By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
There are certain words that native English speakers in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand liberally use only for people they perceive to be culturally and racially inferior to them. I call them vocabularies of racial differentiation and exclusion. In this article I am concerned only with words whose racial “othering” is so subtle that most linguistically undiscerning people don’t notice it. I must add that modern native English speakers who use these words aren’t racist or intentionally offensive; they are just subconsciously influenced by their socio-linguistic environments.
1. Chief. Most English dictionaries define this word as the head of a “tribe” or “clan.” That’s why it’s also rendered as “tribal chief.” Since Europeans—or at least contemporary Europeans—have no “tribes” (see the entry on “tribe” below), they have no “chiefs.” Only nonwhite people do. What Europeans had or have are “kings.” But a little more context is needed to unpack the ethnocentrism of the term. I recently read an 1821 British Foreign Office document titled Correspondence with Foreign Courts Regarding Execution of Treaties Contracted. On page 110 of the document, the reader finds that the British colonial government actually went out of its way to purposively discourage people in their African and Asian colonies from calling their monarchs “kings.” King, the document says, is reserved only for a British monarch. Monarchs in the colonies should just be called “chiefs.” If the chiefs enjoy enduring historic prestige among their people, they might be called “paramount chiefs,” but never kings.
Nigerians have internalized this nomenclatural discrimination and call their monarchs “chiefs.” This is especially true in northern Nigeria where non-Muslim—or non-Emirate— traditional rulers are called “chiefs” and their spheres of traditional influence are called “chiefdoms.” In southern Nigeria “chief” is chiefly prefixed to the name of a traditional title holder. (See my June 15, 2014 article titled “A Pragmatic Analysis of ‘Emir,’ ‘Sarki,’ ‘Oba’ and ‘Chief’ in Nigerian English.”)
Won’t it be nice, in the interest of linguistic equity, to prefix “Chief” to the names of these European monarchs: the Chief of England, the Chief of Denmark, the Chief of Norway, the Chief of Spain, the Chief of Sweden, the Chief of the Netherlands, the Chief of Belgium, etc.?
2. Genital mutilation. The removal of the clitoris is called “female genital mutilation” when it’s done by nonwhite people but “clitoridectomy” when it’s done by white people. I personally oppose female circumcision (a value-neutral term for what’s now “female genital mutilation”), but I can’t help but notice the invidious linguistic double standards in calling the act by a derogatory term when it’s done by nonwhite people and by a scientific name when it’s done by white people. Gynecologists in nineteenth-century Europe and America used to remove women’s clitoris in order to “curb female masturbation.” It was called “clitoridectomy.”
In any case, why isn’t male circumcision also called “male genital mutilation” since it’s similar in many respects to so-called female genital mutilation?
3. Indigene. Native English speakers never use this word for themselves in their everyday conversations precisely because notions of citizenship override loyalties to primordial origins in their countries or because loyalty to primordial origins and citizenship are indistinguishable since many European nations are mono-ethnic states. That’s why “indigenes” invariably means nonwhite people whose primordial origins can be traced to the place they currently live. No native English speaker will ever say he is an “indigene of London” or an “indigene of Atlanta,” etc. The inflections and figurative extensions of the word such as “indigenous,” “indigenize,” “indigenization,” etc. are more commonly used by native speakers than the root, which is also synonymous with words like “autochthon” and “aborigine,” which all connote a primitive person.
But Nigerian English has developed a more creative use for and meaning of “indigene” than conventional dictionaries envisage. In Nigeria “indigene” is often contrasted with “settler.” Even if your ancestors have lived in a town for hundreds of years, you’re still a “settler” if those ancestors don’t share the same linguistic and ethnic identity as the “indigenes” who founded the town. And you’re considered an “indigene” of a place even if you or your immediate past ancestors have never lived there for even a single day so long as you can trace your lineage to that place patrilineally.
3. Natives. Western Europeans—and their descendants elsewhere— are never “natives” even if they are the original inhabitants of a place. The Celts who have lived in Britain, Spain, and Gaul since prehistoric times are not “natives.” That word is reserved for racially and culturally “inferior” peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, etc. But the denotative meaning of the word hardly reveals this semantic nuance.
Many dictionaries define a “native” as “an indigenous person who was born in a particular place.” That sounds pretty innocuous. But the connotative meaning of the word is more racially discriminatory. It was originally used by white colonialists and later by Western anthropologists to refer specifically to nonwhite people. The New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd edition) captures this subtlety well. One of the definitions of “native,” which the dictionary says is “dated, often offensive,” is “one of the original inhabitants of a country, especially a nonwhite as regarded by European colonists or travelers.”
Notice, though, that in American English “native” is used widely in a non-racially discriminatory way. When people call a city their hometown they often say they’re natives of the city, as in “I am an Atlanta native,” “She is a native of New York,” etc. I am not sure how widespread this usage of “native” is in British English, but it appears 148 times in the British National Corpus.
The New Oxford American Dictionary’s usage advice on the word is instructive. It says, “In contexts such as native of Boston or New York in the summer was too hot even for the natives, the noun native is quite acceptable. But when it is used to mean ‘a nonwhite original inhabitant of a country,’ as in this dance is a favorite with the natives, it is more problematic. This meaning has an old-fashioned feel and, because of its association with a colonial European outlook, it may cause offense.”
Most Nigerians don’t realize that one of the reasons the country’s first national anthem (“Nigeria, we hail thee”) was changed to “Arise, o compatriots” in 1978 was because of the appearance of the words “native” and “tribe” (see the entry on “tribe” below) in it. The first anthem was written by a British expatriate by the name of Lillian Jean Williams and has the following words:
Nigeria, we hail thee,
Our own dear native land,
Though tribe and tongue may differ,
Interestingly, in Nigerian English, when people say they have “gone native” they usually mean they have adorned non-Western, Nigerian clothes. I’ve always had problems with that expression for at least two reasons.
First, to “go native” is an idiomatic expression in Standard English that means a person, usually a white person, has left his country to some “native land” and ends up internalizing and adopting the “primitive” ways of the “natives.” Second, why are jeans, coat, ties, etc. just “clothes,” but buba, sokoto, babar riga, etc. are “native clothes”? Why does wearing Nigerian clothes represent “going native” when the wearers of the clothes are themselves “natives.”? I suspect that Nigerians unreflexively copied that phrase from British colonialists who described wearing African dresses as “going native.”
5. Tribe. I have written several articles on this odious word (See, for instance, my February 27, 2009 article titled “What’s my Tribe? None” and my March 27, 2009 article titled “Of Tribe and Pride: Deconstructing Alibi’s Alibis for Racial Self-Hatred,” among others). No modern person of European descent belongs to a “tribe.” Only nonwhite people do. The only occasions when native English speakers use “tribe” to talk about themselves is when they talk about their dim and distant past, as in “the Germanic tribes that invaded England in prehistoric times” or the “12 tribes of Israel.” The other occasion is when they use the word figuratively, as in “tribes of journalists gathered there,” etc.
Shorn of all pretenses, “tribe” basically means backward, primitive nonwhite people. Let no one deceive you that the word means anything other than that. Even the Oxford Dictionary of English recognizes this fact. Its usage note on “tribe” reads:
“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 a traditional society. It is strongly associated with past attitudes if white colonialists towards so-called primitive or uncivilized peoples living in remote underdeveloped places. For this reason it is generally preferable to use alternative terms such as community or people” (p. 1897).
I personally prefer “ethnic group” as an alternative to “tribe.”
Other derivatives of “tribes” that are no less odious are “tribesman,” “tribeswoman,” “tribalism,” “tribespeople,” “tribal marks.” They basically mean “uncivilized man,” “uncivilized woman,” “primitive loyalty to a tribe,” “uncivilized people,” and “primitive facial art.” A value-neutral term for “tribal marks” is “facial marks.” Lastly, “detribalize” means to civilize, to make less primitive, although Nigerians use it as an adjective (i.e., “detribalized”) to mean “free from narrow ethnic loyalties.”
These terrible words have been congealed in our lexical repertory, so it’s pointless fighting against their use, but I can at least shine a light on the linguistic alienation they represent.