DEI Expert Lee Bitsóí Explains Why ‘Chief’ Should Be Eliminated from Diversity Titles

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Lee Bitsóí

Dozens of educational institutions and athletic organizations have changed the names of their mascots and sports teams in recent years in response to demand from Indigenous advocates who have called for an end to the appropriation and mockery of Native American culture. Now, some activists are pointing to the need for an even more thorough reckoning when it comes to the use of Indigenous terminology in common parlance. Among their demands is eradicating use of the word “chief” in job titles, including that of chief diversity officer (CDO). 

Some government organizations, corporations, and other entities in the U.S. and Canada have already eliminated this word in favor of other options such as “senior,” “executive,” or similar descriptors. Those who oppose its usage in the context of job titles argue that, while “chief” originates from French, its significance to Native American cultures — as well as the history of its use as a pejorative against Indigenous men — renders it inappropriate for use in workplace roles. In a March 2021 op-ed in Entrepreneur magazine, Tiasia O’Brien, head of strategy for Seam Social Labs, explains why she refused to accept the title “chief executive officer:” 

“I self-identify as an Afro-Latina woman. This identity is not based on the Indigenous heritage of America, but I understand how it feels to be oppressed and silenced..… Historically [chief] has been used as one to define leadership, but it’s also been used as a slur against native leaders. As a business founder focused on community empowerment, anything that is still being decided upon by an entire community is worth careful consideration. No title, brand name, or symbol is worth the harm of negatively impacting a culture.”

Lee Bitsóí, EdD, vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at Brandeis University, has advocated for more organizations to adopt this approach. As a member of the Diné (Navajo) Nation and a DEI expert, he recently spoke with INSIGHT about why he believes higher education should eliminate its use of “chief” in titles and why words matter. 

When did you first become aware that use of the word “chief” in professional titles could be problematic or considered cultural appropriation?

The word itself comes from a French term meaning “leader,” and in Native cultures when leaders were to be identified to non-Native people, they were designated as chiefs. I found it interesting how the word was being used in the C-suite, but it didn’t really hit me until I obtained my first job as a CDO. I had a conversation in Navajo with my mother about the work that I was doing. She asked me, in English, what my job title was, and when I proudly told her “chief diversity officer,” she said, “Huh? When did you become a chief?” She explained to me that this title was supposed to be earned, not just given.   

That’s when I really started to think about the use of the word, especially in diversity work. It’s an issue that’s related to the problem of Native American mascots. People thought that when the Washington Football Team finally changed their name, we would see some [progress] in the culture, but this is still an ongoing problem. For those reasons, using the term “chief” in diversity work is problematic. 

In your current job and in previous positions, you told your superiors that you did not want “chief” to be part of your title. How did you explain this?

When I was in conversation about my title at my prior institution, Fort Lewis College, the title chief diversity officer was posed to me. I refused it because Fort Lewis is a Native-Serving Institution. Therefore, the title was modified to vice president for diversity affairs, and that was more indicative of the work that I would be doing while being sensitive to the Native American student population as well as the Indigenous faculty and staff. 

When I accepted my position at Brandeis, the title was actually listed as vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion/chief diversity officer. So when I was in conversation with the leadership team, I respectfully asked that the CDO portion be deleted and explained to them why. They said yes because Brandeis was founded on social justice values, and social justice requires inclusive language and being respectful as much as possible of other cultures. 

What would you say to someone who may argue that this should not be an issue? 

I would just say that diversity work is about broadening the participation of people who have not been able to participate before, and it’s not taking anything away from someone else [to change terminology]. It’s about giving a voice to people who have not had one before, and we as Native people have not had a say in these types of conversations at the national or global levels. Now that we’re speaking up and saying that this isn’t right, our voices should be heard, understood, and respected. 

Do you see more people in corporate America and academia becoming aware of this problem? 

The diversity networks that I am a member of are starting to have this conversation. It started [to gain attention] a couple of years ago with discussions of sports team names, like the Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, and the Cleveland Indians. I’ve had discussions with members of some organizations about this, and they had never really thought about it. They were so wedded to the concept of the C-suite that they never really stopped to consider how this could be problematic for Indigenous people. 

There is some momentum there, and I believe higher education can now be the real mover and that institutional organizations can help. We in higher education can help others understand why we should not use this term, especially in diversity titles. 

Why is it important for higher education to set an example with its use of language and titles?

The key word there is education. What happens in diversity work is that language that’s been accepted as the norm for a long time can sometimes be difficult to change. So it requires educating people about the potential harm that the usage of the term “chief” can inflict. 

You also sometimes hear this word used in the pejorative. That is accepted language, but it shouldn’t be. There are other words people use that they need to be better informed about, such as calling a meeting a powwow. A powwow is a ceremony, so it shouldn’t be used in that way in the workplace. There’s also the misnomer of the “low man on the totem pole,” but in some cultures, that figure is the most honored. We need education to inform people about why they should stop using these terms. 

Are any DEI organizations or Indigenous advocacy groups raising awareness around the use of “chief” in job titles?

I don’t think so. Obviously there have been so many efforts concerning things like sports teams and mascots, but this seems to be an issue that’s more under the radar. As I mentioned, some diversity networks have started having this conversation, and most of them are in academia. As the conversation expands and more people become knowledgeable about how this term is harmful, we will see more come on board. But again, culture change is difficult. 

Can you offer some examples of preferred wording for institutions that may elect to revise their job titles?

I think they should start with the CDO title by renaming it as vice president for DEI or, if the term “diversity officer” needs to be included, the words senior or executive could be used instead of “chief.”

When it comes to the C-suite, it may take a while for that culture to change. It will likely take time to change titles like CEO, CFO, CIO, chief human resources officer, and so forth, but I believe the change should begin with diversity officers.

Mariah Bohanon is the senior editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.

Lee Bitsóí, EdD, is a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.

This article was published in our May 2022 issue.