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Tribalism

What springs to mind when you read the word ‘tribe’? Do you think about groups of people living in remote areas of the world who, by choice or by chance, have remained dislocated from much of the rest of human society? Or do you recognise that although that definition is one anthropological understanding of the word, there is an understanding that as human beings we all belong to tribes – groups with a shared understanding, a shared identity, or a common purpose? What tribes do you belong to?  

Our school community is quite a large tribe but we all belong to any numbers of different tribes. For our pupils at St John’s these might be their house, their year group, a sports team, a church community, their extended family or – at an even larger scale – our country. Being part of these tribes can provide us with a sense of identity and belonging; it plays a role in helping us define who we are and where we fit in. I find myself particularly conscious of this idea at the beginning of a new school year because that idea of tribal belonging is one of the reasons that starting a new school – and therefore joining a new tribe – is such a big transition. It takes time to understand the practices and organisation of a new community and to forge important social bonds such as friendships, getting to know teachers, prefects, other pupils.

I recently re-watched Black Panther, the Marvel film, and it made me think about the positive and negative aspects of belonging to our different tribes. One of the themes within Black Panther is the flipside to that sense of belonging – the idea of being cast out or of never belonging. I’ll try not to give away any spoilers for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but I will say that Black Panther’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger, is a character that suffers pain at the way the kingdom of Wakanda deserted him. He is a complex character and I’m focusing on one of the more simplistic elements of the film but within this simplistic element is a message for us all. Within our tribes there can be a selfish focus on whether our tribe is ok, and on believing that our tribe is in the right when something goes wrong.

Belonging to a tribe can be enormously positive but tribes can also be divisive and problematic within communities or within society. The stronger the bonds of a group, the greater the risk of that group increasingly separating itself from others. The MP David Lammy has written on this topic in his new book, Tribes: How Our Need to Belong Can Make or Break Society where he explores how his connections to different communities, including his life in the United Kingdom and his career as a politician for the Labour Party, shape who he is and what he believes. “But sorting ourselves into groups can also be problematic,” he says. “It’s what has led to deeply divided partisan politics in the UK and beyond.” He goes on to say that, in this current age of populism, “huge swathes of the population” are “deliberately playing to the worst instincts of tribalism” creating division rather than unity.

All of us will experience times when we feel that we aren’t part of the tribe, that we have lost our place or can’t identify the tribe where we belong.  I’ve asked all our pupils to be mindful of this as they settle in to a new school year. We all have a responsibility to consider the way the tribes to which we belong behave towards others, to be kind and compassionate in our interactions and to remember that we are all fortunate to be bound together in the extended tribe that is the St John’s community. Tribalism, like so many things, can be both positive and negative but I hope that as the year goes on our pupils might draw on some of the final words spoken in the film Black Panther:

“Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe…”

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey