Language is constantly evolving, and it’s important we continue to rethink the way we communicate, to be inclusive and anti-racist.

With that in mind, it’s time to revisit some of the words we use in IT and technology.

It’s not black and white

These terms reinforce implicit biases that black is undesirable, mysterious, dangerous, and bad, while white is clean, known, safe, and good. These terms can be racially charged, which is why organisations from Google to GitHub have been changing the words they use. The NCSC and other UK government organisations changed their “black and white” wording in 2020.

  • Blacklist and whitelisting
    • Inclusive suggestion: Block list and allow list
  • Blackhat and whitehat (development, SEO etc.)
    • Inclusive suggestion: Unethical and ethical
  • Black box and white box testing
    • Like white label, reinforces black is negative, mysterious (testing the unknown), and white is positive (white box testing is texting the known)
    • Inclusive suggestion: Unknown functional testing and known functional testing

Master and slave

This is a fairly obvious one. Talking about slavery in the office, may make some coworkers a lot more uncomfortable than others.

So next time you need to talk about the “master account”, consider calling it the “primary account”.

Or if you need to refer to the “slave drive”, try using “serving drive” or “sub-drive” instead.

Python changed it’s terminology in 2018, it’s time we all removed references to slavery at work.

Male Words

Unconscious biases tend to have us favour men, not only in their actions in the workplace, but also in our language. Using male-dominated language reinforces these gender biases. Here are a few examples, along with alternative suggestions.

  • Middleman
    • Inclusive suggestion: facilitator or intermediary
  • Manpower
    • Inclusive suggestion: effort required
  • Big Boys
    • Why not use: industry leaders or large organisaions
  • Guys
    • Try: folks or the team

White labeling

The term white labelling comes from a practice where manufacturers would stick a blank (white) label onto a product, to allow the distributor or retailer to add their own branding.

Looking for an alternative? Try “custom branding” or “personalised solution” instead.

While “white” in this context didn’t mean “positive or clean or safe” it could still be perceived that way, since the term’s original meaning is unknown to many.

The term is exclusionary to non-naitive English speakers, who don’t know the history of what a “white label” is. By itself, the term does not translate.

In my first corporate role I was asked to “prep a deck”, and I had no idea what that meant. I had imposter syndrome so it took me a moment to muster the courage to ask what it was. The response I got was: “A slide deck”, followed by another puzzled look from me, which prompted: “A PowerPoint presentation”, and suddenly I understood.

I struggled, as a white man, who’s a native English speaker. For a non-white colleague, they may suffer greater imposter syndrome, or for colleagues for whom English is a second language, that could cause considerable anxiety.

So while “white labelling” isn’t racially charged, it can still be exclusionary, and could cause unnecessary discomfort.

If there is a better word to accurately describe the thing, why not choose to use it?

Talking tech

Trust your gut

Trust your gut, if a term feels exclusionary but you’re not sure why, you’re probably right.

Be curious, do your research, and double-check, to stop you unintentionally saying something hurtful.

What if I don’t see the problem?

These forms of implicit bias can seem trivial if they don’t impact you, but for others they can be exclusionary.

It’s unlikely that you’ve used these terms to be exclusionary or offend anyone, but now is the opportunity to review how you and your team use language, to make a choice to adopt more inclusive terms.

Small changes to our language can have a big impact on our inclusivity.

If you’re only going to hire people who think and speak like you, you’re missing out on a huge pool of talent. Inclusive organisations do better because of their diversity. Why only think about a problem one way, when there might be five better solutions you’re missing out on?

Call to action

Do you work in tech or IT? If so you’re part of the solution.

Next time you’re requested to whitelist a domain, let your stakeholders know that we’ve upgraded our language and now use the term allow list instead.

What’s your experience with language in tech? Share with us below in the comments.

Christopher Roberts

Christopher Roberts

As a change leader, my goal is to improve people's lives through projects and transformation. I'm enthusiastic about AI, inclusion and diversity, and looking after our world. I'm an advocate for responsible innovation and critical thinking, and you can find my writing on that and everything tech over on Technology Bloggers.
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