I don’t believe in self-aggrandizement, but I’ll admit to being proud about working to build a diversity and inclusion training and consulting practice. Considering where I started from 20 years ago when I presented as a man — and at a time when I naively claimed that I didn’t benefit from something as amorphous as “white privilege” — I have clearly had quite the journey.
That being said, I will readily acknowledge that I still have many blind spots — things that I have had difficulty grasping — not because I don’t care, but rather because they are beyond my experience.
One of those blind spots is related to Native people and my long-time use of the phrases “tribe” and “tribalism” in my trainings. The words were meant to help listeners understand how group behavior can be effective at “othering” people that are not part of your group.
I thought the phraseology was perfect. Indeed, Amy Chua used it in her groundbreaking book “Political Tribes,” which I painstakingly notated.
All worked well until a Native woman approached me after a talk in western Minnesota. She asked, “Ellie, could you please not use the word ‘tribe’ in your talk? It is hurtful.”
I was surprised by the ask and simply responded, “Thank you for this. I’ll think about it.”
I briefly considered the woman’s request, but kept coming back to how “tribe” and “tribalism” worked so well. Nothing else seemed to suffice as substitute phrases. Besides, I had a website and training materials that were replete with the phraseology and it would be so much work to scrub the words from my work product. Thus, lazily — and quite selfishly — I continued to use the words.
Several months later, I was in Los Angeles for a talk about supporting LGBTQ+ youth. Once more, I used “tribe” and “tribalism” to describe how humans engage in group behavior. As far as I could tell, the talk was well-received.
Afterward, as I spoke to individual audience members, another Native woman approached. As soon as she spoke, she began to cry. She said, “Ellie, you are such a powerful speaker. Please don’t refer to people as ‘tribes’ and please don’t talk about ‘tribalism.’ Those words marginalize my community, and it is demeaning for you and others to use them.”
Her passion caught me by surprise. I answered, “But the words fit so perfectly to what I am trying to convey. Everyone understands immediately. I have no idea about substitute words.”
The woman responded, “You are smart, Ellie. Invent words if you have to. I beg you.”
This time, the encounter really registered. Clearly, I needed to do as asked.
On the flight back to Minneapolis I researched why “tribe” and “tribalism” are so problematic. I learned that the words originated with white Christian conquerors and their violence toward not only Native people, but Africans as well. The words are rooted in the implication that wholesale groups of people are primitive. Some equate the words to “savages.” Moreover, the words ignore the fact that a geographic area can contain many people of diverse, distinct identities.
Finally understanding this, I went on and did exactly as the Native woman suggested. I used my imagination and relative intelligence to come up with substitute phrases for “tribes” and “tribalism.”
By the time the plane landed at MSP, I had settled on two new phrases: “Group-identified people” (“GIP”) and “group-identified behavior” (“GIB”).
While the new phrases are clunky and require explanation, they certainly avoid marginalizing Native and Black people. And that is the whole point.
I am truly ashamed that it took me so long to respond to something so important. I tell myself that this work is an unfolding process, one of continual learning and evolving perspective.
Still, that is a pretty crappy excuse.
I. Will. Do. Better.