Day 23: Master

The tech world is reconsidering its use of the term “master”, as it has an association with slavery. Several years ago debate began about renaming the Master/Slave database replication design with something that did not conjure those horrible images from our past. Suggestions like Main/Secondary, or Primary/Replica have gotten traction, and several products have switched to these less offensive terms.

Last week GitHub announced that they working on replacing the name “master” in its service with a more neutral term, such as “main”.

Similar efforts are underway to replace the use of “whitelist/blacklist” with color-neutral terms such as “acceptlist/denylist”. All of this is being done in response to the increased awareness of the systemic racism that underlies so much of our society.

There has been some backlash, of course. While it was difficult to deny the obvious connection with “master/slave” to racism, some people are objecting to these latest proposed changes as being empty gestures. After all, the term “master” for a git branch doesn’t have a corresponding “slave” branch; it simply signifies the main/primary branch for development. Likewise for “blacklist/whitelist” – the term “blacklist” has its origin in 1639 England. “Whitelist” was coined later as the opposite of blacklist. Neither of these choices for color names had anything to do with racial notions of one race being better than another.

They also make the slippery slope argument: if we remove the master branch in git, will we have to also rename the master bedroom in our houses, or re-issue Masters degrees with a new name, or change our padlocks to some brand other than Master?

The thing about these objections is that they ignore the bigger picture: while those terms may have arisen perfectly innocently, they currently raise feelings of racial discrimination. And if you’re white like me, it’s not your call. Listen to what people of color are saying. If they say that it bothers them, that should be sufficient to make that change.

Changing these names to something neutral is not that big a deal*, but fighting those changes shows a real insensitivity to the feelings of others. “It doesn’t bother me; why should it bother you?” is a way of telling others that you really don’t care about them. Why wouldn’t you want to do these very small things in order to demonstrate a bit of empathy?

*git branch -m master main – was that so hard?

Another example along these lines is the word niggardly. It has absolutely nothing to do with race; it simply means “cheap” or “in short supply”. But why use a word that is so close to such an offensive term (you thought of that word when you read “niggardly”, didn’t you?) when there are so many perfectly good synonyms that avoid that association.

Choosing to use terms when you are conscious of its negative association, and have perfectly acceptable alternatives, seems unnecessarily provocative. Of course this won’t “solve” racism, but it is a very tiny step in the right direction.

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