The San Francisco Unified School District recently announced that it will eliminate the word “chief” from its job titles. As The San Francisco Chronicle reported, the district spokesperson Gentle Blythe said: “While there are many opinions on the matter, our leadership team agreed that, given that Native American members of our community have expressed concerns over the use of the title, we are no longer going to use it.” Presumably, all of the district’s division chiefs — everyone listed on this web page, from the chief technology officer to the chief of student, family and community support — will get new titles.
Eyes may roll — yet another round of politically correct rebranding from the same district that last year wound up rescinding its decision to rename public schools named after Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Given that I often look askance at out-of-the-blue additions to (and subtractions from) the woke lexicon, some might expect me to cast a dubious eye here. This, though, is a delicate case.
There are almost certainly many Native Americans who aren’t offended by titles that include “chief.” Indeed, I’d wager that most aren’t, if the controversy over the Washington Redskins, the former name of the Washington Commanders, has been any indication. In a 2016 Washington Post poll of 504 Native Americans, only about 1 in 10 found the old name offensive. But that isn’t dispositive. We still might ask why the feelings of that 1 in 10 are not worth response.
And it doesn’t matter that “chief” isn’t considered a slur, the way many people (not just Native Americans) consider “Redskins” to be, regardless of polling results. Nor does it matter that it’s not a term that’s come to be seen by some as one of general objectification and dismissal, as “squaw” has been. (There have also been calls for retiring that term.)
Those who find “chief” problematic consider its use beyond the Native American community a form of cultural appropriation that diminishes the term’s significance: The Indigenous Corporate Training blog notes that the salutation “hey, chief” has “the potential to trivialize both the hereditary chief who has the power passed down from one generation to the next along blood lines or other cultural protocols and the elected chief who is chosen by band members” of respective Indigenous nations. “Being called ‘chief’ can make people feel very uncomfortable, especially if they are not chiefs,” it says.
Sure, some object to the cultural appropriation argument on the grounds that “chief” is not an Indigenous word. It traces to French, and before that, Latin, borrowed by English long ago. However, this misses that “chief” has taken on a culturally specific usage among some Native Americans. The head of the Cherokee Nation (one of three federally recognized Cherokee nations), for instance, is titled “principal chief.”
Yet this remains a tricky case. Reasonable minds will, after all, differ on how far we’ll go to resist the natural process of meaning change that words undergo: The Indigenous Corporate Training site also cautions that “Pow wows are social gatherings for ceremonial and celebratory purposes and are conducted under strict protocol. Using this phrase to refer to a quick business meeting denigrates the long, cultural significance of the pow wow.” But one could argue that “pow wow” is now two different terms, one with the original meaning and one that simply refers to a get-together or assemblage, in much the same way that “conclave” has expanded beyond its Catholic meaning and has now taken on a more catholic meaning, referring to any kind of conference. Believe it or not, even the word “thing” began as referring to a meeting.
More to the point, though, because “chief” is an English word and has such an array of meanings in English beyond the one referring to Native American leaders, the cultural appropriation argument does become somewhat fragile: “Chief of police” and the chief reason for doing something — among the ordinary and long-entrenched uses of this word — are now to be classified as inappropriate because there happens to be another use that describes the presiding rank in certain Indigenous nations?
In other words, one might ask: To what degree can we say that the word “chief” belongs to Native Americans? Ireland’s prime minister is called the “taoiseach,” which translates to “chieftain.” JoAnne Bass is the chief master sergeant of the Air Force — the top enlisted person in that branch of the military. If using “chief” in her title can be considered offensive, what else might we have to classify? What about “tribe”? Like “chief,” in American culture, “tribe” is often used in reference to Native American nations: The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, part of the Department of the Interior, refers officially to sovereign “tribal governments.” Some Indigenous nations — the Narragansett Indian Tribe, for example — formally designate themselves with the word “tribe.” Yet that word, too, has a wider scope: The ancient Roman polity was divided into units called tribes; Matthew 19:28 discusses “the 12 tribes of Israel.”
There are no easy answers on this one. One might argue that the interaction between Indigenous people and white people in this country over the centuries justifies defining the word primarily in relation to its use in the hierarchies of different Native American nations.
Still, it is difficult not to notice that, often these days, what is touted as proper terminology is only thought of that way by a small minority of a group, usually those who have had a particular formal education or who are politically active. “Latinx” is probably the most notorious example today.
But we can’t dismiss genuine offense or insensitivity out of hand just because it isn’t felt by a majority of the members of a group. Neither can we dismiss the majority for not being offended. I worry about a looming implication that the less vocal members of a group are missing something that their presumed leaders possess the insight to perceive.
Might the leaders, at least sometimes, have something to learn from others?
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”