The truth about tribalism

Can you build inclusive communities whilst also being tribal? The short answer is no. So why are human beings such a tribal bunch? And how can we overcome this?


Are you a Swiftie or a BeyHive? A liberal or a conservative? A theist or an atheist? A jam then cream person or a cream then jam person?

Are you one of us or one of them?

Division, separation, and tribalism are everywhere. We form tribes around music, sports, politics, religion, and, yes, even how we prepare our scones.

At times, tribalism can be a force for good. Oppressed groups can rally together to fight injustice as the history of pride month reveals. But tribalism can also be a force for great evil. Every war, every class hierarchy and every tyrannical regime attests to this.

As a movement committed to building stronger communities where everyone is included, making a contribution and reaching their God-given potential, tribalism is often a big obstacle to our work. In fact, tribalism is the very opposite of what we are trying to do.

It is very hard to include everyone when one group of people in a community dislikes, ignores, or actively hates another group.

So why, as human beings, are we such a tribal bunch? And what can we do about it?

Tribal living creates tribal psychology

Our tribalism is a product of our evolutionary development.

Thousands of years ago, the challenges of dangerous predators and an unforgiving natural environment, meant that we homo sapiens needed to work to together if we had any hope of seeing the next sunrise.

We needed to form communities — tribes — so we could protect each other and learn from one another. Our strength came in numbers. As Principle 6 from A Manifesto Hope states, ‘Individually we are one drop; together we are an ocean’.

And so, over our 200,000 history as a species, we have developed “both neurologically and biologically” to live in a world that demands not just the survival of the fittest but the ‘survival of the friendliest‘.

Whilst living in close-knit communities has had many benefits, there has been a crippling downside which is that we are psychologically predisposed to see people who we consider different as ‘other’ and dangerous.

When we encounter those we don’t consider part of our group our brain automatically raises our stress levels. This stress response occurs at the ‘bottom’ of our brains, the part our mental health team at Oasis Community Learning call our ‘Meerkat’ — our amygdala — before the thinking part of our brains, ‘the Owl’ — prefrontal cortex — kicks in. This can lead to a warped and irrational perception reality based on feelings of fear rather than reason.

“This is exactly why on a dark or lonely street, when we see people who we don’t know coming towards us, our state of alertness is instantly raised. It is also why the first time you encounter someone with characteristics that are unlike those of your ‘tribe’, such as a different skin colour or tone, your brain becomes alert, as it asks: are they safe or are they threatening? Are they a friend or a potential foe?” (p125)

The tendency of our brains to cling to the “safe and familiar” categories that we formed in childhood — in our tribes — “is what drives racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and multitudes of other irrational fears of those from tribes we are not familiar with.”

Interestingly, this explains why,

“Even the most sensible person can, at one and the same time, have very sincere anti-racist beliefs, but still exhibit implicit biases that result in racist comments or attitudes.”

This is a challenge for a movement like us. We articulate a broad and inclusive vision, but are made up of lots of different people from different backgrounds who will inevitably have different biases based on our own cultural, geographical, and tribal upbringings.

So, the key question is, if we want to be a truly inclusive organisation, how can we overcome our tribalism to avoid falling into division, conflict, and separation?

Relationships are the key

The single most important thing you can do to overcome your tribalism is to form relationships with those outside of your tribe.

Through forming open and healthy relationships with those whom we regard as different (one of the foundational parts of our ethos) we can begin to experience others as they are, rather than how we would like them to be.

Within our Hubs, we run projects that form these sorts of relationships every single day, eradicating stereotypes and challenging biases.

For example, in Oasis Hub Hull, we run a food pantry that brings different communities of people together. As Hub Leader, Claire Thomas, shares:

“We have always been a project which is about bringing communities together and breaking down boundaries. We have a mixed community including a range of ages and nationalities from Sudan to Eastern Europe. Everybody mixes together and it’s that sort of community feel that attracts people.”

Historically, there have also been ethnic and racial tensions within our Oasis Hub Fir Vale community. However, over time, through activities and events run by the Hub, different groups have come together and discovered shared similarities which has helped to dispel negative stereotypes and build relationships. Our most recent Easter holiday activities clearly illustrate this:

“I’ve seen lots of different kinds of friendships grow between different groups of people during my time as Hub Leader” says Jade Wilkes, Hub leader of Oasis Hub Fir Vale. “But over Easter in particular it was so nice to see everyone come together like a big family. We had a range of people within our community take part in our activities. We had people from Nigeria, Yemen, Pakistan, and the Roma community. Everyone felt included and involved, it was really, really lovely to see.”

“Our commitment to open and healthy relationships and a passion to include everyone as part of our Oasis ethos has been at the heart of breaking down barriers and bringing people together.”

Tribalism is a product of our evolutionary history. Whilst it has been helpful for surviving, it has often stopped us from thriving. However, we can overcome tribalism through building relationships with those outside of our tribe allowing the reality of the ‘other’ to speak to us, challenge our assumptions, and change our hearts.

When we let go of fear and embrace love we eradicate tribes, making space for inclusion and therefore stronger communities.