Kenyan Politics and Culture: Help from Ibram X. Kendi Glossary of Terms and Reflection Questions

By Muli wa Kyendo

In this hot period of election campaigns in Kenya, we will continue getting many cases of politicians accused of hate speech.  But what the term “hate speech” covers is not easy to delineate in law because as one commentator puts it, “there is no legal definition for evil ideas, rudeness, unpatriotic speech, or any other kind of speech that people might conjure up.”

 Generally, however, hate speech is any form of expression through which speakers intend to vilify, humiliate, or incite hatred against a group or a class of persons on the basis of race, religion, skin colour sexual identity, gender identity, ethnicity, disability, or national origin.

One way of discouraging the vice is to condemn it, a job that the National Cohesion and Integration Commission of Kenya (NCIC) is doing very well. Such methods have, however, been long discredited by the wise Waswahili men and women, who established long ago that a parade of angry frogs lining a pond does not stop a cow from drinking water.

A more effective method may be to teach people – particularly politicians – the language of hate speech. Faced with the same problem in America, Ibram X. Kendi developed a “Glossary of terms and refection questions” to do exactly that – and, I believe, with excellent results.

According to Kendi “race” means descent. So, from the beginning, to make races was to make racial hierarchy. “Race”, says the National Museum of African American History and Culture more blatantly, “is a human-invented, shorthand term used to describe and categorize people into various social groups based on characteristics like skin colour, physical features, and genetic heredity. Race, while not a valid biological concept, is a real social construction that gives or denies benefits and privileges”.

So, what is racism? Kendi says “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas.  It follows, then, that a racist is one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inactions or expressing a racist idea. It also follows that the opposite of racist is not “not racist” but anti-racist or one who supports policies that are against racism.

Ethnicity and tribalism

In America they talk of racism – it is what bothers them. In Kenya – and the rest of Africa – it is tribalism, also referred to as ethnicity, which bothers us. As expected, therefore, Kendi doesn’t pay much attention to it, choosing instead to equate it with racism. Wikipedia however, says “An ethnic group or ethnicity is a grouping of people who identify with each other on the basis of shared attributes that distinguish them from other groups. Those attributes can include common sets of traditions, ancestry, language, history, society, culture, nation, religion, or social treatment within their residing area.”

Tribalism, a related term, is more commonly used in Kenya and the rest of Africa. It is a derogatory term applied to describe the behaviour and attitudes stemming from strong loyalty to your ethnic group. In Kendi’s Glossary of Terms and Reflection Questions, it would be described as “a powerful collection of tribalistic policies that lead to tribal inequity and are substantiated by tribalistic ideas”. It follows, then, that a tribalist is one who is supporting a tribalistic policy through their actions or inactions or expressing a tribalistic idea. It also follows that the opposite of “tribalist” is not “not tribalist” but anti-tribalist or one who supports policies that are against tribalism.

So, we have the definitions of the basic, essential terms relevant to us as Kenyans, but is that all? How do these definitions tie-up with our political problems?

In the next instalment, we shall continue with Ibram X. Kendi Glossary of Terms and Reflection Questions by discussing the question: “Is there neutrality in the ethnic (tribalistic) struggle?  Don’t miss it!

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