In today’s rapidly changing world, continuing to make an effort to promote diversity and inclusion cannot be emphasized enough. The language we use plays a vital role in shaping our attitudes towards various issues. In the world of technology and cybersecurity, terms such as “blacklist” and “whitelist” have been customary for decades, but it is essential that we recognize that these terms may mistakenly continue exclusionary connotations.
In this article, we will dive into why “blacklist” and “whitelist” are not inclusive terms and explore potential alternatives that can promote a more inclusive language.
The origins on “blacklist” and “whitelist”
The origins of the terms “blacklist” and “whitelist” can be traced back to the early 17th century. These words were used in the context of labor relations in order to identify individuals who were either banned (blacklisted) from employment or granted special permission (whitelisted) to work under specific conditions.
The earliest known usage of the term "blacklist" traces back to a dark chapter in history—the era of mass enslavement and forced deportation of Africans to toil in European colonies in the Americas. This historical context clearly reveals the negative perception of Africans, and unfortunately, such roots have extended into contemporary times as systemic racism. Therefore, it becomes imperative to eradicate this language entirely to foster an all-encompassing environment that embraces and respects the dignity of every individual.
Overtime, “blacklist” and “whitelist” found their way into the modern world and into the realm of technology, particularly in the fields of computing and cybersecurity.
Understanding the terminology
“Blacklist” is now defined as a list of people or things that are regarded as unacceptable or untrustworthy and should be excluded or avoided. For example, if your security team suspects a certain IP address is performing suspicious activity, they may block users from that IP address from visiting your website.
After the historical context that was just mentioned, it is evident that this term is only used in a bad connotation and originates from a period of racism. For this reason, we need to move away from using this term.
On the flip side, the term “whitelist” is defined as a list of people or things considered to be acceptable or trustworthy. This is the opposite of the meaning of “blacklist” but is instead using the word “white” and has a good connotation.
After understanding the definitions of these terms and breaking down the words, it is clear why these terms need to be avoided in all contexts of life including work and your personal life.
How non-inclusive language hurts: The problem with “blacklist” and “whitelist”
Below are a few reasons that the terms “blacklist” and “whitelist” can be considered to be non inclusive.
The term “blacklist” contains the word “black”, which can unintentionally reinforce negative racial stereotypes. Associating “black” with something undesirable or harmful can inadvertently perpetuate harmful biases and contribute to systematic racism.
While the term “whitelist” may not appear as directly problematic, it reinforces a hierarchy with “white” as the preferred or privileged category. Such implications can subtly influence our thinking and conserve racial biases.
The term “blacklist” inherently implies something negative or undesirable. This may not only contribute to a pessimistic view of the items or individuals on the list but also subconsciously associate the color black with negativity.
Another intriguing aspect worth contemplating is the presence of the word "black" in various other terms. For instance, consider words like "blackmail," "black sheep," and "black market." Each of these expressions carries negative connotations, implying actions, individuals, or "places" that may be deemed questionable or disreputable. Furthermore, it's noteworthy that all these words share "black" as the initial component of their formation.
The use of these terms can potentially alienate people, making them feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in technical spaces. Inclusive language is vital to ensuring that all individuals feel respected and valued within their communities.
Promoting inclusive alternatives: Terms to use instead of “blacklist” and “whitelist”
Recognizing the need for change, the technology community is increasingly adopting alternative terms that are more inclusive and neutral. Below are some potential alternatives.
Instead of “whitelist” and “blacklist”, we can use “allowlist” and “denylist” to indicate approved and restricted items or individuals. These terms focus on permission and access rather than color-based associations. By doing so, they eliminate any unintended racial connotations and avoid continuing any negative stereotypes.
“Allowlist” and “denylist” are straightforward and descriptive, clearly conveying their respective function and meaning without any ambiguity.
This pair of terms clearly communicates the actions without relying on the potential of exclusionary language. By focusing on permissions and restrictions, they avoid any association with race or ethnicity.
“Permitted” and “blocked” are simple, unambiguous terms that clearly express the status of items or individuals, fostering transparency and clarity in communication.
Utilizing “approved” and “disapproved” further emphasizes a neutral stance, removing any color-related implications and promoting inclusivity.
“Approved” and “disapproved” are universally understood terms that communicate the status of items or individuals without any potential for misinterpretation.
Fostering inclusive language starts with us
Language holds tremendous importance and power in shaping our perceptions and attitudes. As we aim for a more inclusive and equitable community, it is crucial to be mindful of the terms we use in our everyday conversations, especially in professional and technical settings.
The terms “blacklist” and “whitelist” may seem harmless on the surface, but they carry a historical burden that preserves exclusionary connotations. By adopting more inclusive alternatives, such as “denylist” and “allowlist”, we can take a small yet meaningful step towards creating a more welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone.
Choosing inclusive language is not just a matter of semantics; it is a powerful way to promote a diverse and equitable society. As we evolve, let us ensure that our language evolves with us, embracing inclusivity, diversity, and respect for all.
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