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San Francisco public schools drop ‘chief’ from job titles so as not to offend Native Americans

Public schools in San Francisco are dropping the word “chief” from job titles because of the word’s connotation with Native Americans, school officials said.

No longer will division chiefs be referred to as “chiefs” in the San Francisco Unified School District after a Wednesday decision to retire the term, spokesperson Gentle Blythe told the San Francisco Chronicle. The decision will apply to all of the school district’s 10,000 employees.

“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,” Blythe said.

The school district will need to come up with a new word to replace job titles like “chief technology officer” or “chief of staff.” There are at least thirteen positions in the district that will be renamed. Blythe emphasized to the Chronicle that new job titles will not reflect a demotion for anyone.

“By changing how we refer to our division heads we are in no way diminishing the indispensable contributions of our district central service leaders,” Blythe said.

The word “chief” does not have Native American roots. It is an English word borrowed from an Old French word (chef) meaning “leader,” derived from the Latin “capus,” which means captain or chieftain. In its noun form, chief means the leader or head of a group of people.

But regardless of what words mean or where they come from, some left-wing indigenous rights groups have protested the use of “chief” for job titles or sports team names, claiming it is racist or otherwise a form of cultural appropriation.

This would not be the first time SFUSD has bent over backward to appease the easily offended. Last year, the school district produced a plan to rename schools that had been named after historical figures associated with “slavery, genocide, colonization, exploitation and oppression,” including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. School officials even sought to drop the acronym “VAPA” — which stands for Visual and Performing Arts — because “acronyms are a symptom of white supremacy culture.”

Parent outraged over the San Francisco school board’s culture war and lingering frustrations from how the schools handled the COVID-19 pandemic led to the recall of three school board members in February. Even so, Wednesday’s announcement shows that SFUSD administrators are still fighting a war on words.

In search of a new title for “chiefs,” the district might consider “whiteface” — a word for the highest-ranking clowns in the circus.