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Removing racist terms in tech

The other day, I was reviewing an open ticket in an issue tracking system and saw the phrases “master” and “slave.” I cringed.

The company had dropped these terms from their official language a year earlier, but they persist, especially among older developers, as deeply ingrained phrases that slip out like muscle memory.

These terms, along with the phrases “whitelist” and “blacklist,” reinforce a centuries old legacy of white supremacy and racism that deeply permeates all aspects of life, and the tech industry in particular. It’s long past time for them to go.

(Yes, I know that “blacklist” and “whitelist” have etymological origins that have nothing to do with race, but the history of words matters far less than their current interpretations.)

Let’s take a quick look at what to use instead, what other companies are doing, and whether or not this is even important to do.

Alternative phrases

This actually isn’t that hard.

Linux recently stopped using those phrases. Django did it four damn years ago. Jenkins dropped the terms last year. GitHub just replaced master with main as the default branch.

Some alternatives:

  • primary/secondary
  • main/replica
  • initiator/target
  • requester/responder
  • controller/device
  • host/worker
  • host/proxy
  • leader/follower

You can mix-and-match these as desired, too. I personally like main and replica.

For “blacklist” and “whitelist”, allowlist and denylist offer simple, logical alternatives that are easy to understand.

Does this matter?

Yes. Also no.

Language is important. The words we use have deep, subtle impacts. They reinforce beliefs, behaviors, and power structures.

If you have a strong aversion to changing your language choices here, you’re probably a racist. This is an easy, low-hanging fruit thing you can do. It takes almost no effort.

Conversely, while it’s easy, it’s also lower impact.

There’s a real danger that the collective tech industry will dust off its hands, look around and go, “Well, we did it! We stopped racism, y’all!” Nope, not even close.

Changing language is symbolic. This is the first step in a journey of many, many steps.

After you take that first step, the real work begins.

Here are some things you can do

You don’t have to do everything at all once, but pick one or two of them and get to work.

  • Demand that your company’s pool of candidates for new jobs is reflective of the actual labor market. All white people? All dudes? One token woman of color? Someone fucked up or isn’t trying hard enough.
  • Insist that the interview team or selection committee for hiring is also diverse and reflective of the actual labor market. A team of all white guys leads to women and people of color getting passed over because of bullshit “cultural fit” reasons.
  • Tell your coworkers how much you make. Companies use people’s aversion to sharing their salary as a way to pay some people less for the same work. It often results in women and minorities being paid less. Adam Conover has a great episode of Adam Ruins Everything about this.
  • Ask questions about where your company and its executives sell products, donate, and lend support. Do they help ICE terrorize immigrant communities? Does a VP give lots of money to anti-LGBTQ politicians? Talk about this stuff. Be vocal. Use your voice to help those who can’t help themselves.
  • If you’re in a majority demographic where you live, sign up for the Anti-Racism Daily newsletter and educate yourself. Learn about the lived experiences of others.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it should get you started.

And if you’d rather I “just stick to tech,”” silence is political, too. There’s an unsubscribe link at the bottom of every one of my emails. Click it and don’t come back.