Social Identity is a conceptual framework designed to create meaning, distinction and with the goal of strengthening the sense of belonging while promoting – mutual – growth. In this case, a tribe, a race or a nation gives a generic identity to an individual in which he defines himself.
Identity, it follows, is founded ironically on a simple principle: the identical. That is, he looks like me, thinks like me, has the same origin as me, understands me, can assist me [unconditionally?], he won’t hurt me, he looks familiar and would likely know why I act/think this way or that way without judging etc. What an individual sees in his race/tribe, he sees – most of the time, the opposite in others’. As such, identity becomes a comfort zone, crafted by society [structural] and individuals [psychological] to maintain those agreeable feelings of safety and belonging.
The socio-genesis of race and tribe is built on the same basis of primary emotions which connect a person to other members of the family. Between the structural and the psychological, there is a biological link which connects the two thereby making such bonds not only strong but sometimes – if not most of the times – irrational.
Three concepts come into play when the issue of tribe and race are concerned: culture (structural), (personal) psychological, and (blood) biological.
Culture imposes a set of values upon individuals in a given community. These values include but are not limited to the following: food, drinks, dance, language, dressing, etc. Being born into particular culture or race is not a choice. How an individual integrates those values that are set on him comes from his personal decision. However, because there is a belief that members who share a given identity are connected as a family – blood, the choices made usually turn in favor of sentiments rather than objective reasoning.
The concept of tribe is related to two others which share the same characteristics: clan and ethnic group. The first refers to a subgroup within a given tribe, generally smaller with closer connections while the second refers to an agglomeration of tribes that share common characteristics (language, food, dances etc.) and origin. Any case against tribalism applies to ethnic groupings as well as clans. The understanding of racism and tribalism appears to be at the heart of most of the major crisis that humanity has ever known. According to Niall Ferguson, renowned Harvard history professor, argued in Wars of the World, that the WWI and II were motivated by the expansion of empires and ethnic proclivity. It happened that such ethnic expansion coincided with race boundaries. Another heinous evil known to humanity is slavery which was linked to race.
Unraveling the problems related to tribalism and racism constitute a general approach in understanding what lies at the core of discrimination between groups of people which evidently is the cause of so many injustices and violence.
Social Identity: An Attribute or An Essence?
An attribute means to ascribe from its Latin derivative “ad tribuere” to ascribe. Because ascribe refers to certain characteristics that are assigned to an individual either by himself, society, or law are for the most part external, it constitute a transient phase with regard to its contingent nature and peripheral phase with regard to its superficiality.
Essence, on the contrary, is an intrinsic property that defines something/someone and without which it ceases to be what it is. An essence is also a substance or necessity and without this at thing or someone loses its identity.
James Watson is a Nobel Prize winner in biology for his contribution in the development of DNA and is one among thousands of intellectuals who believe that there is some essence in the issue of race when he stated that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” It is a common belief that there is an intrinsic value unequally distributed among races which is the primary cause of poverty and riches, greatness or misery in a given people. But a close elucidation unveils a more intricate reality than public opinion would possibly admit.
If intelligence is an essence designating a value in the genes of individuals whose corollary characteristic is skin color, then it must be concluded that there is no human genus but many human genera. And because these genera differ in their intelligence, concepts of democracy, human rights, and justice they cannot be held to be universal. That leads ultimately to this premise: Universal Declarations of human rights become null. It cannot be expected for humans to practice universal values fundamental to humans when their essence and capacity of grasping these values do not match.
Admittedly, in an enjoyable assertion, it is said that the Kikuyus of Kenya are good business people while the Luo are book people [intelligent, lawyers, doctors etc.]. In Nigeria, the Igbo are associated with business and money, the Yoruba with education while the Hausas are seen as lousy, love power. In Cameroon, the Bamileke are stereotyped with money, northerners with low skilled jobs, Sawa as beautiful but lazy. Almost every tribe has a stereotype in Africa and they play an important role in shaping interactions and defining the patterns of cohabitation of peace or conflict. But it is not uncommon to find out that these are often based on isolated cases, poorly generalized, massively marketed at a discounted rate of coherence and truth since they ignore social trajectories that each group grow through in defining its self-preservation agenda.
For example, the Bamileke are associated with business and money but the richest man in Cameroon is an Anglophone from the north west province, Muslim, Aladji Danpollo [Cf. Jeune Afrique]; the Northerners in Nigeria are linked with power but most of the investments are done in the south [Lagos, Abudja] thereby benefiting most people of the south. The Igbos in Nigeria are mainly associated with business but the most acclaimed African writer who brought Africa to light was Chinua Achebe who is an Igbo. Even when it is believed in Nigeria that Fulani/Hausa are born to rule, the same tribe which constitute about 10% of the Cameroonian population doesn’t have those beliefs.
In fact, tribal stereotypes appear to be at the heart of most of the conflicts that are faced in African nations, breaks the bridge of trust while installing a hardware of misunderstanding and suspicion. But very little is done about it. Generally, it is believed that that is what those people are.
Racism comes with its own stereotypes and most people believe that some races are naturally made to have certain potentials: either intelligent or foolish, hard working or lazy, organized or disorganized, etc.
If the complex relations of tribalism and instinct cannot be conquered, then that of racism still has a long way to go. Such beliefs lead, naturally to the classification of races/tribes into a hierarchy.
Hierarchy? Structural Identity And Symbolic Violence
Each time a tribe/race is considered superior to another, symbolic violence is being normalized. Specific groups are known for attributing to themselves all the good qualities, while conferring to others all the negative ones thereby strengthening their position of feeling superior.
Tribal hierarchy, less discussed and admitted, is an ensuing argument of those who hold social identities as an essence. There is a common expression in Nigeria used by the Funali which corroborates this position: Fulani are “born to rule”, described by Anyichiet Ochukwu in the Daily Trust as the born to rule syndrome in the Nigerian governing class, which according to him, is at the core of the governance problem in Nigeria. Of the thirteen presidents that have ruled Nigeria, it is no surprise that nine of them are from the greater North including the central belt. Taking into account the fact that Muhammadu Buhari has been president twice, this should actually sum up to ten against three for the southerners. It should be pointed that Nigeria officially become a democratic nation in 1999 under the fourth republic and since many northerners – perhaps due to less interest in education, entered the military, they consolidated their position under the long military dictatorship by taking turns in power. So, born to rule appears to be a forged concept acquired through might rather than right. It was a contingent reality, and does not designate a tribal substance inherent in the Fulani people or the northerners.
In Cameroon, the Douala and Sawa people usually feel superior to other tribes. This explains why most of them never liked to work in the plantations created by the whites in the early 1900s. For this reason, Bamilekes, from the South West migrated to this littoral region to work in these plantations where through careful savings and investments many of them finally became wealthy thereby developing their own superiority complex.
In Rwanda, the Belgians had propagated a myth of tribal/ethnic superiority of the Tutsis because they had a lighter skin color, are tall, had greater social order and were more like Europeans compared to the Hutsi counterparts. Although there had existed a social order which classified the Tutsis as superior because they were of divine origin and the natural elite who brought civilization to Rwanda, the Germans who first colonized the territory never emphasized on it nor enforced it.
From the 1950s, the racial identities – which is actually ethnic, were institutionalized. This led to the progressive subjugation of the Hutsi whose revolt culminated in the 1994 genocide that resulted in close to a million Tutsis deaths thereby reducing the percentage of the group from 24% to 14%: an epic attempt of ethnic cleansing built on the edifice of crafted illusion. The ramification of this war includes the Burundian genocide [1972-1993] and the first [1996-1997] and second [1998-2003] Congo Wars.
What makes a tribe/ethnic group superior? In most cases, it is through the acquisition of things of power like arms, wealth, intelligence, organized systems, and success in all its forms. But also skin color as in the case of Rwanda. Because a lighter skin is believed to be superior, myths are created to conform to such realities in order to consolidate these comfort zones.
These arguments on hierarchy among tribes illustrate that contingent realities always influence the way a group of people see themselves and the way they expect others to see them. Do these differences really matter in the lives of people?
When millions of people are killed with impunity under the pretext of tribe/ethnic group, it becomes evident that even more would lose jobs, suffer corruption, and other unfair treatment because they do not belong to the same tribe/ethnic group as the other person. This explains why intertribal marriages have always been seen with suspicion by most African tribes.
Racial hierarchy remains a credo that has lasted for centuries and holds a privileged place in the subconscious minds of many people. In an – almost – exhaustive account of race/racism and hierarchy, Dr. Steven Nur Ahmed points out in A particular Line of reasoning: How Plato and Aristotle fashioned our concept of race, that it is a “2,400 year old downward spiral in relation to the quality of human reasoning…” Racial hierarchy, based on skin color placed the white race at the top, blacks at the bottom and all the others in the midway.
The consequences of such classifications are far-reaching that even the organization of modern societies find it too complex and nearly impossible to do away with it.
Old Primitive Emotions In A New Rationality: Modern States
It is an old psychological joke that all children believe that their dad is the most handsome, hardworking and greatest man alive. Even when bullied by the a mighty soldier, he rushes to his dad who, most of the time, is as helpless as other people but thanks to his old age has learnt to beg for his survival through tolerance and dialogue – values which would restores the child’s confidence in him.
Family attachments are based on such sentiments and by blood even when the values claimed to be practiced therein may not really be there. This connection outreaches to extended members of the family which finally becomes a clan, a tribe, or an ethnic group. These closed societies hold to their illusion of self and social identity and are almost autonomous in most cases with regards to legislation, territory, and administration. This is the old order which can also be called the primitive order.
The emergence of modern states brought in another reality that would shake tribal logic to its core – citizenry. Being a citizen of a country means you must accept all others not as members of other tribes, clans or ethnic groups but simply because they are citizens. It is a new rationality because tribe must never come before the nation. National identity through respect of the law must outshine traditional attachment.
In practice, this new rationality often carries with it relics of its old self thereby threatening the wellbeing of the State and that of all its citizens. In Cameroon, there are about 250 tribes, in Nigeria about 300 and over 100 tribes in Angola. As a result, most African states are constituted of multiple tribes and government workers are called to relate to everyone as equal without prejudice to origin or tribe. Regrettably, the old enemy reappears in a new form in these institutions. Public administration is used by those to power to further defend the interests of a particular tribe.
In the West, most nations were formed along tribal lines, or almost so. Coupled with a long history of nation building, they’ve learned to live with others’ differences but the biological aspect of race has never disappeared. That is what led to the racial and ethnic tension of the early 1900s which later became the world wars.
There is nothing as self-evident as the equality of man and there is nothing as frustrating as his desire to distinguish/classify himself as a special being within the same species. The Declaration of Independence, 4th of July 1776, made it clear: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” After 168 years, the same formulation appeared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Both texts pioneered by the United States of America, whose constitution upholds racial superiority, perhaps never considered blacks as humans since they were officially segregated till 1963. In fact, they never stopped slavery, segregation, and modern day discrimination.
Racity/Tribality Against Racism/Tribalism: When Nominal Coherence Meets the Frontiers of Practical Unpredictability
In principle, it is only normal for people who share common threads to live together. It is good for a Muslim to be happy to be around other Muslims and for Indians to love Indian restaurants; Bulu people to love cassava and peanut butter; Hausa to love those who look like them and Hispanics to love Hispanic music. It is normal also for whites to love their own people and normal for blacks to love blacks. This is raciality/trability.
While it is normal to like the things from your tribe and the people from your race, it becomes extremely difficult to draw the line where one must stop from conferring undeserved privileges to those who look like us while refusing from others who truly deserve our attention. Here, good judgement and law are jeopardized while emotions are being instrumentalized.
But living within one’s comfort zone and establishing the limits where it becomes a crime seems complex in daily life. When discrimination is committed against a member of another community, it is easy to justify it because they are no emotional attachments involved. On the contrary, there are always laws and public support in favor of the actions of some against others. Such exploitation of circumstances occur especially when a dominant tribe control power (Bulu in Cameroon) or when a given race assumes the rule of autochthony (Whites in the United States of America).
During civil unrests in Cameroon, the military is usually deployed from the Northern Province, who are usually the Hausas and Fulani. And because they have no emotional connection with people from the south, their oppression of any civil unrest is usually cruel and effective. The same strategy is used in the deployment of troops around the country. From an individual perspective, a Nigerian soldier had confessed how she killed rebels in South Sudan without any sympathy but her heart melts when she hears the victim mourn in a language familiar to her.
Does such reactions make sense when we compare the way in which Whites kill Blacks in the USA? Actually, there is usually no compassion because it is the pain is in others.
What the West finds inadmissible about World War I and II is the fact the white man administered to those who looked like them acts which were reserved for others. It only makes sense that the UNO, NATO and related bodies were created after that with the primary reason to prevent war from occurring among these nations. And what about nations in Africa, South America, Middle East and Asia? “They should take care of themselves…”
The Veneration of Illusion Versus Disgust of Reality: Redefining Identity
Social identity, racial or tribal, when put on the crucible of pure reason – objectivity, shreds all frontiers and pulls downs permanently without appeal all curtains behind which all humans hide. The final verdict is that humans are one. But why is this self-evident reality accepted with disgust and often rejected in daily life? The reason is simple: humans venerate illusion, because in it, they find their comfort zone. When such comforts zones don’t suffice others are immediately created: rites, gods, myths, etc. Fear is the god-father of illusions while incertitude is the mother delusion.
The Banso people from the grass field North West region of Cameroon love their tribe, their culture and tradition particularly their food and dance. Fufu and vegetables constitute their staple. But they often forget that Fufu is made of corn which was brought by the whites and replaced the local cereal. The same goes for Kabah, a gown worn by most women in Cameroon including the Banso which they believe is part of their culture. However, these dress styles came in as a reaction of astonished whites who, in front of naked ladies, decided to give them pieces of cloths to wrap around their breasts and down the thighs. It becomes clear that behind every culture is just an illusion which people venerate, a contingent aspect which happened at a given time and possibly will disappear.
Race is just a color, but regrettably happens to play one of the most important roles in peoples’ lives at times more than intelligence and hard work would.
On the one hand people claim everyone is the same, but on other hand each individual wants to remain in his/her own comfort zone.
Breaking barriers: Between Tension and Peace.
Social identity, as mentioned earlier, is an “artificial fortress”, comfort zone, crafted by a people as a means to promote their self-preservation, deter others from their influence – which they assume is mostly negative while integrating – reluctantly the positive ones. As such, these identity barriers become almost rigid over decades thereby becoming very difficult to break or cross. When a people integrate into another society there is usually the fear that they’ll lose their identity. It is due to the belief that social identity constitutes an essence which must not be diluted with another. However, these barriers get broken sometimes and there are ways to do so. During times of peace, the most prominent way is through marriage, trade or through politics (imposing laws on integration on racial and tribal diversity). In times of tension, barriers are broken through war [domination] or through consensus [mutual respect].
Marriage is one of the main ways in which barriers are broken between tribes and races. It is no doubt that it was forbidden from blacks to get married to white women before 1969. Even till today, it is still considered a taboo. Most Indians don’t marry out of their tribe. In Africa, most tribes prefer to marry within the same tribe or closer ones, although recent mobility of people and means of survival have put these convictions in check.
Trade between people or communities is another means through which a people increase their respectability and interact with others easily. With the increase in purchasing power of the Chinese, many whites find it great to marry a Chinese girl. And unless the purchasing power, defined by trade, of the black community increases considerably, their interaction with other established communities will be seen as a liability.
Many governments interfere to enforce integration of tribes and races. In Cameroon, there is a particular percentage from each major ethnic group to enter into public administration [regional integration quota, presidential decree n° 75/496 of a3th July 1975, decree n° 82/407 of 7th September 1982 and decree n°2000/696/PM of 13 septembre 2000].
In the USA, Executive Order 13583, 18th of August 2011, was signed and aimed at establishing a coordinated government-wide diversity and inclusion in the federal goverment. These regulations might meet challenges in their application but nevertheless illustrate the desire to cross barriers that seem so difficult to break.
Failure to break these barriers could lead to either a stalemate or conflict. That is, two communities which refuse to interact, or which are at war with each other. The multiple conflicts around Africa always have a tribal link and mentioned above.
Identity-Effect Versus Effects of Identity
Identity-effect is a reductionist analysis where every aspect of a person’s life is interpreted either only or mainly in relation to the identity s/he incarnates. It is a position characteristic of those who have reduced their rational faculties to be as narrow as such identity permits.
When Kenyans win in long distance running – like they usually do, arguments are quickly fabricated to show how race and genes are related to their success. No one attributes hard work and perseverance. Admittedly, if whites had won such titles, it could have been said that it is because they are disciplined and hard working. Jon Entine went as far as stating that “runners of west Africa are the fastest humans on earth.” He also referred to Bengt Saltin, the director of the Copenhagen Muscle Institute who said: “an athlete’s environment accounts for no more than 20-25% of athletic ability. The rest comes down to the roll of the genetic dice – with each population group having distinct advantages. In other words, running success is ‘in the genes.’
Here are the facts, athletic achievements, like success of all kind, is a bio-cultural phenomenon.”[cf. The DNA Olympics – Jamaicans win sprinting ‘genetic lottery’ – and why we should all care]. It is the same pattern of arguments that claimed that blacks have low IQ, that they don’t have sufficient intellectual capabilities as others. Conversely, this assertion in 2012 only shows that all the success of the white person is due to some inherent value, an essence which defines his existence. Therefore, only justifiable.
It follows that the identity-effect is not only reductionist but also a symbolic crime because it lays down the conceptual framework upon which injustice and discrimination would be built.
These arguments hold true for tribes as well. When a Luo in Kenya is excellent in medicine or law, he believes it is because they are made to be intelligent, to be scholars contrary to their tribal counterparts, the kikuyus who are business people. Such claims are truer when it comes to the white race who are believed to be intelligent, smart and orderly. When a white person discovers something new, it is seen as a normal achievement but if a person of color does the same it becomes strange. Niel deGrasse Tyson, the renowned New York astrophysicist had explained several times how he was discouraged by his teachers from doing the sciences but to focus on sports like all other black kids. Today, he is known as a great astrophysicist accredited in demoting Plato from the list of nine stars.
The identity-effect creates an enemy in society which then becomes the list of stereotypes lived as the effects of identity. In other words, the effects of identity are resultant acts from assumptions constantly made on people because they look in a particular way or because they are from a given tribe. Consequently, identity-effect and effects of identity are two sides of the same evil.
Humanity, plurality and respectability: At what cost?
With about 3000 tribes in Africa and about four races in the world, it is more evident than ever that plurality is not only the destiny of man but his nature. About 20 million Africans underwent slave trade due to skin color and tribal division, WW I and II lost the lives of about 100 million people. The Jewish genocide and Jewish pogroms cost the lives of at least 10 million Jews before they were finally accepted and respected – to some extent. Given all the division in the world, mostly related to tribe/ethnic group and race, how many more people must be sacrificed in order for humanity to come to the understanding that there is need to be one, and to live in peace, respectfully loving one another?
The contemporary world is vertical and there is more into play than race and tribe notably economy, diplomacy, environment etc. Luckily, humans live in an age where through intelligence and creativity, appropriate measures can be taken to solve the world’s most difficult enigma – division. Regrettably, division appears to be the factor the fuels the pride, happiness and riches of some people.
With all the good laws that have been made, man is left to himself and to his community to design patterns of sustainability that will ensure his survival and respectability in the modern context. The globalization of problems, the mutualization of competences, necessary interdependence of societies and the ultimate democratization of technology shall expose man to himself and to the world on the altar of a new fraternity called civility whose stronghold is the state. And this is not a project of a society, it is a project of humanity; it is its history and destiny.
Has man ever been friendly to fellow man?
When he claims his freedom, the other becomes a subject.
When he canonizes himself as just, the other is demonized as a suspect.
When he assumes he is cultured, the other is marketed as barbarian.
When he decides to believe, the other is stigmatized as a pagan.
When he proclaims himself as civilized, the other is diagnosed as primitive.
When he defines truth, the other is advertised as an imposture, heretic.
When he chooses the vocabulary, the other is decreed as ignorant.
When he defines value, the other is asked to accept existential bankruptcy.
When he defines law, the other is damned as a lawless law breaker.
When he defines beauty, the other’s is mocked as a caricature of aesthetic jargon.
When he defines culture, the other’s is slammed as a useless fabric of no value.
When he defines the exclusive we, the other is marked as the exclusive they.
Has man ever been friendly to fellow man?
[Ultimate wisdom Code I, p. 232]