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.

Author: jasonbaldridge

Co-founder of People Pattern and Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. My primary specialization is computational linguistics and my core research interests are formal and computational models of syntax, probabilistic models of both syntax and discourse structure, and machine learning for natural language tasks in general.

11 thoughts on “When words are racially insensitive”

  1. See also: the “pimp-my-library” pattern. But I’m happy to see that there’s a movement in the Scala community to say things like “enrich-my-library”. The argument seems to be along the same lines: there are other good descriptors, so don’t use something offensive.

    1. You know, normally I find that decrying the use of words that could be interpreted as offensive or insensitive from a particular point of view just causes more problems than it solves. In other words, thick skin goes a long way toward peace and happiness. However, the choice of words in the “pimp my library” pattern leave me confused and annoyed. I think I’m getting fed-up of people anthropomorphizing technology.

  2. If context is so important then people should accept that the use of the offensive term is outside of the context where offense is implied. You fail to appreciate that the offensive context is not universal ither. Master / Slave does not have the same connotations outside of the US. Does that mean we need to edit a universal vocabulary to take American sensitivities into account? Or do we need to go further and explore every possible context where a word or phrase could be considered offensive? Failing to would be quite hypocritical, and yet it strikes me as impractical to even start down that road.

    1. Notice in none of this have I suggested that we have to edit the vocabulary on some global level, etc. I have no desire to endorse censorship, enforce politically correct wording, etc. Quite the opposite — I want people to have the right to say things that are offensive, and I’ll defend their right to do so even if I vehemently disagree with what they say. The suggestion here is simple: when an *individual* selects words to say or not say, it’s considerate for them to think about what those words mean to others and how they will impact them. We cannot always avoid offending someone, somewhere, but just considering the possibility is a worthwhile endeavor as part of building a more just society.

      To reiterate: in some cases, an individual may *want* to offend someone else, or another group, and it absolutely their right to do so. (And they then of course are free to deal with anything that comes of that choice.)

      Your main point of course is that intent matters in these discussions. And it does. Just using a term that happens to offend is quite different from making explicitly racists statements. Nonetheless, when folks like Ms Brown call out the use of certain terms as racially insensitive, they are doing a public service announcement to let others know that it does offend even when it was not intended to be offensive — and she’s just letting you know and asking you to stop.

      1. I was actually thinking more in terms of the master/slave example. Its an example of longstanding established terminology. Were someone to ask you to stop using it or to inform you that it was insensitive, how would you go about responding to that?

  3. I’d see if there were some way to make a reasonable change, if possible, without going overboard on revising terminology. I haven’t looked at it great detail, but my impression is that many people actually avoid master/slave in Hadoop discussions nowadays. It would of course be very hard to change some of this terminology in some codebases without pretty radical upheavals. Anyway, the more important take-away is that awareness of these sort of things can hopefully influence naming in the future.

  4. I agree that context is very relevant here and I think that *everybody* needs to take it into account. I have worked in at least three different technology fields where the terminology of “slave” and “master” is used a lot:

    Mechanical systems (especially hydraulics). I have never heard anyone advocate for a change of that terminology in this field – they would be laughed at and ignored (whether they should be listened to is besides the point, the reality is that they would be ignored).

    Electronics, including computer electronics. For how long did we use the terms master and slave (and still do) to refer to hard drive relationships?

    Software – especially databases.

    I just don’t see it happening no matter how much some people think it should. The context is so far removed from the offensive usages that I believe a person would have to think for a while before concluding that it may be offensive to somebody.

    For example, should we stop referring to electronic (or hydraulic, or mechanical) connectors/connections as female and male because someone might find this somehow offensive or sexist?? I think there are more important battles to fight.

    But to each their own.

    1. Yep, and the main point being made here is not to revise things, but to point out the importance of words and get people to think about how they use them in future contexts. That’s the “battle” here.

  5. Well said Jason. When I was younger I picked up using the term ‘jewed’ but with an assumed spelling of ‘jude’. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned of it’s origin. Doh!! Would have been nice if someone had explained that to me sooner.

    Last time I built a new computer, the terms master/slave were not present on any of the devices or bios. I’m glad the terminology is not being carried forward because it no longer resembles how the hardware behaves.

  6. wonderful submit, very informative. I wonder why the opposite experts of this sector do not realize this.
    You should continue your writing. I’m sure, you’ve
    a great readers’ base already!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *