Scrub “Master/Slave” and “Whitelist/Blacklist” from Marketing Content

The technical phrase “master and slave” describes a scenario where one device or process controls another, like two hard drives; it’s also used to describe photography flash technology. The phrase has been around for decades, according to Wikipedia. To read the words now—in light of the urgent and necessary national dialogue around racial justice—is to be horrified that the language has stuck around so long. It’s long past time for it to be struck out of existence, along with other racially loaded terms like “whitelist” and “blacklist.”

For marketers, this is a good time to run a quick content audit to determine the prevalence of such terms, and swap them out for neutral language. In technology, where the offending terms are most likely to appear in software developer content, major players like GitHub and Google have been working for the past year or so to change them out for neutral language.

Here’s the preferred language that GitHub suggests:

  • Replace “master and slave” with “main/default/primary” and “secondary”
  • Replace “whitelist” and “blacklist” with “allowlist” and “blocklist” or “deny list”

“Black” with a capital “B.”

In related editorial news, many style guides and top copy editors have now firmed up their rules for capitalizing “B” in “Black” when referring to “people in a racial, ethnic, or cultural context,” says the Associated Press, which announced its AP style update in mid-June. The New York Times followed, as have hundreds of other news outlets. The style of using cap-B in “Black” long predates these announcements: Black-owned publications like The Root and Ebony standardized on “Black” years ago. Editors who made this change recently have explained that the national conversation on race has led them to rethink how the term is used alongside other ethnic and racial signifiers such as “Latinx” and “Asian.”

Given the groundswell of standardization on “Black” from the people whose job it is to think about style, it makes sense for content creators to follow their lead.

Why these words matter

Hopefully, you won’t get pushback from content stakeholders who might not see the urgency (or even the necessity) in making these changes. But if you do, you can share some of the thoughts of Peter Kirn, a music and technology writer for CDM.

“The fact that [language like ‘master and slave’] triggers debate is to say that we are taking some critical terms and evaluating exactly what they mean,” Kirn says. “Any process that does that improves the language, and whatever improves the language also makes us more effective at communicating the technology. So any debate this may trigger is far from pointless—on the contrary, it proves that language matters.”

No matter the intent of the original creators of the “master/slave” terminology, it’s coming off like the text equivalent of a Confederate flag. We content strategy people know that words matter—and since they matter, these particular words shouldn’t have a place in content.

By Chris Kent