Coders push back against offensive terminology

A number of organisations are leading the charge in getting offensive, exclusionary terminology removed from the computing world.


Language matters. It demonstrates our values and has the power to make people feel part of – or excluded from – a community. Offensive terms should have no place in the language of computing, and yet today, they still do.

Terminology such as master and slave, black- and whitehat/list are still used throughout the coding world, leaving many people uncomfortable. Encouragingly however, we’re seeing more people stand up and say the impact of offensive, racist terminology like this shouldn’t be minimised, and that it’s a barrier to inclusivity that the industry needs to remove.

“Words that create an environment that’s less welcoming to a particular group of people, whether that be women, people of colour or any other marginalised group, ensure that those people are less represented in our industry,” says Deb Bryant, Senior Director, Open Source Program Office at Red Hat. “This makes us all poorer, denying ourselves the innovation, point of view and wisdom of entire sectors of the population.”

2020’s groundswell of action

Many in the industry have questioned the presence of negative terms for a long time, but events in 2020, such as the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, shone a spotlight on everything that contributes to racism in our world and inspired the creation of a movement to rid the industry of such terms for good.

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the next best time is now. While many of us have been working quietly on this issue for decades, other voices in the world are now demanding more and faster change. This gives momentum to this effort that we didn’t have before and an opportunity to affect change on a larger scale,” says Bryant.

“Last year’s focus on social inequality spurred a groundswell of action,” agrees Priyanka Sharma, General Manager of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), “and we jointly announced the creation of the Inclusive Naming Initiative (INI) along with Cisco, IBM, The Linux Foundation, Red Hat and VMware.

“This initiative aims to provide guidance to standards bodies and companies that want to change their terminology but don’t know where to begin. Others have joined us in creating the guidelines, so it’s truly a grass roots effort,” she enthuses.

Many organisations have taken their own steps too. IBM, for example, announced its Call for Code for Racial Justice to form open source projects to combat racism, and last summer Bloomberg made a commitment to remove technical terms with problematic origins/connotations from its language and code over time, change its default code branch names, and update its training and documentation with more inclusive language.

“Since then, our developer experience (DevX) and diversity and inclusion teams have worked together closely to review common software engineering terms and help engineers adopt inclusive language more generally,” says Mike Seplowitz, Team Lead in Bloomberg Engineering’s DevX group.

“We’ve also created tooling and support to help engineers safely and easily rename internal branches, automated the notification of content owners of potential issues and continue to track overall progress.”

Terminology that needs to go

As part of its initial work, the INI is working with a set of 26 consensus-driven recommendations for terms the industry would like to see ‘cancelled’. These include master, slave, whitelist, blacklist, cripple, sanity check, Chinese wall, disabled and illegal characters.

Sharma points out that the organisation found the area of concern goes far beyond racist language and includes terminology which is also used as or connotes negative perceptions to a person or group of people.

“For example, in addition to racist language, ableist language features prominently in software. We intend to follow this initial set with a broader set that includes words like hitlist – needlessly violent words that exist in everyday language and technical communities.”

Potential replacement terms

Some organisations have already replaced terms – for example, GitHub, the code repository owned by Microsoft, has replaced the term master with main – but right now there’s no industry-wide agreement on what the replacement language should be.

Currently several options are being thrown about, with the INI proposing terms like allowlist/denylist or allowednouns/deniednouns as alternatives to white/blacklist, and controller/doer, primary/secondary, leader/follower, parent/child as alternatives to master/slave.

Advice to organisations looking to embrace more inclusive terminology

For businesses interested in being part of this change, Sharma recommends engaging with the INI. Documents are available online to support organisations that want to play their part in this movement, and the initiative holds biweekly meetings “where people ask questions and get bifurcated into work streams relevant for them. Those highly targeted groups can help you really make a difference and teach your organisation,” she says.

Seplowitz adds that any changes they make need to be gradual and thoughtful as this is a broad topic that requires regular conversations and continual review.

“As a first step organisations and their employees can stop using racially charged technical terminology going forward. Then, incrementally over time, they can clean up their documentation, source code and other assets. If this is done too fast, or without a detailed roadmap, this can potentially break an organisation’s systems,” he warns.

Change takes time

Indeed, this is not just changing a word, it’s changing things that are technical, that have dependencies on each other and can break systems agrees Sharma, adding that she believes it’s going to be at least a two year effort to make the changes and solve any aftermath.

“A lot needs to be done. More and more organisations and people will need help making the changes. This is a long-haul endeavour and a journey, not a quick fix.

“I see it as we would a security issue in code. It needs to be fixed, and the whole world needs to work together to make the fix. Eventually, we will take what we’ve done and build tooling, products or technologies that rely on this new terminology and new practice and create a more inclusive, awesome world,” she concludes.