What’s in a Tribe?

It’s not easy to ask the hard questions. Especially when it comes to the way we speak. 

But staying true to our B Corp commitment to thinking deeply about the needs of marginalized communities means sometimes we have to stop and analyze which words we’ve been using and why.

Tribe. In marketing, it’s a word that’s meant to show how people are rallying together based on mutual interests: wellness, video games, shoes. They’re not buying what society expects them to, but what they find intriguing through their conversations with each other. The term is meant to help businesses strive for the authentic, rather than stereotypical. 

As in, here’s your chance go from reacting to what’s trending, to staking a claim on what matters most: 

“If your brand is based on the outdoors, then not only had the brand better care about the environment, it better put some “oomph” behind it – either, in the way the brand conducts business, so as to minimize impact on the environment, or through philanthropy investments in preserving the environment. These are becoming the table stakes of “genuine” and “authentic” when it comes to brand.” – Forbes, Tribal Marketing and the Need for a Radical Redefinition of Brand

But we’re kind of done with the word tribe. No, we’re really done with it. We used to use it, and now we’re letting it go. It’s hard to see our own privilege in the mirror like this, but we have to look and learn together. 

We’ve used tribe to communicate a closeness to the values we share with others. A means of activating people toward a common goal. But the word tribe has a dark history, with roots in 19th-century social theories. It carries the prejudice of colonist history – that “other people” are lesser, primitive, illogical.

“Historically, the U.S. government treats all Native American groups as tribes because of the same outdated cultural evolutionary theories and colonial viewpoints that led European colonialists to treat all African groups as tribes…”tribal” and “African” are still virtually synonyms in most media, among policy-makers and among Western publics. Clearing away this stereotype is an essential step for beginning to understand the diversity and richness of African realities.” – Teaching Tolerance

“Naming is an exercise in power. Whether you’re naming places or naming peoples, you are therefore asserting a power of sort of establishing what is reality and what is not.” – Doug Herman, Senior Geographer at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

You may have also seen a variation of tribe all over the media: tribalism. Used in politics as in recent articles from The Atlantic and the New Yorker to express the fire of partisan loyalties, is used widely, but should it be? 

This year, the AP Stylebook revised the word tribe as a “sovereign political entity, communities sharing a common ancestry, culture or language, and a social group of linked families who may be part of an ethnic group.” 

Translation: let’s stop using tribe to talk about our “yoga and mimosas” gatherings. 

Let’s start challenging ourselves to start thinking about a word we can use to talk about how we so deeply want to connect with each other in a way that’s authentic to who we are and inclusive of all people. Let’s come up with this word together. 

Here are some starting points. What would you use instead of tribe? 






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