Tech Confronts Its Use of the Labels ‘Master’ and ‘Slave’

Last month, on Juneteenth—June 19—the data management company Delphix hosted a hackathon for employees to make coding terminology at the company more inclusive. Engineers tailored replacements for master/slave to specific contexts, says Sebastien Roy, the company’s director of systems platform development. Alternatives included active/standby, writer/reader, parent/child, and leader/follower. A reference to blacklist was changed to list of removed faults. In another case, they left black box alone because they decided it doesn’t have negative connotations, Roy says.

The petition opposing GitHub’s move away from master says the same logic argues for renaming “master’s degrees, master bedrooms, master gardeners, puppetmasters, and so on.” Some of that is already happening: Recently the Houston Association of Realtors decided to stop using master to refer to bedrooms and bathrooms in its property database.

When Petr Baudis chose the word master for the main Git reference in 2005, he was thinking of the word as he would a “master recording.” The then-20-year-old Czech student and nonnative English speaker thought the word sounded nice, although in retrospect he wishes that he had chosen main.

Git has its origins in supporting Linux kernel development, which still uses the words master and slave. Linus Torvalds, lead developer of the Linux kernel, created Git to replace the proprietary software BitKeeper, which used the same terminology.

Baudis, now chief technology officer of the startup Rossum, doesn’t remember referencing that history when he came up with master. He also doesn’t remember any conversations about the historical uses of the terms. Baudis says he and many coders live outside the US and aren’t familiar with American connotations of the words. “When you say ‘master’ or ‘slave,’ it doesn’t evoke the concept from, I don’t know, history books or even contemporary reality, but it mainly evokes those purely technical meanings,” he says.

Many participants in Code 2040’s programs, which include fellowships for Black and Latinx college and graduate students in the tech sector, have said the terminology makes them uncomfortable, Monterroso says.

“When they have pushed back. the response has been, like, ‘Oh, this isn’t about racism, just technical terms,’ without the emotional intelligence to see that using those terms as technical terms has racial-traumatizing impacts on people,” she says.

The master/slave language is far from the only thing that makes coders of color feel unwelcome or out of place. Like the way, when Karanja wore a high bun in a previous job, a colleague would always squeeze her hair. Like how Stafford feels he needs to hide his Southern accent at work. Like how PagerDuty software engineer Aliyah Owens, in computer science classes where she was often the only Black woman, was sometimes asked, “Do you belong here? Oh, I thought you were another major.”

And then there are big things. When Gloria Washington was a doctoral student at George Washington University, her adviser excluded her from meetings and made her feel like he didn’t believe in her. She had already spent four years in the program when the adviser told her she was “not research or analytically capable” of completing her PhD.

“After he told me that, I’m not going to lie, I questioned everything about myself,” she says.

But after about six weeks of self-doubt, Washington decided she would not allow one person to determine her success. She found another adviser and finished the degree. Her first adviser “had to end up shaking my hand as Dr. Washington,” she says.

Now, as assistant professor of computer science at Howard University, Washington says the master/slave terminology reflects how systemic racism was “built into the fabric of computer science.” She supports changing the terms, but considers these gestures purely symbolic if tech companies do not appoint diverse people, particularly Black people, to leadership positions—positions beyond serving as “the faces of diversity and inclusion.”

“They can, I guess, make little donations and little tokens of change, like changing a name or whatever,” Washington says. “But at the end of the day, it doesn’t translate to real money being invested in the Black community, and until that happens, that is when real change will happen.”

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