Is the name of the Offbeat Bride Tribe “problematic and frankly racist”?

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UPDATE 2018: This post was written 7 years ago. The Offbeat Bride Tribe was shuttered in 2015 (for reasons totally unrelated to its name) and as the dialog about cultural appropriate and tribal affiliations has evolved, I can say I’d make different choices now. I’m leaving this post up as a relic. At this point, I do find the word problematic — although I still don’t find it racist.

Since monthly readership of the Offbeat Empire sites is over 300,000 people, it’s to be expected that we’d receive a fair number of reader complaints. Sometimes, these complaints are truly educational (I had no idea that the Society of Professional Journalists had voted to replace the phrase “illegal immigrant” with “undocumented immigrant” until a reader emailed me about it) and other times they’re ludicrous (Offbeat Bride’s hilarious “motherfuckergate” comes to mind here). I’ve written about this before, but this last week I had an especially challenging reader complaint.

Here’s the deal: While it’s easy to capitulate (“Oh, you’re right! We’ll use undocumented immigrant from now on”) or blow someone off (“Sorry: swearing is part of Offbeat Bride, and if you don’t like it, this site may not be a good fit for you”), it’s harder to show genuine respect for the concern and passion that drives a reader to contact us, even when I disagree with their complaint. In those cases, the situation becomes finding a way to acknowledge the reader’s perspective, fully hear their concern, and yet still say, “Sorry: we’re not changing that.” Here’s the recent example:

Hi. I am a young woman who is going to get married. Your community seems like a very nice place. I like the website, and I’m interested in the community.But I am turned off by the tone-deaf wording you guys use for the forum: “tribe,” “tribe members” etc. Hasn’t anyone mentioned it before? Why do you use that phrasing? I find it offensive, especially in the wedding recaps when you say something like “Sarah, Teacher and Tribe Member.” I always think, oh, that’s cool, she’s Native… and then I remember, no, that’s just the asinine way you guys refer to yourselves. It makes me think that the forum is full of liberal-but-still-racist “color-blind” white people with no insight into their own privilege and prejudices. I’ve read the articles you’ve had about being more inclusive with great interest, but the prominence of this problem is a huge turn-off for me. Hasn’t anyone who is Native asked about it?

In any case, even though I’m not Native, I guess I’ll ask about it, and also request that you guys consider changing that problematic and frankly racist wording.

Thank you for your time.

I worked closely with Offbeat Bride’s managing editor (and my associate publisher) Megan to craft a response to this person’s email, shaping it from conversations we had with the Offbeat Bride Tribe’s moderators and community members. Here’s the response Megan sent:

First, I just want to tell you how much I appreciate your passion about both our community and issues of cultural sensitivity. Thanks for taking the time to give us your feedback.To answer your question, after four years and 21,000 registered members, one has ever commented on our use of the word tribe. We’ve had several very active Native American contributors, so I like to believe that we’d be the first to hear if they had concerns.

We use the word tribe to highlight the fact that this is a large group of people with a lot in common: “a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest” (Webster’s Dictionary). It’s also worth addressing that, on a larger scale, ethnic groups don’t have sole possession of the word tribe — it’s used in biology to describe groups of animals, and anthropology to describe societal organizations. It’s not just a racial, cultural, or ethnic word.

That said, after receiving your email, we wanted to address the issue directly with our Native American forum members. Here’s just one of many indicative comments that we received in response:

I was born on an Indian reservation in Forks, Washington to a black mother and my full Native American father that is a member of the Hoh tribe. As a card carrying member of the Hoh Indian nation, I am not offended at all by the Offbeat Bride Tribe. There are a lot of things that are racially insensitive — but this is not one of them. Thank you for showing your concern and taking the time to make sure you aren’t offending us.

Based on our own beliefs as well as this very direct feedback from our active Native American members, we’re going to stand behind our name. Although we disagree with you on this particular issue, we clearly share your concern about issues of language and cultural sensitivity, and genuinely appreciate your comment and the opportunity to have this conversation.

[related-post align=”right”]Thanking this reader for the opportunity to have the discussion wasn’t lip service. For me, the most valuable part of this exchange was the dialog I had with the Offbeat Bride Tribe’s members of the Brides of Color group. They had some truly insightful, incredible perspectives on a thorny issue that’s difficult to discuss online.

This is all to say, while sometimes we deal with the challenges of reader complaints, I also have the opportunity to learn incredible, powerful things from my readers. It’s pretty fucking awesome.

Comments on Is the name of the Offbeat Bride Tribe “problematic and frankly racist”?

  1. I love that she asked the question and I love that you gals addressed it the way you did. The internet is beautiful when it doesn’t devolve into flame wars!

  2. One of the things that continually amazes me about OBB is how *gracious* you, your editors, and your interns are.

    You handled this question beautifully–thank you for working so hard to make our Tribe a place of safety, thoughtfulness, and respect.

    • Indeed! I’m going to bookmark this as a great way to respond to a “customer inquiry” on a sensitive subject.

  3. As being a bride of color as well as an offbeat mama, I have prominent Native American blood as well as being AA (African American); I see no problem with the word “tribe”. Or how you have used it.
    Thanks for being honest and 100 about what Offbeat means. Thanks

  4. I believe that anyone can find something to be offended by on any given site on the internet. Someone is going to be offended by the angle of a picture, the phrasing of a sentence, etc. I think the Offbeat Moderator’s response to the reader was a good one.

    But especially after reading the dictionary definition, I have to tend to believe that the person who wrote in the comment about “tribe” being racist, is a bit racist herself. Tribes describe all sorts of things, not just Native Americans. They’ve just attached that word like a stereotype to Native Americans. You can have a tribe of college graduates. People even often use it in the sense of a “tribe of cattle.” I don’t think of any Offbeat users as a tribe of cattle any more than the word tribe makes me think of Native Americans, or any other group of people.

    • I thought the same thing. Tribe is definitely not used exclusively by Native Americans – there are African tribes, Asian tribes, hell, even pre-Christianity Europe was filled with tribes!

    • That was my first thought, too: “this person sounds just as whiplash bigoted as she’s accusing other people of being.” The comment about “liberal-but-still-racist “color-blind” white people with no insight into their own privilege and prejudices” was particularly aggravating. It seems to me that the worst way of trying to speak out against racial stereotypes is to insult someone else based on their skin color or the fact that their version of tolerance isn’t exactly the same as yours.

    • I’m a member of a Native American tribe, enrolled and blood-quantum-carded and all that, and the first thing I think of when I think of the word ‘tribe’ is a group of people with a common focus. The word isn’t native to the language of any tribe- it’s a Latin based word. And yes, it has been used to refer to several kinds of tribes… Maori, African, and the tribes on the North American continent.

      The way the word is used here isn’t in any way racist and seems totally appropriate.

  5. People are too sensitive these days. Everyone would get along so much better if we all could just agree to disagree…

    1.A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent.
    2.A political, ethnic, or ancestral division of ancient states and cultures, especially:
    a.Any of the three divisions of the ancient Romans, namely, the Latin, Sabine, and Etruscan.
    b.Any of the 12 divisions of ancient Israel.
    c.A phyle of ancient Greece.
    3.A group of people sharing an occupation, interest, or habit: a tribe of graduate students.
    4.Informal. A large family.
    5.Biology. A taxonomic category placed between a subfamily and a genus or between a suborder and a family and usually containing several genera.

    • “People are too sensitive these days.”

      I disagree. It’s fine for folks to be sensitive and to flag language they see as problematic. I’m not always going to agree with them, but I wouldn’t say anyone’s being “too sensitive” by expressing their concerns.

      • I love the way your staff handles sensitive subjects. I especially love that you stay true to your views and your goals for the site. It ensures that we all have a place to come and enjoy the material and community.
        As an aside, I am part Native American, and I don’t mind you having a “tribe”. The groups of Native Americans who are referred to as tribes were strong, intelligent, and focused on creating a greater good for the tribe to share in. When people take something from a culture, it can be either good or bad. I am happy that what you take from the culture here is “tribe”. There is nothing insensitive or racially charged in creating a strong group of people banding together to create a forum for everyone’s questions and needs, contributing to a greater good. There were a million things that you could have taken from the culture, and tribal links are one of the best.

    • By your same definition of why it is okay to use the word “Tribe” without it being offensive, it would be fine to use the word “retarded” without it being offensive. It isn’t the word, but the connotations people have put on it over time.

      • I’m not sure I’m understanding — my point with the word “tribe” isn’t that the meaning of the word has changed but that it was never exclusively used for Native American tribes. The word tribe has always been applied to all sorts of different kinds of different people, so it’s not a word that’s “owned” by any particular ethnic identity. Am I misunderstanding your comment?

  6. Ariel- I love that you share this stuff with us, and your process for addressing it. It is not only a great help to me in my professional life, but a great reminder (and place to point to) – letting people know that rational people can disagree. Thank you. Kick ass approach. Kick ass response.

  7. i happen to be part native (my mother is cree) and i never even thought of the association until you guys pointed it out. so no offense taken i figured it was a clever way to describe a group of people and make it sound unique and different. as so many of us offbeat people are 🙂 and i may add very classy way to discuss the issue 🙂

  8. Actually it’s the opposite of being derogatory. You’re using tribe in a positive way, making reference to the power and connectivity that a tribe offers up to its members. I love it.

  9. I am half N.A and I don’t associate tribe with anything other than the given definition. Nothing wrong with it. Nothing wrong with “illegal immigrants” either as it is illegal, but hey, whatever. Keep doing what you are doing. If that bride really was upset by the term, then she could leave. Why be in a tribe you don’t want to be in:D

  10. (A) There are other cultures that have tribes.

    (B) I am native american, I am not offended. I am how ever offended when people decided to be offended for me. I am sorry.

    • Contemporary Jewish people, for instance, often say, “Welcome to the tribe” or “members of the tribe,” recalling at least in part their ancestry among the twelve tribes of Israel.

  11. I appreciate the sensitivity of both the manner in which this question was asked, as well as the manner in which it was answered. I do not feel that use of the word tribe on this site is inappropriate because it relates to the broader and older understanding of this term. Furthermore, the word “tribe”is not being used in a derogatory,insensitive, or inflammatory sense.
    I am an educator. I live and work in a state where Native peoples are the largest minority group. Our state’s Office of Public Instruction has made a point of training educators to be more culturally sensitive and also celebrating and highlighting the contributions that native people have made to our state’s history.
    Within the classroom, teachers are encouraged to teach understanding by showing that we all members if different tribes and that history is filled with tribal groups other that American indigenous peoples. The point of this type of exercise is to understand that the word tribe has a broader history and that all people have belonged tribes. We are all, as the Black Eyed Peas would sing,”One tribe; one people.”

  12. I think that was well thought/put on both sides. I am personally not offended either – most of my life was in Oklahoma, u know where we gotta learn about all the tribes/cultures there. I have a fraction of Native American and quite frankly – I am not offended either by it. I embrace COMMUNITY. “Tribe” is just a shorter and simple word to describe what I feel is such a community. Loving all the girls, Peace out, Jen

  13. I’ve heard tribe refer to Jews a lot more often than Native Americans. Usually people refer to them as “Indigenous Nations” or something closer nowadays, however “Tribe” has been used to describe the Jewish people for over 500 years.

    • I am definitely an MOT (member of the tribe), a term used to call out Jews amongst ourselves. My husband is also a member of the Tribe of Levi (the biblical patrilineal tribe of clerks who have some special duties/prayers in more traditional Jewish congregations). I never gave any thought to OBBT as being anything other than a tribe of awesome.

      What else would it be called? Offbeat Bride Scouts? (The bonus to that name is that we could then go off and sell delicious, over-processed cookes!) Then there would be all sorts of other complaints/comments without direction. I suppose having a Offbeat Bride Scout uniform would defeat the purpose of having joined the tribe/troop in the first place.

    • As someone who is also Jewish, I thought the same thing. Native Americans aren’t the only group with tribes. Also, like a previous poster, I find it odd when someone with no cultural or racial affiliation with a particular group becomes offended on their behalf.

  14. I’m from Ghana, West Africa and my mum is from the Ewe tribe, my Dad is from the Ashanti and Fante tribes. I am proud to let people know which tribes I come from when asked about my background. In fact, when I became a member on this site, it never occurred to me to connect the use of the word “tribe” in the Offbeat community to what I think of instictively when considering the term “tribe”, although it all boils down to the SAME thing, and I certainly was not offended. Actually, I am a bit miffed that the writer ONLY associated the term with Native Americans, unless I read too quickly. Totally off topic BUT just taking a moment share that in Canada, where I grew up for the most part, we often use the term First Nations or “Autochtones” in French.. everyone else whether self-identifying as Canadian or otherwise, settled after… ; )

    • I think it is fitting that we are all seeing here the varied use of “tribe”, from Africa, to Jewish descendants, to the Native Americans that the original writer referenced. What is interesting is that members of any tribe seem to have nothing but love for the term, and we’d all love to share it. It feels appropriate that everyone has stepped out here to say that a tribe is a wonderful thing to aspire to.
      From my tribes (both Native American and Celtic) to yours, much love.

    • Yes, and also in Canada, I was under the impression that the word “band” is replacing the word “tribe”. I could be wrong though.

    • Yup, when I read this, my first thought was of my 2 year roommate Aouma from Kenya, who was Luo, and often referred to her friends from other tribes, like Kisi and Kikuyu..
      However, the first time I read the term “Offbeat Tribe” I just thought of my friends who were burners! All of the burning man aficionados I know refer to various tribes, including the kids I work with at OccupyLA 😉 I agree, your answer was (as always)graciously worded.

      • Yeah, for me, my use of the word “Tribe” was mostly inspired by the now-decrepit, which was the hotspot of Burner social networking five or six years ago. As a retired Burner myself, it’s definitely a word that gets used a lot in that community. 🙂

  15. I am Native and it doesn’t bother me!!

    Tribe from the dictionary:
    “any aggregate of people united by ties of descentfrom a common ancestor, community of customs and traditions, adherence to the same leaders, etc.”
    That fits offbeat bride and not just a race off people.

    Her question was offensive — not your tribe!!

  16. I know this is a little late, but I just wanted to say that as an American Indian Studies grad student, and an Indigenous lady myself, I don’t find the term tribe offensive in the slightest. It’s a name for a grouping of people, and while that might be connected in a more direct way to Indigenous peoples, it’s not descriptive of those peoples any more than it is of pre-modern European tribes people or the like. It’s global term.

    And like some previous commenters have said, many Indigenous folks have moved past using tribe and now use band, community or more commonly in the states, nation.

  17. I’m Native American, born and raised on a reservation, kahnawake, Canada. I’ve been on this site for a few months,before and after my wedding. I can say that this womans approach and concern has totally blown me away.
    The only thing I have a problem with is that people call me an “indian” first of all,I’m not from India and secondly people need to learn to differentiate NATIVES from INDIANS.
    To say that the OBT is a racist term is obtuse. My tribe is Mohawk,and I’m very proud of that,but guess what? My tribe is also right here on Offbeat Bride. For me to read someone’s thought of racism when it’s not something that would effect them to begin with confuses me. No it’s not nice if someone is being blatantly racist,and that’s when something needs to be said. But when there is a gathering of people all concerned and interested in the same thing,there is no reason not to be called a “tribe.”
    Is this woman aware that there is a kids TV show called “The Tribe?” This show is based around a group of kids/teens dressed futuristic-ally,otherworldly even,and they are part of a “tribe” that basically walks around,comes up with things to do,gives advice,and solves problems.
    …Sound familiar?

    So this is my comment to her comment. There’s no racism in being part of something that is huge and giving it a name that may be used traditionally by other people. It is not offensive,it is not hurtful. If you were to call me something racist to my face then i’d have a problem,but I love being part of two tribes that I enjoy and love very much.I get as much as I can out of both of them.

  18. When I’ve seen people object to the word “tribe”, it’s in the sense that sociologists, historians, and anthropologists tend to use it in a derogatory way. As in, any particular ethnic group will only be referred to as a “tribe” if they are considered uncivilized.

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