Many phrases and names used in professional IT have been coined a long time ago, predominantly by abled white dya-allo-cishet men. Sadly, a lot of those words have discriminatory meanings, are straight up slurs or able to hurt marginalized people in different ways. If we want more people to feel welcome in the field of IT, we need to stop using those terms and find alternatives that do not hurt anyone.
I know that there are people who aren’t even aware of the problematic aspects of the language they use every day. That is why this blog post will list some of these phrases, explain why they are bad, and offer alternatives.
Content Warning from here on: racism, slavery, transmisia, cissexism, ableism
The first phrase, or pair of words, I want to talk about is master/slave. People tend to use those two words to talk about different ways two or more servers, services, applications, etc work together. As an example, in a cluster of servers a management node often gets called master, while the managed nodes are called slaves. This naming ignores, or even glorifies, slavery. I hope we can all agree on the fact that slavery is a bad thing. It is not only a bad thing, it is a bad thing based on racism and mostly hurts black people. That’s why, for a black person, starting to work in IT and suddenly encountering terminology like this being used so casually and without acknowledging the horrors behind slavery, can be a traumatic experience that should be avoided at all costs.
Words that could be used as an alternative are parent/child, leader/follower, primary/replica, dom/sub.
Another terminology based on racism is the usage of the terms whitelist and blacklist. Even after slavery was (officially and only for people who aren’t in jail) made illegal in the US, black people would still be subjected to legal discrimination in the form of not being allowed to enter certain buildings, bathrooms or bus seats. Black- and whitelists, containing people/IPs that are forbidden- or allowed to use an application or service feels reminiscent of the “no blacks allowed” signs of the 50s
Words that could be used as an alternative are allowlist/disallowlist, allowlist/blocklist.
The same idea of
white = good and
black = bad can also be found in the classifcation of hackers as White Hat or Black Hat.
In addition to the racist undertone of that naming, the fact that those terms don’t even have precise definitions, not based on ideas of conflicting morality and arbitrary laws, should have made them obsolete long ago.
Words that could be used as an alternative depend on how you actually define the terms themselves. Examples are ethical/unethical, destructive/non-destructive, or law abiding/non law abiding hackers.
Another thing that is still way too popular, is calling things sane or insane. Those words are used to talk about variable defaults, about configurations, and much more. But more importantly, they are also used to talk about people with mental disabilities/illnesses or neurodivergencies a lot, mostly in derogatory ways. Using those phrases to compare things you don’t like to marginalized people is not okay, it is ableist and should not be done.
Words that could be used as an alternative are sensible, useful, reasonable.
Similar to that last one, I have heard of many cases were simple scripts and applications have been called dumb or stupid. Those are insults often used to belittle others for alleged lack of intelligence, not objective descriptors for software.
Words that could be used as an alternative are simple, small, quick.
Now, for a more hardware-based example: People still use the terms male/female when talking about cables, and it’s so cissexist and wrong, it hurts. It manifests the idea that specific genitals are supposed to belong to specific genders, it is transmisic, and it hurts all people who do not fit into the cisnormative idea of how people should look and feel like. Cables do not have a gender. Not everything that gets stuck into a different thing has to be related to genitals.
Words that could be used as an alternative are plug/socket.
I hope that this blog post can help some people learn about the discriminatory roots of the language they use every day. If only one single person reading this stops using those phrases, this post was a success. Thank you for reading.
Reminder: This list is not complete. There are many more words that could be added to this post, and maybe I’ll do a part two some day.