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Tech companies update language to avoid offensive terms

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A woman types on a laptop.

Tech companies are moving away from terms that could be considered racially insensitive, such as "master" and "slave." Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images

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Several major technology firms are moving to update some of the basic language underpinning the industry, dropping terms that could be considered racially offensive and replacing them with more neutral language. Terms like “blacklist” for malicious websites and “whitelist” for safe emails are being swapped out in favor of words with no mention of color. 

“When you really think about it, it’s just a weird way to describe something when you could just say, ‘exclude’ or ‘include’ — it’s just more precise,” said Gabriel Csapo, a senior software engineer at LinkedIn. He also pointed to more troublesome terms he’s working on removing from the software he works with. 

“Like the software side of things where ‘master’ could be referring to a machine that is the main machine, and ‘slave,’ which would be like the thing that the master controls,” he said.

Karla Monterroso, CEO of Code2040, which works to improve diversity in the tech industry, said the first time she came across “master” and “slave” in coding, she was so shocked she had a physical reaction to the terms.  

“I had never seen the terminology used outside of a history book,” she said, arguing it’s these types of conditions that make diversity in the tech industry a challenge. 

“Black and Latinx people leave tech at three times the rate of their white male peers, and a part of that is the environment and culture that gets created,” she said. “Not just by the stand-up meeting that you have, but by who has power and who doesn’t and what risks people are required to make, and who is required to experience discomfort in the workplace.”

Alexis Moody is helping her company update software code to drop offensive language.

Alexis Moody, a software engineer at data intelligence firm Morning Consult, is working on changing the language there and wrote a guide for others to do the same

“You know, as a child of slaves and sharecroppers from the South,” she said of her experience as a Black woman in tech. “Seeing those terms, it’s just a little cut all the time. It just continues to get at you. And it’s one of those things that it’s hard to overlook over time.”

Moody said it does take time, and therefore money, to update the code and files with new language, “but the argument that I made to my co-workers — and the [chief technology officer] agreed — is that it’s such a minuscule change that pays dividends for inclusion and diversity down the road,” she said. 

Changing the language of tech has been picking up steam among the big players in the industry. Both LinkedIn and GitHub — owned by Microsoft — are making changes. Meanwhile, groups like the Center for Democracy & Technology are asking the internet standards-setting body to update its best practices to drop “offensive” language like master/ slave

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