Racially Problematic Language in Tech: A Call to Action

Claire Gibeau
Feb 12 · 5 min read

It has been said that language, the spoken and written words we use to communicate and create unified social action, is the core of humanity.

By this definition, what does our use of racially problematic language in technology today say about us as humans, our values, and the direction we are going as a society?

It’s Time for Change in Tech

The United States is in the midst of a resurgence to contend with racism that was spurred by events such as the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other innocent Black lives.

Comparing the use of language in technology to murder may seem like an extreme comparison, however, language feeds into the larger system which reinforces racism.

As Robin DiAngelo illustrates in her book White Fragility, racism is not limited to individual acts of cruelty; racism exists when prejudice around a racial group is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control.

In other words, racism is a structure, not an event. The language that we deem as acceptable and use as a society is a reinforcement of that system.

The tech industry has continued to use problematic language in places where countless alternatives could describe the same technical functionality without reinforcing racism.

To effectively invoke change, new terms need to be widely agreed upon, understood, and put into practice. A lack of alignment on those terms has kept many from making changes, but some tech companies are taking action to update their naming conventions.

The Language

Masters and Slaves — The master/slave relationship has been universally used in computer programming to describe the total control of one device or process, the master, over another, the slave.

This relationship of control with reference to enslaved people is understandably upsetting and can contribute to the many factors that turn Black people away from a career in technology.

Representation of Black talent in tech continues to be lacking, with only about 6% of all computer science graduates being Black. Lack of access to education, exposure to technology, and other systemic issues compound the problem.

As the graph below shows, tech companies have a long way to go in improving Black representation:

For many Black people who do make a career in the tech industry, the language serves as a constant reminder of the horrific history of slavery. Not exactly an inclusive or comfortable work environment for our Black colleagues.

Whitelists and Blacklists — Also racially problematic, is the use of whitelist/blacklist language, terminology that has been used throughout history.

In technology, this refers to a process where a website either allows specific results to show up on a site (whitelists) or doesn’t allow the results to populate (blacklists). For example, parental controls block sites from showing use ‘blacklisted’ content.

While filtering results is important, the word choice of whitelist/blacklist is problematic.

The implications behind this terminology are clear:

White = good, give access

Black = bad, do not give access

Referring to colors with a positive or negative connotation does racial harm.

Groupon’s Commitment

Groupon is taking action, and we’re excited to share insights into our initiative below.

We are removing master, slave, whitelist, and blacklist language from our active GitHub repositories.

New language is as follows:

Image source

How We’re Doing It

When we embarked upon making these changes, we found several pledges from companies to move away from racially problematic language. However, there was very little insight into what their new language would be or action plans.

We share the information below in transparency with the hope that it may help other companies to get started in making changes of their own. We hope we provide a resource in a world where there are currently few on this topic.

The first thing we did at Groupon was to get a cross-functional group of volunteers together to talk about the work ahead of us.

A few conversations later, we were able to define:

  • Alternative language: Main/Secondary/Allowlist/Denylist
  • Scope of the project: Active GitHub code from the past 12 months (to start)
  • Reporting: GitHub insights dashboard created to track the number of instances
  • Timeline: Milestones to go from initial instances down to 0

We then documented details and insights in Confluence. The site is open for all employees to edit and add to, serving as a collaborative resource.

Once the site had a solid foundation, the initiative’s message was cascaded throughout the company via email, internal posts, leadership mentions, various meetings; any opportunity to communicate, we took it.

Beyond that, we left it up to individual teams to self-organize how they wanted to tackle the work. For example, teams may choose to spread out their changes across multiple sprints in small pieces or to drive hard at making changes in a short period of time. The whole team may actively participate, or they might appoint a single individual on their team to complete the work.

The only things prescribed were:

  • the new language (to give us all the same foundational understanding)
  • minimum scope
  • milestones timeline

That’s it!

Let’s not overcomplicate things. Align on the new direction, set your timeline, create visibility, and start work!

A Call To Action

It’s time for the tech industry to stop talking about potential changes and start taking action.

At Groupon, we believe removing problematic language will lead to changes in individual behaviors, improve inclusion for our Black colleagues, and attract diverse talent to the tech industry.

That being said, changing language is not the final or only answer; it is one of many actions necessary to move the dial towards a more equitable world.

Groupon is committed to taking this as one of many steps towards equity. We invite our colleagues to join us in removing racially problematic language and to continue taking actions to increase diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the tech industry and beyond.

Groupon Product and Engineering

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