Everything started simply enough. One of my Twitter followers asked content creators to use our reach to discuss the usage of the word tribal in Magic. These are some of my favorite type of decks, thus I’ve said tribal countless times without really thinking about it. This discourse led me to do some research about the negative connotations of the word.
There’s a lot of history to unpack here, and much of it is not pleasant. In Western culture, it is not uncommon for someone to use tribal as another word for savage, uncivilized or lesser. Modern media still uses tribal or tribesman to describe African people, and the language is limiting in many ways. Many Native American groups have moved on from the word as well.
Many people have started using tribe to describe their group of friends, co-workers or just like-minded folks. These people don’t mean any harm, but they’re engaging in cultural appropriation.
If you’re an Instagrammer sharing your favorite recipes, you do not belong to a tribe. My country has taken so much from Native Americans, including some of their language. Legions of grinning sports mascots belie a sordid history of broken promises. Despite all the protests and Native American friends who supposedly don’t object, things are slowly changing in these regards.
Much of my work is speaking out when something effects marginalized communities. Much of the background here is African and I, an African-American, didn’t have it. So it wasn’t surprising to me how many other people never stopped to consider their usage of the word. Nobody at Wizards of The Coast is intentionally being hurtful when they brand elves, dragons or demons a tribe.
Like me before last week, they legitimately didn’t think about the history.
As I mentioned, this isn’t me coming down from Politically Correct Mountain to chastise others for a mistake I haven’t made. I’ve said tribal about a million times. But now I know better and have resolved to do better. I do not presume to have all the answers. I have vowed to continue asking the questions, however.
First, I decided to remove tribal from my vocabulary. Then as asked, I started using my reach as a content creator to let anyone listening know why I had. For whatever my opinion is worth, I asked others to do the same. The first step was a YouTube video.
Now I’ve been writing and speaking about controversial topics long enough to know there will be negative feedback. It’s human nature to defend oneself. I’m also well aware that Internet debate often lacks nuance. I knew that many people would turn a polite request to stop using a problematic term into an assault on their freedom of speech. I released the video and waited for perhaps 50-60 people to click on it, as is often the case with the more delicate topics.
In about a half hour when I checked the numbers, they were going crazy. YouTube’s an unusual beast. Often the things you think will do great get five views and the thing you release primarily to keep a release schedule goes viral. But this looked like an inspired debate. Then I dove into the comments. They ranged from polite disagreement to outright personal attacks and racial slurs. Somebody explained to me in a message that the video had been posted to r/freemagic.
If you’re unfamiliar with this particular bastion of Magic commentary, it began with some people removed from other Reddits because of their post history. One of the first things you’ll see on the page is reading material for people who have been told it’s a hate group. In other words, they’re not racist – but…
As I said, I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been accused of using my “liberal media” powers for everything from turning the course of an election to trying to shutdown a massage business. The hatred that poured into my comment section after Freemagic got wind of my video is on another level. There are probably a lot of people in the group that aren’t racist. Perhaps they even compose the majority. But the remainder give the whole group, and our whole game of Magic: The Gathering a bad name. They are every negative stereotype about Magic players personified. The comment section of my video is an absolute cesspool.
There are reasons that even free speech has guardrails. Keeping any debate at a respectful tone is the best way to ensure tempers don’t flare and things don’t get out of hand. For example, I suggested we remove one problematic word with racial connotations from our discourse. Some agreed, some objected, but only the Internet’s worst citizens responded with racial slurs and attacks. My whole point initially is that we have to be better about choosing our words.
Why are marginalized people not comfortable in our gaming spaces? Words like tribal are only part of the problem. Deep down, those of us that are different are afraid that card stores or comic shops are just like that comment section. Think about it. Many of those people play Magic somewhere. Would you be comfortable among them?