Inclusive Language in Computer Engineering

Language is dynamic. Terminology and usage are constantly evolving according to how society evolves… and that’s true for computer programming languages, too.

Unfortunately, today’s engineers have inherited terminology from earlier generations that lack societal and cultural sensitivity. Now, we have a responsibility to hold ourselves accountable – to continue learning how we ALL can identify instances (big and small) of subtle/covert racism, and how we all can actively fight against it. 

At RV, we know we have a long way to go. But here is one step our tech team recently committed to applying across our entire organization, and one we hope to see others in the technology industry making a real effort to improve as well.

Racial bias in terminology

Technological language has adopted biases that reflect white superiority and an insensitivity to the experiences of racial minorities. At RV, we commonly use the industry-standard terminology that is inherent in the computer technology world.

For example, “master” and “slave” are often used to denote the relationship between servers, hard drives, and other entities. This terminology is egregious for what it represents on a human, historical, and societal level. Furthermore, as pointed out by other publications, it isn’t especially accurate in its meaning. There are much better words that can and should be used to describe these relationships.

Similar issues surround the terms “whitelist” and “blacklist.” While meant to represent the accessibility to resources, the terms connote a sense of positive and negative, with white being the positive, and therefore given access privileges.

These terms are needlessly oppressive and unacceptable. They have also proved problematic as we and other firms actively seek to attract and retain the talents of a more diverse and inclusive workforce. Karla Monterroso, CEO of Code2040 claims that, “Black and Latinx people leave tech at three times the rate of their white male peers,” which she attributes to the environment and culture created through discomfort to which such terminology plays a part.

What are we doing about it?

In an effort to align our technological language with our company values, we are making changes to some of the terms we use when referring to and documenting certain functions at RV. We are not the first company to embrace these changes. GitHub, among others, are making efforts to change these terms. But at RV, we are eager to be the change we wish to see in this world. By normalizing these new terms, we hope to see their usage spread, and the old terms fall out of use. 

The Change:

  • Git repositories have a “main” branch instead of a “master” branch. This could mean changes to the deployment solutions and other references in SaaS software.
  • The language surrounding the relationships between servers, hard drives, and other entities will change to “primary” and “secondary” instead of “master” and “slave.” 
  • We will exchange “allowlist” and “blocklist” for “whitelist” and “blacklist” respectively. White and black should not be used to denote “good” and “bad.”

We have a long way to go

Obviously, it will take time to purge this language from our systems and our minds. It will take time for the technology industry to catch up and make changes in code in many of the open-source libraries we leverage as in our software designs. But if we challenge ourselves to make real changes right now in how we reference things verbally and how we think about them, we can be the change we wish to see in the world.

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About the Author:

Brad Snyder

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