When words are racially insensitive

There seems to be a relatively frequent back-in-forth in American society involving one group asking the wider society to stop using a racially charged word in certain contexts, and members of the wider society reacting to this as political correctness or thinking it is just plain wrong. For example, @KaraRBrown posted “Stop calling shit ‘ghetto’”, in which she calls out the increasing use of the word ‘ghetto’ as an adjective for less desirable stuff and strongly recommends people stop using it in that context. To summarize: “… this [using ghetto in this way] is something that can make a seemingly OK person immediately sound like an ignorant, possibly racist asshole. Don’t be that person.”

One response on Twitter to this remarked on how she must mean it is racist toward Jews, and this led to a non-debate with no improvement in mutual understanding. Ms Brown took it as trolling, but it is also indicative of responses I’ve seen elsewhere in similar discussions. I’m fine with viewing it as trolling if you are tired of that kind of typical response, but it can also be viewed as an expression of general misunderstanding about don’t-use-the-word-X-in-certain-contexts requests.

An example that I deal with all the time is the use of the word ‘slave’ in distributed computing contexts, where there is commonly a “master” compute node that is in charge of many “slave” worker compute nodes (e.g. look at systems like Hadoop and Spark). This terminology comes from general use of master and slave in technology. When I started working with Hadoop, I asked my wife (who is black) what she thought of that terminology, and she responded simply that she found it somewhat insensitive and offensive. Mainly, her response was just “Why? There are lots of other good descriptive words one could use instead.” I looked into it a bit, and it turns out there was a bit of a furor over master/slave terminology years ago when, in 2003,  the County of Los Angeles requested that equipment suppliers avoid such terminology on equipment labels. The internet had a conniption about it, with many posters crying foul that this was political correctness gone crazy—even though it was just a polite email request. It is remarkable how vehemently offended some people got by the request and how they went through great lengths to defend the terms as the best ones possible. I’m personally with those who point out that there are many other perfectly good words to describe the relationship, e.g. primary/secondary, supervisor/worker, and that those have the added benefit of not being insensitive. My favorite response (which I unfortunately cannot find the link to now) was something like “we don’t call computer components rapist and victim: let’s not use master and slave either.”

One of the things that was often pointed out regarding master/slave is that the term goes back a long long time and that it neither began nor ended with American slavery, so why should black Americans be bothered by it? And anyway, slavery ended with the Civil War, so why can’t black Americans just get over it? It’s the same thing with the point about ‘ghetto’ being associated with Jews rather than black Americans. These comments ignore context, and the strong associations such terms have for some segments of American society. Context is everything, and unfortunately, American slavery is not out of context — it is the genesis of the struggles for equality that black Americans have faced over the past 150 years. Most white Americans feel it is far, far in the past, but it isn’t such a long time.  Oddly, many white Americans feel that we live in a post racial society, but this is at odds with the experience of many black Americans, and you don’t need to look far to see ugly examples of it right in our faces on Twitter.

Here’s another example of where context matters: a Boston policeman was fired for calling a baseball player a “Monday”. But “Monday” is just a day of the week, so what’s the big deal, right? Well, you know, regular words can be racists slurs in context. Consider this as well: it is still unfortunately common for white people born before the fifties to refer to black men as “boys”. This is highly offensive, even though they may wish no offense and often harbor no explicitly racist views. It’s the echo of times past reverberating through language still used today, and it still has power.

So, now to circle back to the main point. Some people seem to get quite offended by statements like “word X is racist in such-and-such context, so don’t use it that way.” Why? My guess is that quite often the offended person thinks “I’m not racist, but I’ve used that word in that way, so now you are calling me a racist, and that’s just crazy.” They then go on to justify that use of the word or otherwise make the request seem unreasonable. What they seem to be missing is that the original request is not saying that you are racist because you say X, but that it is racially insensitive to do so (and you probably didn’t realize that, so here’s your public service announcement). These are usually reasonable requests (and not calls to ban words, etc), so just consider changing your use of such terms out of respect and good sense.