Being Politically Correct: Are Ethnic Groups called Tribes or Nations?

Growing up in Nigeria, one of the first things you learn in your social studies class is that Nigeria has three major ethnic groups: Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa.  For whatever reason, the teachers never mentioned that we had over 200 ethnic groups.  I found out about that when I came here.

While I was in Nigeria though, it was perfectly acceptable and common to refer to ethnic groups as "tribes."  I never heard anyone say it was offensive or even insinuate that it could be offensive to say a person was from a particular tribe.  That is, until my college days here in the United States.
The Nigerian professor who taught me African literature in college was the first person to make this distinction. He said it was not politically correct to call ethnic groups 'tribes.' The proper term to use instead was 'nations.'  Can you imagine?

For me, the word tribe is not offensive but I have since come to understand that outside Nigeria (or Africa) just about anything can be deemed politically incorrect.

For the record, political correctness means "conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated."  [Source]

Question: What say you? Do you consider a person referring to your ethnic group (Tiv, Kanuri, Igbo, Urhobo, Yoruba, Hausa, etc) as a "tribe" offensive or politically incorrect? 

Ok, I've heard something new today!!


I also developed the awareness of 'nation states' during my undergrad studies here in the UK. A nation state may not be independent, but its people have an awareness of their entity and distinctness. For instant, Scotland, while part of the United Kingdom, could classify itself as a nation state because it has its own cultural uniqueness and strong sense of identity. In Naija, it would be too messy if tribes were to be classed as nations. They are not in my opinion. I think we are comfortable having our individual cultures but sharing a common boundary and identity. The whole idea of 'tribes' being offensive is down to personal beliefs and meaning attached to language. Tribe for me will never be a pejorative term, but that's because of where I am coming from.

Fresh Angle

Fresh Angle: Can I just say this: Wow! You deserve a standing ovation. You actually threw a lot of light on this issue beyond my expectations and was very informative. Thank you!

Classifying tribes as nations, based on your explanation would be overly-complicated. I personally don't find the use of the word "tribes" offensive at all. I'm glad to see I am not alone.


I agree completely. It is bewildering to manoeuvre the ever-changing dynamics of political correctness.

I found this article while writing a post for my blog(link below). I have linked you there, if you don't mind. :)


Dark Circles: Yes, it takes some effort to keep up with it since it's always changing.

Of course, I don't mind your linking. Thanks for letting me know. :-)

Tribes is incorrect terminology. There are 2 rather important reasons. And neither have to do with Political Correctness. To simply brush the issue aside with that label is a lazy attempt to not reach an understanding and realization.

1. The word itself has real and specific images and expectations that have come to be associated with it. Small groups of insular people living without comprehensive and sophisticated political, religious and social structures. The word, because of it's history and the way it has been used implies primitive. The word diminishes the importance of the groups it is used to label.

2. It creates an artificial connectedness. I can best explain this with Native Americans. When you use the word "tribe" for Native Americans it tends to create a sense that they are "all of one". They are not, they are as different from each other as French from German.

It is simply incorrect to call these groups tribes. The word "Nation" is the correct terminology. Just as you would call a country like a France or Germany with specific language, customs, social and political processes as well as religions a nation, so should you call a group of people like the Navajo or the Ojibwa or the Zulu or the Ashanti a nation.



I would love to hear your thoughts. Please Share.

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