Matt Jones Technology

A modern technologist's thoughts...

Why I am choosing inclusive language in technology this Juneteenth, and how you can too!

By Matt Jones | June 17, 2021 | 0 Comment

In the course of writing software or security policies, we often need to specifically allow some items or exclude other items.  For years, most software development teams have referred to these as “whitelists” and “blacklists.”  Examples include only allowing (whitelist) or blocking (blacklist) traffic from a set of known IP addresses.  

In recent years, software languages like Python and Ruby and organizations such as Github and Google have been replacing these with more inclusive terminology, like “allow list” and “deny list.”  While I’ve been trying to be more inclusive myself, recently, I discussed this language with a black friend who is a programmer.  I asked him how he feels when the term “blacklist” is used.  He said “I mean, in tech terms it’s something that I’ve lived with.  Everyone uses it.  But it’s something I’ve never been comfortable with.”  As more of our companies try to build inclusive cultures, we have to do better than making our employees live with words that they are not comfortable with. 

He continues “For instance, items in a whitelist are acceptable, and others in the blacklist aren’t.  Being black it reminds me that things that are black are never acceptable or prevented from being included.”  The time has come for us to join the biggest players in our industry in using more inclusive language in our code and in our discussions.  Here are some direct actions we can take:

  1. In conversations, use:
    • AllowList instead of WhiteList, 
    • DenyList instead of BlackList, 
    • Primary instead of Master
    • Replica instead of Slave
  2. Use the same replacements in code and branch names
  3. Explore these issues within your company
    • Submit pull requests to change to more inclusive language.
    • Discuss the issue with your peers
    • Share this post the next time you see non-inclusive language being used.

It is important to note that this is an effort to build a more inclusive culture.  My friend continues: “I don’t think these terms perpetuate racism, but they reinforce the idea that if you are black, then things that are black aren’t accepted.”  This is aimed more at helping us to build a more inclusive and welcoming environment.  

Personally, I’ve been using these non-inclusive words for over 20 years without knowing, and I’ve been trying to change for a year.  My friend’s closing comments encourage us all to do our best: “these words have been used for so long, we can’t just change overnight.  It means everything to me for someone to catch themselves and correct what they’ve said.”  

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