inaccurate:
But there’s a significant problem with using the words “tribal” and “tribalism” to describe this trend: The usage is historically inaccurate when you consider the actual behavior of indigenous peoples, whether African, Native American or Asian. The current use of “tribal” is based on a racist stereotype about how groups of such peoples have interacted historically, and even today.
I know something about “tribalism,” since I was born and raised in Kenya, a country made up of 44 different ethnic groups. My parents are Kikuyu, but they raised my siblings and me in a cosmopolitan, urban environment. My experience with tribes, and my historical knowledge of them, do not resemble what I read about in the writings of political pundits.