In honor of #ShutDownSTEM Day, we are taking today to step back from computational linguistics. In particular, we are doing a deep dive into how systemic racism and anti-Blackness are embedded within human language. After all, technology is only as good as the humans behind it, so computational linguistics is only as just as the human language it is built upon.
In this post, we'll highlight some common terms in everyday conversation that are actually rooted in racism and White supremacy. These aren't the sadly still-widespread racial slurs that are outright horrendous--rather, they're more subtle words and phrases that are still ubiquitously used. While subtle racism in language may not seem important, it matters because it shows just how deeply white supremacy is embedded in our society. Language is a direct reflection of culture: to combat systemic racism, we need to not only abolish unjust institutions and stop murdering Black people, but we also need to change our fundamentally racist culture from the roots up.
A few notes before we dive in:
Observing the Bender Rule, we want to state upfront that this post focuses on racism embedded in the English language and, by extension, in American society. We acknowledge that racism is present in other languages as well and that the analysis that follows may be English-specific.
We at LingHacks also acknowledge that we have used some of these terms in our programming in the past without realizing that they were racist, and we sincerely apologize for that. By calling ourselves out, we hope to also normalize the process of learning and changing opinions given new information.
Another (at this point standard) disclaimer: the author of this post is not Black and is by no means an expert on linguistics or racism. If anything in this post is incorrect or if you have any concerns about the content in this post, please email email@example.com and we'll correct our information.
Without further ado, here are some racist everyday terms (in that vein--we realize that we're saying the word "racist" a lot in this post, but we think it's important to be direct about this crisis instead of using euphemisms out of a thesaurus).
"Whitelist" and "Blacklist"
Putting something on a whitelist (or whitelisting something) usually means marking it as safe, allowed, or good. Putting something or someone on a blacklist means marking them as banned, dangerous, or bad. This is racist for pretty apparent reasons--it implies that white is good and black is bad. LingHacks apologizes for previously asking participants to whitelist our email domain so that hackathon and workshop registrants could get notifications from us. This isn't the only pair of terms that implies that darkness is bad, but it's just one prominent example that is especially relevant in the technical and professional spheres.
In the particular context of asking people to make sure your emails don't go to their spam, an alternative to "whitelist" would be "mark as safe" or "mark as safe sender"--it's more to the point anyway. In general, an alternative to "blacklisting" someone is "writing someone off" or "no longer associating/engaging with someone." As nouns in general, some have proposed "allowlist" and "blocklist."
"Master" (and "Slave") Branches
This one is for everyone in STEM who uses some form of version control (e.g. Git[Hub]/[Lab], BitBucket, etc). For those unfamiliar with American history, "master" and "slave" refer to the relationship between Black slaves and their White owners back when slavery was legal in pre-Civil War America.
If you are a Git user, rename all your "master" branches to "main"! You can do this using the guide here. Alternatively, run ```git checkout -b main``` followed by ```git push origin main```. Then, go to your remote repo (i.e. on the GitHub, GitLab, or whatever website), click on "[x] Branches", change the default branch from "master" to "main", and delete "master."
Though this isn't as common as "master," if you have a "slave" branch, rename it to something remotely indicative of what that branch is actually for (we really hope that "slave" doesn't fit that bill). Do the same thing as you did for "master" --> "main", but just don't change the default branch if it isn't your default branch (simply delete "slave" after the renaming is done).
We also call on leaders in industry, academia, nonprofits, and government--engineers, program managers, system administrators, data analysts, research scientists, and anyone who has ever used version control in industry--to stop using "master" as their default Git branches and rename everything to "main" and to abolish "slave" branches as well.
Color (e.g. to color one's judgment)
Saying something "colors" your judgment of something else is commonly defined as that something making your judgment worse or less reliable. For pretty obvious reasons, this implies that coloring something degrades it. This is wrong!
Along the same line, saying that something "blackens" your judgment, experience, or view is racist for the same reasons.
Say what you mean. In general, "impair" or "negatively affect" are probably better choices. If you can be more specific, be more specific. As a silly example, if you've just eaten a Jolly Rancher, instead of saying that that "colors" your judgment of the savory chicken tenders you're about to eat next, just say that the sweetness of the Jolly Rancher might make you taste the chicken tenders to be more bitter than they actually are.
You might be noticing a common pattern here--several of these terms are just blanket generalizations of more specific things. By more directly stating the particular message you're trying to convey, you'll probably be able to avoid using these terms altogether!
Capitalize "Black" and "White"
This article explains it better than we do, but in a nutshell, people often refer to Black and White people as black and white people (lowercase). We capitalize Asian American, Latinx, and Native American, so it's important to also recognize Black and White as races and not the colors that their lowercase counterparts refer to (again, important to decouple color from race). Moreover, both Black and White need to be capitalized because referring to White people as white people implies that being White is the standard or default--that is racist.
UPDATE 11/21/20: new scholarship has been published about the capitalization of "white" (see this article from the Columbia Journalism Review). While some argue that it is racist to capitalize one of Black and white, others say that capitalizing "white" legitimizes whiteness as an ethnic or cultural group, which it is not (it is a social construct). Black culture exists because Black Americans have had a unique experience, but white culture does not exist. Furthermore, racial groups are not monoliths, so the article (quoting from several sources) mentions that one should probably be more specific when possible (e.g. specify African or African-American instead of Black, specify nationality or ethnicity instead of race). That said, there are some issues that are issues of racial groups (e.g. white supremacy), and it is a tough call whether to capitalize the "w." Given this new information, we at LingHacks will lean towards not capitalizing "white" when we need to use the term, but we welcome additional sources that support or challenge this decision. In any case, do make sure to capitalize Black because Blackness encapsulates the unique lived experiences of a group of people and not just skin color. Thank you to one of our Instagram followers for raising this issue!
This isn't referring to the word "autocorrect" or any specific word, but we thought it was important to highlight nonetheless. Autocorrect repeatedly misspells Black people's names (more generally, most non-White names), even when you type them in correctly. This is largely due to the systemic issue that autocorrect is trained on datasets that do not contain these names. With many back-and-forth exchanges happening through messages and social media posts, the repeated misspelling of Black people's names can cause misrepresentation of Black culture on a large scale. This is dangerous and perpetuates continued injustice.
The fix for this is both personal and institutional.
First, we call on Apple, Google, and all companies that employ autocorrect technologies to train their autocorrect programs to recognize Black names (the list of Black people who have been unjustly murdered in the past decade is a good starting point).
Second, while companies work on that, you as an individual can also take a few actions to mitigate the misrepresentation caused by autocorrect. (1) Make sure to learn the spellings of Black names before you use them. (2) Make sure to proofread your texts and posts. (3) It's probably good to turn autocorrect off, but if you can't or don't want to (which may be valid), then write as many messages and posts as you can and force-revert any autocorrects to Black names so that your local system learns.
The Bigger Picture: Language Justice
These terms are only a small part of a larger pattern of language injustice that hurts BIPOC. For more resources on how to build language justice in your communities and beyond, see below:
That concludes our list of racist everyday words and language justice resources that we wanted to highlight. This list is by no means comprehensive--it's just a few of the most prominent terms that the members of our team have encountered in our circles and daily lives. More resources on racist language can be found here and here. Be sure to persist in your activism in the long term and actively work toward being anti-racist every day.
To conclude, and because it bears repeating: Black lives matter, now and forever.
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