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The Use of "Tribe" Attracts Bad Vibes

Earlier this week I read a reflective blog by Jessie Harrold about cultural appropriation* in the healing practices of white women ( In reading this invitation to examine our own practices it struck me that even when we want to do better we don’t always have the knowledge of how to do it. This inspired me to share a bit about the word tribe and why it’s problematic. I have been asked a number of times about this particular word so it seems like a great place to start.

So, what’s the scoop and why should we at least think about not using it… Whew! Game on!

The word tribe is less about cultural appropriation and more about colonization. It is a word that was used by colonizers throughout Africa (and the Americas) to describe the communities of people they came across. This word which means primitive is part of a larger belief system that positioned these communities of people as sub-human. There was even a movement to identify them as the link between humankind and our “ape-like” ancestors. This logic that dehumanized African people led to many atrocities (we know them).

This word that we use to describe our sisterhood, our collective of women, is rooted in a history that has literally killed and enslaved people. I know that when we use it, it is meant to portray deep connection, something more than we find in polite society and we mean something good, really good.

But... in trying to understand the impact, think of a derogatory word- maybe something that refers to our gay friends, our non-white sisters, or maybe something that refers to our children with special needs. Now imagine if this word were to become commonplace and spouted everywhere. What would the impact be on the people who were called this word long before it became popular? A word that meant there was something inherently wrong with them. A word meant to dehumanize them. We cannot erase the harm these words have done. We cannot erase their history or their continued impact by simply adopting them and turning them into something we like for ourselves. And this is the issue with the word tribe.

What this word shows us is that even as conscious women with good intentions we can do harm and so, when we are called out on our language or our practice, we might use it as a signal to investigate and really unpack what we are doing or saying.

This post is really only a partial picture of the conversation. I am totally open to delving deeper and exploring the layers of it, so please do leave comments and questions and I will answer them if I can. Let’s get unpacking!

*Wikipedia on cultural appropriation:

If you are interested in reading more on this, a great book to check out is Imperial Leather by Anne McClintock.

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