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Inclusive Language in Technology

If you’re anything like me, the spring of 2020 has been the most difficult decade in recent memory. From a global pandemic to widespread protests against unjust brutality, there has been no shortage of things to worry about. It can leave you feeling helpless, ramp up anxiety, and make sleep hygiene a laughable thing of the past.

Also, if you’re like me, you use your day job as an escape from the ills of the world. Diving deep into a hard problem can, for a brief period, make me forget about, well, all of this. This is a small but important marker of the privilege I have as a white, cisgender man. And as a privileged individual, often the temptation is to turn to our less-privileged colleagues and ask, “how can I help?” This question, though well-intentioned, puts the burden on them to figure out a solution. 

In this post, I’ll share one specific thing we can do to make our technology environments more inclusive to all of our coworkers: removing terminology that carries baggage of centuries of systemic racism.

Content Warning: The rest of this post will feature racially charged language as examples of things to change.

Here are some straightforward ways we can remove microaggressions from our daily life in technology:

  1. Rename your default branch in git (or whatever source-control system you use). The default name, master, evokes the “master” in a master-slave relationship (more on that later).
  2. Audit your use of racially charged terms like “whitelist” and “blacklist.” Not only do these equate “white” with “good” and “black” with “bad,” but they can also be less clear than alternatives. Consider “allowlist” and “blocklist,” for instance, or using the verbs “permit” and “deny.”
  3. Stop using outdated terms altogether. Instead of calling your main Jenkins instance “master” and your build nodes “slaves,” consider just calling them your “main” and “build” machines. Similarly, consider “primary” and “secondary” for databases, or “primary” and “replica.” There’s no reason to use the word “slave” in 2020.


BLM Protesters - Anti racism


If your first thought when reading this was to respond, “well, actually, the term ‘master’ in this context refers to…,” let me stop you there. The person who is allowed to determine if language is offensive is the offended party; if a teammate tells you to stop using a term, thank them for the feedback and stop using it. That’s it. Even if language falls short of the mark for being considered “offensive,” it may still be uncomfortable or serve as a painful reminder of injustice. By removing these reminders from the daily life of technology on your team, you can help to make teammates feel included and safe.

Finally, I have a request—a challenge, even. If you’re reading this and are a white, cisgender man like me, wondering how to help, don’t wait until a Black teammate brings up the term “master” to bring about change. Look at your technology stack and initiate this change yourself. Harness your privilege and take a small step towards inclusivity. As an individual, the scope of the challenges we face in society can be overwhelming. We can’t stop systemic racism overnight, but we can make work a safer place for everyone.

Further Reading: