Tech Lingo Unchained: Are There Racial Connotations in Tech Terms and Should They Be Replaced?
The social crisis that is now afflicting the whole world has exacerbated the issue of racial inequality and voiced concerns about the difference in how ethnic minorities are perceived. While thousands of people have taken to the streets protesting against racial discrimination and calling for racial justice, the technology world has responded to the problem in its own way.
The tech industry stakeholders have taken an effort to raise public awareness about the problem of discrimination and racism and encouraged more willingness on the part of companies and communities to address this issue on their end.
Thus, tech giant IBM will no longer develop and sell facial recognition software for mass surveillance. The firm questioned its facial recognition tech’s accuracy of face-scanning software in terms of race and gender.
Amazon’s face recognition tech Rekognition will not be available to use by law enforcement, as well, for similar reasons. Given the racial bias issues associated with law enforcement, the flaws of face recognition tech apparently have great potential to cause harm and ultimately widen the gap between police forces and the communities they ought to protect.
When it comes to the technology world, some experts claim that the diversity of the technical community is already a problem, with the digital tech community having a problem with monoculture. Even the language used by tech professionals ostensibly reinforces negative stereotypes and boosts intolerance.
This is reflected in technical documentation—which is supposed to reach a wide audience of readers—in the form of arguably oppressive terminology like “master/slave,” “whitelist/blacklist,” and others.
Notably, the usage of the aforementioned terminology by tech communities is gradually being eliminated as they have begun setting new standards and implementing alternative terms to avoid negative connotations.
Actions Taken by Tech Projects
Just recently, an array of companies and organizations have abolished the use of potentially offensive terms in their internal processes. Matt Ahrens, the co-creator of the ZFS file system has requested to “remove unnecessary references to slavery” from the OpenZFS database. OpenZFS is an open-source storage platform that claims to protect against data corruption, efficient data compression, and high storage capacity, among other things.
In his post on GitHub, Ahrens pointed out that “the horrible effects of human slavery continue to impact society. The casual use of the term ‘slave’ in computer software is an unnecessary reference to a painful human experience.” Thus, references to “slave” are now replaced with “dependents.”
GitHub CEO Nat Friedman has not stood by idly and also said the project would replace the terms “whitelist” and “blacklist” and “master” and “slave” with “main,” “default,” “primary,” and “secondary.” “An easy fix would be to replace our use of whitelist with allowlist and blacklist with denylist,” the announcement further read.
Previously, projects such as Python, CouchDB, Salt, MediaWiki, and Redis abandoned the terms “master” and “slave.” Addressing the issue to the community, a Python developer Victor Stinner stated: “For diversity reasons, it would be nice to try to avoid ‘master’ and ‘slave’ terminology which can be associated with slavery.”
Drupal introduced the terms “primary” and “replica” instead of “master” and “slave.” Django replaced the aforementioned terms with “leader” and “follower.”
Developers behind Google Chrome and Chromium began avoiding the terms “blacklist” and “whitelist” in a move against all forms of racism. Now, the project will use the terms “blocklist” and “allowlist.” Last October, Google Chrome even released guidance on “racially neutral” code, where it said:
“Terms such as ‘blacklist’ and ‘whitelist’ reinforce the notion that black [equals] bad and white [equals] good. That Word Black, by Langston Hughes, illustrates this problem in a lighthearted, if somewhat pointed way. These terms can usually be replaced by ‘blocklist’ and ‘allowlist’ without changing their meanings, but particular instances may need other replacements.”
Moreover, the United Kingdom National Cyber Security Centre said it would use the terms “allow list” and “deny list.” Commenting on the matter, Emma W., Head of Advice and Guidance at the agency, stated:
“It’s fairly common to say whitelisting and blacklisting to describe desirable and undesirable things in cybersecurity. However, there’s an issue with the terminology. It only makes sense if you equate white with ‘good, permitted, safe’ and black with ‘bad, dangerous, forbidden’. There are some obvious problems with this.”
Reaction from the Community
The move taken by the tech industry players has sparked mixed reactions from the community, with some of its members arguing that “the meaning of a word is defined by its use, by the context.”
Being surprised by the changes, one commentator drew an analogy to the red color and communism, saying: “For example, your avatar is red. Red, like communism. You should use black and white colors. Oh no, that’s linked to racism too. Well. Let’s remove colors, too, then?”
“As a black guy, none of these terms coming from IT are offensive. I just think this is the Go team being to be progressive. I’m not for or against it nor offended. They control the direction of the project. I would have liked to see a poll or vote. Glad to see no one said ‘I’m going to stop using Go’ because of this,” a redditor said, in a discussion of Go removing all uses of blacklist/whitelist and master/slave.
In the comments to the same discussion, another redditor stated: “I can see why it’s an unfortunate name, and perhaps we should distance ourselves from it, but are people actually offended by blacklist/whitelist? As far as I know, these terms had nothing to do with race originally.”
Some welcomed the changes and noted that they could facilitate better inclusiveness. Commenting on the changes implemented by Django, one user said: “Thanks, Django for making this important change to be more welcoming and inclusive to more members of the tech community. <3”
To the announcement about Drupal replacing “master/slave” terminology with “primary/replica,” one developer supported the idea of removing a barrier to inclusiveness, stipulating:
“This is not even about being ‘politically correct,’ this is about being terminologically more accurate. And if you can make a change that also removes loaded meaning which makes a large number of people uneasy, thereby removing a barrier to inclusiveness, you really should get behind it.”
“And the blacklist, graylist, whitelist. I don’t mind the change, it doesn’t bother me as long as this doesn’t become a racial issue and that I have to go and refactor every code that I have ever written, and introduce new bugs in the process. I hope the next generation is smart enough not to call us the old racist generation and see this for what this is,” a redditor said in a Go-related discussion.
What Experts Say
Debates of whether the “black” and “white” part of a term implies any racial connotation have indeed increased challenging linguistics, sociology, and other experts to provide the public with more consistent explanations.
Some of them share a radical position on the issue, with Ossie Davis, the author of The English Language is My Enemy, once noting:
“The word WHITENESS has 134 synonyms; 44 of which are favorable and pleasing to contemplate. Only ten synonyms for WHITENESS appear to me have negative implications—and these only in the mildest sense.
“The word BLACKNESS has 120 synonyms, 60 of which are distinctly unfavorable, and none of them even mildly positive.”
In their paper dubbed ‘Blacklists’ and ‘whitelists’: a salutary warning concerning the prevalence of racist language in discussions of predatory publishing, academics Frank Houghton and Sharon Houghton from Limerick, Ireland, stipulated:
“It is also interesting to observe that although the term ‘blacklist’ is pervasive throughout the predatory publishing literature, equally racist terms such as ‘black sheep’ and ‘black market’ are also frequently used in relation to predatory publishers. The term ‘black’ in this context implies disreputable, shamed, illicit, or outcast. Such terminology not only reflects racist culture, but also serves to reinforce, legitimize, and perpetuate it.”
Authors of Terminology, Power and Oppressive Language also pushed for the adoption of more accurate alternative terms like “primary-secondary,” “leader-follower” and “active-standby,” among others.
“While master-slave might seem like a more egregious example of racism, white-black is arguably worse because it is more pervasive and therefore more sinister,” the document explained.
Commenting on the matter, Simon Lancaster, a British professional speechwriter, told forklog.media:
“Much of our language was conceived and developed during eras of widespread racism and misogyny so it’s not surprising to find such views can still be found in many apparently innocuous, everyday phrases and ideas.
Language always naturally evolves anyway. Things that were acceptable when I was growing up in the 70s are not acceptable today and the world’s a better place for that. As attitudes change, so too does language—these companies are just giving it a little nudge along and good for them. Where language locks in prejudice and causes offense it is right that this is removed.
Tech is an inherently radical and progressive sector so it’s not surprising they’re taking such a pioneering and bold approach to language. Steps like this could eventually lead to much wider changes in attitudes across society.”
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