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Science & Technology

Is It Enough To Remove Words With Racist Connotations From Tech Language? Hint: No

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Slave and master - historically, we know these words describe the relationship between an enslaved Black person and the white person who owned them. These words and their racist connotations also underpin the language of technology, where slave and master might refer to a set of databases or software code, where one is subservient to the other. Now major companies are reckoning with that problematic language. Twitter, JPMorgan Chase, the software development platform GitHub all say they will be replacing the terms.

Software developer and designer Caroline Karanja says it's a first step towards larger conversations about racial equity in tech, and she joins us now. Caroline, welcome.

CAROLINE KARANJA: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So as someone whose job involves developing websites and coding, may I ask how you first came across these terms?

KARANJA: Yeah. So I'm a self-taught developer, which means that I really came across these terms just, really, through committing my code, and so it really took me aback for a moment. I couldn't imagine that I was engaging with this innovative sort of form of what I felt, at the moment, for me, to be self-expression, and here were language that was just so steeped in so much racial inequities and such a strong historical connotation against Black people in particular. And so I really didn't see its place in coding, and that really, initially, just kind of shocked me, and I was like, oh.

KELLY: Do you ascribe any value at all to the view of someone who might argue these terms are not about endorsing slavery today, these are technical terms in a technical industry, everybody uses them, and it would be really disruptive to change them?

KARANJA: I would say that having descriptive words that actually showcase or indicate what is - what the code is actually doing or what the representation is is a far better way of us developing our code. So, for example, you have other terms, like whitelisting and blacklisting.

KELLY: What are whitelisting and blacklisting, by the way, just for those of us not in the industry?

KARANJA: Yeah. So whitelist, essentially, means what you could let in; blacklist means what you could - what you should keep out, right? When we say something is blacklist, we are leaning on the historical meaning of that term within the context of our society.

So if you are going to start recruiting from people who are from different backgrounds, who are multilingual, whose socialization has happened outside of the U.S. context, you actually have to feed them American societal views around some racial aspects in order for them to understand what some of these terms mean within a coding context. And that's not necessarily helpful, if English isn't your first language, if I tell you this is the allow list and this is the block list, that makes more sense - versus blacklist actually means this, whitelist actually means that.

KELLY: You know, I wonder if you would take a step back. I have seen the back-and-forth among some Black software developers arguing, great, drop these terms, that would be a nice gesture, but it's not really meaningful change. What changes do you see that could be made today in your industry to make progress towards greater equality?

KARANJA: Yeah, I think there's one key change that I would love to see, which is just investing in more Black- and people-of-color-owned companies, like, more people within positions of innovating and driving their own technologies and driving their own companies. I think that's really the main thing in tech that should be happening, is a stronger push towards investing in these companies.

KELLY: Caroline Karanja. She is CEO of Hack the Gap, an organization that promotes equity and inclusion in tech. Thank you so much.

KARANJA: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIROLA'S "PERPETUAL LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.