Words matter. Remove racist labels used in technology

In the days following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, our Twin Cities region was ground zero for community outrage, grief, despair, and fear related to the systemic racism that is woven within Minnesota and throughout our country. The brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands and knee of a white police officer was a tipping point that brought all of these long-held emotions to the fore. As a property owner in Minneapolis, I watched our community in grief and turmoil, and felt more strongly than ever that question of “What can I do to fix this? What is my part?”

Someone close to me often shares a perspective related to addressing difficult problems. His posit is that if the problem were easy, it would have been solved already. The problem of racism is not one problem, but a complex set of beliefs, values, and systems. So to address racism, we must bring change to our thoughts and views, as well as to our actions. And this is not easy.

Yet, there are actions we can take today. We can, for example, look at the language we use in all of our industries, including Information Technology.

All words are not equal. Some words uplift, others degrade. They invoke in us a feeling, a memory, or a desire. Language carries with it our intent. It is our most direct method of expression. Language carries our narrative. It is one of many systems in our world, and it can be used, like all the other systems, for inclusion or for exclusion. The words we use matter. IT has had a bad habit of using inappropriate labels for important things. We spend our time thinking about how to design and build technology systems, but when it comes down to giving those things names, we slap on careless labels that provide little or no meaning. And some of those careless labels reflect serious longstanding institutional racism.

In particular, I am calling on our partners who provide security products such as anti-virus and spam filter tools, and my colleagues who use these tools. The old labels of “whitelist” for something that is approved and “blacklist” for something that must be blocked or banished are hurtful. And they do nothing to describe their purpose for the user. I can think of many more descriptive label pairs, and I know you can, too:

  • “Approved/Unapproved”
  • “Allowed/Blocked”
  • “Go/Stop”
  • “OK/Spam”

This racist language appears in data structures as well. “Master” was a common label that we still use today. “Parent” is better, and “Primary” is better yet. We use the term “white label” to describe software that can be configured for use by several institutions. Isn’t “custom label” more descriptive?

In testing, “white box” indicates the presence of knowns and clear view, and “black box” indicates unknowns or lack of visibility. These labels can be easily changed, as well. How about one of the following?

  • “Clear/Opaque”
  • “Viewed/Hidden”
  • “Visible/Invisible”

Where else do you see the use of non-descriptive damaging terms? What other labels can you use instead that are meaningful and not derivative of racist tropes?

As workers and leaders and partners and customers in the technology sector, what can we do to unwind centuries of narrative that says Black is less than white? We can start by looking for this narrative, noting its prevalence, and really seeing it. Then we can replace it with the truth we believe. I’ll suggest that the hardest part of this is the seeing. Once we have really looked at the language we use, and the story it evokes and can admit the flaw in what it represents, the action of changing it is easy.

Yes, easy. So why wouldn’t we do the easy parts, while we continue to dig in to address the difficult parts?

Here at Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, we believe there is no hierarchy in human value. Our mission is to inspire generosity, advocate for equity, and invest in community-led solutions. We, the community of non-profit technology providers, can do our part to advance equity not only by serving our colleagues who lead the way in the community every day but by cleaning up our own community.

IT, the time to change is now. These labels must be replaced. Technology as an industry is a bringer of change, we do this for a living, so I know we can do it. Here are more suggestions for action:

Technology Vendors & Developers: Change the labels you use. Remove the references to “black” and “white” and other damaging labels. Spread the word in your own community. Educate your staff on why these new words are necessary. Reward the use of language that removes racist labels and makes applications, security practices, and data more usable for your customers. Use real, meaningful labels so your end customers have a better jump start on learning the language of IT.

Customers of Technology: Hold your partners accountable. Tell them why this is important to you. Demand this change in the next technology release. Hire and reward providers who make the change we seek.

There is something in this for all of us. We achieve many things by requiring technology practitioners to use real, meaningful labels in code, data, testing, security, and other related practices:

  1. Stop the narrative of white supremacy.
  2. Create code and related technology practices that are considerably more descriptive for the end-user and the development community.
  3. Reduce the number of meaningless terms that must be learned to speak the language of information technology fluently. Acronyms and terminology will always be part of the language, but we can only help ourselves, our community, and our users by minimizing them.
  4. Bring mindfulness to the technology and user community about the prevalence of these poorly used terms, creating awareness of other places where they lurk and spring up action for making a change there, too.

Amidst the removal of statues and renaming of streets and buildings, we can also change our language and labels in technology. Words matter, Black Lives Matter, and the time for this change is now.

Michele Belisle
Associate Vice President of Information Technology
Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation
After a career in information technology leadership with a major national financial services company, Michele joined Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation in 2017. As associate vice president of IT, her purpose is to advance the mission of the Foundation by leveraging technology, providing solid technology infrastructure and robust applications and data tools. She and her team are currently midway through a multi-year technology transformation within the Foundation. A Twin Cities resident, Michele has worked in affordable housing development for many years and continues to engage in that important mission. She also serves on the board of Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies.