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Cover image for The bigger picture behind the GitHub master branch name change

The bigger picture behind the GitHub master branch name change

sylviapap profile image Sylvia Pap ・6 min read

By now you may have heard that GitHub plans to replace "master" with an alternative term to avoid slavery references

I'll hopefully explain this throughout, but my main focus here isn't actually this specific GitHub debate. I am not trying to add to this question, or even make a claim in support or against.

This blog post was inspired by Juneteenth and looking into different ways that I could get involved and write a relevant post. So first, here are some important things you can be doing today (that do not include fighting on the internet about a tech term):

If you want more info on just the GitHub decision, here are some more general articles:

This is a good dev post in support: Github is replacing the word master to avoid slavery references. Deal with it.
and this is a good post against: 9 problems with replacing "master" in Git. This one is very good for what I would consider an in between.

Again - not trying to add to what has become a classic internet troll debate with no seemingly correct answer and a lot of loud white people going in circles. And yes, I am white, so I sincerely acknowledge that I can't speak for anyone on this issue.

But I am a woman, and I know what it's like to feel excluded from the tech community by things that might seem small to others. So I'm just going to share some things other people have said on this topic that I have found helpful and/or relevant to bigger issues.

First, some Twitter humor that generally represents my stance:

And one in opposition that I was prepared to argue against:

Largely because I find it insensitive to say anything along the lines of "I've never thought of it this way, therefore it is not offensive." To quote another Tweet:

BUT - and I cannot emphasize this enough - I am not here to add to this specific GitHub debate. I know some commenters are going to miss this point, so maybe I should have left the word GitHub out of my title. Might go back and edit if this still isn't clear: I am talking about microaggressions in tech in general, inspired by and relating to the GitHub debate, but more so as a post dedicated to the larger importance of simple awareness of microaggressions.

Some people against the 'master change' understand the importance of implicit bias and just think this particular debate is trivial. Again - I am not addressing that!! But a lot of people who think the word shouldn't be changed also seem to think a lot of other things shouldn't be changed. That's what this is about. Bigger. Picture.

Political correctness and "free speech"

Many will openly admit that, yes, this debate is not just about technology or force of habit. It's about fear and anger toward a larger 'PC culture,' microaggressions, over-sensitivity, coddling, etc.

I can kind of see how this is the only possible argument against something as small and easy as changing a few letters in a branch name. To oppose something so small, you really must be dreaming up some wild 1984 slippery slope fallacies. These articles (The Atlantic and The Guardian) address this better and more calmly than I can.

Why microaggressions matter

I grew up in several very white communities, and I thought, up until college, that I could not be racist because I didn't have any consciously racist thoughts. I thought racism was explicit - hate crimes, slurs, segregation. I heard the term micro-aggression for the first time in college, and I also wondered if it was 'the wrong hill to die on,' 'taking away from more serious issues,' etc.

This is an excellent article with many sources on the general importance of micro-aggressions.

I slowly learned more, but the most significant event was a course I took on The Psychology of Stereotyping and Prejudice. I might be coming off too self-righteous, ivory tower white savior here, so I will try not to go too deep into this. I just feel like these kinds of courses and materials are not common in formal education, or even the debates all over the internet now. People love to debate about their experiences, and maybe articles they've read about current events, but are less likely to read about how abstract, experimental, and unconscious psychology might be affecting how we think about these problems.

How psychology can help

One of my favorite books on this topic, and in general, is Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It's not entirely focused on race, though, so you should probably first check out the many Anti-Racist Reading Lists being discussed lately. But if those are too much for you or your white grandmother's fragility right now, this is an excellent place to start.

If you want something shorter than a book, this is a great scholarly article: Language Matters: Considering Microaggressions in Science

Clearly these debates can be polarizing and make people in the middle feel attacked and overly defensive, so I do want to stress - the whole point of understanding micro-aggressions and implicit bias is understanding how we all perpetuate negative things without conscious awareness that we are doing it.

Conclusion

I'm still not entirely sure where I stand on this specific GitHub name change question. There's definitely too much white-splaining going on. That's why I tried to amplify as many other voices besides my own here. Regardless of where you stand on the GitHub question - it makes me uncomfortable to see these conversations still being dominated by white cishet men (regardless of their stance!)

Either way, this certainly cannot be the only thing you do or care about in anti-racism. We should still criticize GitHub for other things, just like we should with every organization right now putting up a BLM statement and nothing else.

Changing master to main is small, and maybe won't make much of a difference whether it happens or not. But the larger idea here of micro-aggressions and implicit bias in perpetuating exclusivity in one of the most homogenous industries should be worth considering.

Further reading

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Discussion

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I don't waste time on Twitter, etc. but this is actually the first time I've heard that using "male" and "female" to describe physical connectors could be objectionable. There's an art compound in Shanghai that has bathroom signage with the characters 凸 and 凹; literally, convex and concave- you generally understand which door applies to you. At the time I just thought it was funny/clever, but it would more than suffice for these kinds of things. In the context of peripherals I've always found it vague because either side has some component that inserts into the other depending on whether you're considering positive or negative space.

Personally, I look forward to a future without racial/sexual/religious hang-ups, shame, and stereotypes where there's unisex bathrooms. Because I don't really care- so long as I continue to not have to stand in line. ;)

 

I’d be all for breaking countless integrations and fragmenting an entire ecosystem (which is what this change will do) if it would actually make a difference. But git doesn’t use the master/slave metaphor, so it won’t. It’s more like master copy. Master is a homonym. Unfortunately, most English speakers struggle such a basic concept as the homonym. There are plenty of meanings and usages of “master” that aren’t the least bit offensive.

It’s also been suggested by numerous black American devs that this proposal is insulting - that somehow they lack the intelligence to understand that it’s not a reference to slavery and that they need to be coddled. Don’t take my word for it. Jump on Twitter and you’ll see plenty of opinions flying around.

I’m all for rooting out genuinely offensive metaphors in tech, starting with the most offensive and working our way down towards the least offensive, until we come to a point where going any further has little to no positive outcome and could even be potentially harmful. For example, the master/slave metaphor has to go. The male/female metaphor potentially has to go as we don’t need the innuendo in a professional setting.

 

Did you read anything I wrote past the title? I don't need to "take your word" - I address everything you've said here. "Jump on twitter" ... ? I embedded several relevant tweets expressing these very ideas. I say several times this post is not about the specifics of the github/master debate.