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Op-Ed | Blacklist and whitelist aren’t racist words, you are

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Nowadays, the way you speak and the words you use can be used to identify which side of the political spectrum you are on. As a queer immigrant living in Seattle, I personally identify with many aspects of mainstream liberal politics and ideology. 

In 2020, during the wake of international unrest about systematic racial injustice — sparked from police brutality and the killing of multiple Black individuals by law enforcement — Github, Google, and other tech companies began pushing to remove allegedly “racially charged language” in the workplace in an attempt to make a more welcoming environment for customers and employees of color. 

What are these terms? 

For decades, master and slave have been used in the computer and tech industry to refer to the nature of a relationship between various software and entities.  

However, recently, tech companies like Microsoft’s Github and Amazon have worked on integrating more “racially neutral” language, substituting main for master and secondary in place of slave. This was applauded by many as an important step toward racial equity, but not without backlash and skepticism if the change is really needed. 

I first heard about this through a friend who works as a software engineer at Amazon. Parth Sethi, an immigrant from India, mentioned receiving an email from a higher-up saying they were no longer allowed to use the terms “master” and “slave,” along with the words blacklist, whitelist, and brown bag. Another tech friend, Mike Huebner, who is white, confirmed that he received the same email recently. 

When asked about their thoughts on the topic, both were unsure about how to feel on the subject. Sethi was open about his opinions and said these language changes “don’t make sense to me.” 

I agreed with him, but I didn’t understand why. I was left mostly confused on how these words are related to race and how these changes actually benefit people of color.

The evolution of language

Languages naturally evolve through many factors, but this case doesn’t feel right to me — change doesn’t always mean progress or that something good is happening. 

For example, before the British arrived in Australia in the 18th century, there were more than 250 Indigenous languages and 800 dialects spoken on the continent. According to a 2016 Census, only 159 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are reported to still be in use. Now there are only 140, and only 20 of them are considered “healthy languages.” 

This British occupation and subsequent degradation of culture have imposed huge changes to Australian languages, but just because it was change, does it mean it was beneficial? 

Metaphorical beings

Humans heavily rely on metaphors to understand language. 

Joel Shaver, an English and linguistics professor at Seattle Central College, explains that based on conceptual metaphor theory, humans can only understand abstract concepts like love, life, time, and various emotions through physically embodied experiences. 

This is why we describe abstract concepts like time through phrases like ‘The future is in front of us’ and ‘Leave the past behind.’ “This shows how much we depend on those systems of metaphors [to communicate],” Shaver added. 

So what about the metaphorical systems we have come to associate with white and black? Where did they come from? In western theology and philosophy we have long referred to black as bad and white as good, but why?

Anthropologically speaking our reference to  “white and black” representing “good and evil” has always been ingrained within us. Back in our primal days, these differences meant survival. Dark environments imposed a sense of danger and uncertainty, while daylight and bright environments were more crucial for survival and security.

Over time, as America became racialized, people have associated these metaphors with race. 

“Meaning tends to snowball, you might have those really primal metaphors like ‘light is good’ [and] ‘dark is bad,’” Shaver explained. “But when you get to a point in world history where people say ‘We know that we are better, and we can see that our is skin lighter’ — then culturally they can make [the] connection that ‘We must be better because our skin is lighter,’ because of the primal metaphors.”

What do we do then with these primal metaphoric concepts of color that we can’t really get away from? Do we just stop using them? Shaver suggested, “You can interrogate how we are using these metaphoric systems, what connections are we making, and do we want to be making those connections?”

So does this make the terms blacklist, whitelist, brown bag racist?

Linguistic context matters

In linguistics, the study of language in social contexts is called pragmatics. It explains how words are nothing more than vibrations in the air, but what puts meaning into them is our cultural experiences and the context we apply to them. 

Linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson discuss in their book “Metaphors We Live By” how “Such metaphorical orientation are not arbitrary, rather they have a basis in our cultural experiences.” 

Maybe this is why I personally didn’t automatically associate the words blacklist and whitelist with race because I was raised in the Philippines, where notions of race and racism differed from the United States and weren’t part of the culture I was exposed to. I didn’t even know what the word racist meant, not until I arrived in Seattle when I was 18. 

“In some cultures the future is in front of us whereas in others it’s in the back,” Lakoff and Johnson would later explain. 

Languages are complex and multidimensional. Removing the context from words, I believe, is dangerous because it assumes that the speaker has malicious intent. This is not the formula for a productive and restorative conversation. 

Associating these colored words solely with race removes the context of the word and creates an inconsistency to the argument that the word blacklist and whitelist are racist. For example, the origin of the word blacklist is unclear, but it was not historically associated with race.

A contrary example Shaver provided is the word bulldozer — a term first used in the 1800s when voting rights were first extended to Black men. In the South, white men were sent to the polls with bullwhips to scare off potential Black voters, with the term being slang for the violence of “a dose for a bull” used to silence Black voices.  

Over time, bulldozer evolved to take on the universal meaning, of coercion or “to restrain by threats,” and the name of machinery used to demolish buildings.  

So why does this word still exist? The answer lies with pragmatics; we no longer culturally associate the word bulldozer with the white supremacists of the 1800s.

So if a racially originated word like bulldozer is given a pass, why are the words blacklist and whitelist being scrutinized? What does this say about our association with these words with race and the way we see color in race in our current culture?

The complete removal of these words also dismisses the significance of colors across other cultures. For example, white is associated with death in most Asian countries, while black is viewed as neutral. Even here In the United States, the word black has been slowly being used in a more positive light
Take, for example, this image I saw from my walk:

Juan Miguel Jocom | The Seattle Collegian Black is luxury.

Are these terms damaging?

The erasure of the terms master and slave in tech is reasonable because these words can easily be seen as insensitive considering the modern connotations and historical context they have.

After simmering through my and other people’s thoughts, I was reminded of another conversation I had with Sethi last summer. 

One of our neighbors had invited someone new to a party who was Black. While Sethi was talking, the conversation came to a point where he needed to use the words “Black person,” but then, he hesitated. It was not until the Black person interjected and reassured him that it’s okay to call Black people, Black people. Sethi said the word — but his body talked of discomfort.

And this is where my issue with phasing out words like blacklist comes from. The removal of these allegedly “racially charged words” is more damaging because it further stigmatizes colored words. Instead of creating spaces and opportunities for other people to start a healthy conversation around race and language, they are penalized for asking questions and open discussion.

So this raises the question, who are these changes for, and who are they making comfortable? The people of color in the workspaces? Or the white folks who are spared the opportunity to learn about race? 

Ultimately, I think these changes in language create a lazy environment that impedes real progress and justice. 

When asked if he agrees with these changes in language, Shaver responded: “Speaking from my position as a white person who’s an educator, I would say that the question isn’t whether or not I agree, the question is: Who is asking for [these changes] and who is it hurting?” 

He continued, “If through history associations [with words] develop with race — and if those are coming out in the ways that technological companies are … hurting people — then they need to make space for it and listen. But if [the companies] are just doing it because they are afraid of reprisal for using the words like ‘black’ and it’s not hurting anybody, it doesn’t seem like it is helpful.”

Consistency matters

Lastly, these changes in language create confusion and mistrust of the social justice movements’ agenda, which further hurt people of color and other minorities. 

For example, the term womxn resurfaced during the early 2010s as a progressive and transgender and non-binary inclusive alternative to women.  

However, come late 2020, the agenda flipped. Progressive friends on my Instagram were now reposting infographics and articles telling me to stop using womxn because it stigmatizes trans women as being “not real women,” but rather, separate from cis women. 

Language will change whether it comes from tech companies or not, but we need to be critical about the changes and ideas being proposed to us. 

I think some tech giants have good intentions toward change, and yes they have made many progressive changes that have made me feel welcome as a person of color. 

But we also need to be careful with the changes in language we decide to adopt because words hold greater power than we think. 

We should be careful on how this can actually affect the people we are trying to help because, at the end of the day, it is the people of color and other minority groups who will be suffering the consequences of the changes and decisions we make.

Juan Miguel Jocom, or Juanita Banana as his friends call him, is an Editorial Board member at the Seattle Collegian, where he focuses on writing about the experience of immigrant students at Seattle Central College. A documentarian, he hopes to create videos that will showcase the chaos and glory of humans.

As a Seattle local, he’s an aspiring granola boy, who enjoys rock climbing and jumping off cliffs. His recent documentary, Welcome to the Neighborhood, was an official selected entry for the 2021 SCOOP film fest.

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