ACH Releases Guidance on Anti-Racist Technical Terminology
Note: The following is excerpted from materials released by The Association of Computers and the Humanities (ACH) on September 24, 2020. The document—compiled by a working group led by CDH Lead Developer Rebecca Sutton Koeser —offers practical steps and resources to learn more about anti-racist technical terminology. For more information, refer to the complete ACH statement.
“Master” is used widely in current academic and technological language — from attaining a set of technical skills (“mastery”), to pursuing post-baccalaureate education (master’s degree), to differentiating between canonical data and copies, or piece of original code and its derivations in the version control systems, or for coordinating processes or devices where one system manages the others. The racially charged language of “master/slave” is based on the history of enslavement, and using this terminology is hurtful and exclusionary.
Git. The recently released version 2.28 of the git distributed control system makes the default branch configurable, instead of hard-coding to master when creating new repositories. You can set a new default name for future repositories like this:
- Upgrade git to version 2.28
- Configure your preferred default branch name, e.g.:
git config --global init.defaultBranch main
GitHub. The popular platform for collaboration and sharing software followed the git default naming conventions for branches until recently. They have a renaming guide documenting the challenges and support for people who want to switch now, noting that “main” is the most popular alternative. If you have projects with a large number of open pull requests, draft releases, or branch protection policies you may want to wait until Github implements changes to make the transition much more seamless later this year. If you don’t want to wait, here are some options:
- Follow the steps in this how-to for replacing master with main on GitHub by Alexis Moody (command line + GitHub settings configuration)
- If you have a lot of repositories to update, we recommend github-default-branch. Follow the directions for installation, creating an access token, and running the script on all repositories in an organization or individual repositories.
GitLab, BitBucket, etc. Use the same approach in the how-to for replacing master with main on GitHub by Alexis Moody, updating your default branch in the appropriate settings.
Language. Choose alternate terms. In the context of version control, common alternatives are main and primary; for servers, host/client; for data, consider using primary or canonical.
Want to learn more?
For more information, read this recent twitter thread by Mislav Marohnić on the use of “master” in technology, including a reference to the source of the naming convention in git. This CNN article on every-day words and phrases that are racist includes a brief section on technology with links and dates for when three major platforms and programming languages (Drupal, Django, and Python) replaced this terminology. For a different consideration of the term, you may be interested in Shaun Morris’ essay on possibilities around changing the Scrum Master title.
These terms have been used to designate access. A “blacklist” is a list of people who are not allowed access. A whitelist is a list where only those on the list can have access. The former is used to deny access in an open system while the latter is used to allow access in a closed system. The terms reproduce the racialized logic of segregation into computing. We’re not aware of any systems or software that currently use these terms in their configurations, but it’s still unfortunately common language when describing security configuration.
Language. Choose alternate terms for describing access to servers and other technology systems. Options include: “allow list” and “deny list”; “block” and “allow. Together, we can work together to remove the terms from DH discourse as well as other spheres such as discussions about predatory publishing.
Want to learn more?
For more information, read a discussion of alternate terms on English Language & Usage Stack Exchange as well as changes by government agencies such as the UK’s National Cyber Security Center and the US National Institute of Standards and Technology and multinational corporations such as Apple.
This term is used for technology, infrastructure, or policies that are exempt from new rules or processes, but refers to a legal clause from the Reconstruction Era used to disenfranchise Black Americans and exclude individuals from voting in the late 19th century.
Language. Replace with “legacy”: legacy project, policy, infrastructure, etc.
Want to learn more?
For a brief primer, read the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “grandfather clause”; for more detail, check out this NPR Code Switch article on the racial history of the grandfather clause from 2013. Twitter Engineering included this term on their list of non-inclusive words and phrases they are replacing with more inclusive language.
Black hat hacker/White hat hacker
There is some thinking that this terminology has its origins in cinema, in particular in American films depicting cowboys and gunfighters in the American West during the latter half of the 19th century. In these movies, the heroes—such as sheriffs and similar people of the law—wore white hats, while the villains—typically outlaws—wore black hats and dark clothing. In this schema, “white” represents the rule of law, while “black” represents the absence of law, or following one’s own laws. Similarly, there are “white hat hackers” who code for good, often protectively, within the law, and with the permission of system owners. “Black hat hackers,” on the other hand, hack or code illegally for bad, especially through the creation of malware that causes breaches in security and privacy. Although the words “black” and “white” in this usage aren’t understood as racist, it still promotes a color binary that could be construed as racist and obfuscates what is really at stake, which is ethical practices in coding.
Language. Since the distinguishing factor in these terms is the presence or absence of ethics and legality, it is clearer to use expressions like “ethical hacker” and “unethical hacker,” or perhaps “legal hacker” and “illegal hacker.”
Want to learn more?
For a discussion about black hats and white hats in cinema, see Sarah Laskow’s 2017 Atlas Obscura post, “ The Counterintuitive History of Black Hats, White Hats, and Villains.” This excerpt from Ninja Hacking offers an extended explanation of the difference between these terms. A more recent piece describes the information security community’s attempt to untangle these expressions. These adjectives also distinguish between ethical and unethical Search Engine Optimization.