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GitHub to replace racially-loaded terms (master, slave, blacklist and whitelist)

vnbrs profile image Vinicius Brasil ・1 min read

Amidst all the protests around the globe, the tech community is also engaging in some ways. GitHub has announced that they'll replace racially-loaded terms.

This includes dropping terms like "master" and "slave" for alternatives like "main/default/primary" and "secondary;" but also terms like "blacklist" and "whitelist" for "allow list" and "deny/exclude list."

(read full article here)

What do you think about this? What other terms do you think should also be changed?

Discussion

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sduduzog profile image
Beautus S Gumede

I think it's a good gesture. But it feels a bit awkward as a person of color to see such things when I've never felt that way as from the time I knew about computer science and to where I am now. This feeling though is influenced by many things, partly being that I'm from a different place where some terms aren't as heavy hitting in terms of my history and that I cannot speak for other people of color from other locations in the world.

Re-purposing has more impact than renaming, in my opinion. Changing a branch name from 'master' to 'default' carries less weight compared to github just not working with government institutions like Immigration and Customs Enforcement's ICE. Removing "blacklist/whitelist" in favour of something which is probably more harder to remember has less impact than not blocking open source accounts and repositories from locations like Iran.

Historical names do way less harm than the inhumane practices corporations do today. But that's just my opinion

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Dan Dascalescu

Thanks for pointing out GitHub's contract with the ICE. A link or details may help:

Github contact with the ICE

Also, GitHub has far bigger social problems than a word. For instance, they could rethink banning based on ethnicity.

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sduduzog profile image
Beautus S Gumede

Thank you very much for this. I've edited my comment with the links you provided.

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dandv profile image
Dan Dascalescu

No, thank you for your testimony that you didn't feel offended by the word. I've linked to it in my new post.

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Damien Cosset

It takes us white people a lot to care about things that matter. It is a small thing. It won't have industry-wide change. But, maybe white people will realize how easy it is to change shit when we start to use our voices about it.

We'll pick the wrong battles for sure, because we have never done this stuff before, caring about Black people. I want to believe it's a baby step in the right direction.

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Raphael Habereder

It takes us white people a lot to care about things that matter.

That is a brave assumption. Speaking for all white people is kind of a stretch and probably way out of any of our ballpark, don't you think? In my perspective, we are absolutely the loudest of the bunch, when it's about getting offended by something, especially when it's on behalf of someone else.

It won't have industry-wide change.

Doesn't it already?

But, maybe white people will realize how easy it is to change shit when we start to use our voices about it.

Again, assumption on behalf of "all us white people". Stop that, please.

We'll pick the wrong battles for sure, because we have never done this stuff before, caring about Black people.

Please, do me a favor and read this sentence again. Are you, really, explicitly saying, that whites never cared about black people before? Really? I have no idea where you get that impression from...

I would classify this as fanatical ideological talk, without any argument as for why this is needed, except "We know it is needed". That is no basis for any decision of this calibre.

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Damien Cosset

It's change, not change that matter. It's a mini baby step.

I am saying that whiteness never cared for Blacks, even today 😉 Nothing I'm seeing is proving me wrong :D

I'm okay with being fanatic. I can look at the last 400 years of history and be pretty confident about that statement.

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habereder profile image
Raphael Habereder

Well, at this point, it is useless to continue any kind of debate anymore.

Nothing can prove you wrong, if you are dead set on being the absolute authority about truth.
I do hope, that in the future, you take the time to take a good, long look at the world and reflect on these statements.

Seriously, I am sorry you feel that way.

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lmdj07

Raphael, I agree with your point that Damien should not make a blanket statement about white people.

However, back to the subject of this post and let me ask you something.

Do you think it's a coincidence that everything black in the English language connotes something negative (black magic, blackmail, blacklist) while everything white has a positive connotation (whitelist, whitewash, 'great white shark')?

Or could it be that those in authority in the past made a conscious effort to make it that way?

Those with the authority now should use it so I think it's the right thing to do!

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sduduzog profile image
Beautus S Gumede

My argument to that would be, I'm not black, I'm brown, or fair in complexion. But notice how we all spiral into these discussions about wording, which makes everyone uncomfortable either way because that's how the world is, regardless. In fact, saying 'master' is racist makes it racist, and saying 'master' is one of the qualifications my dad got, makes it nothing more than a degree. We all seem to agree that the world needs fixing but this fix should not be top 5 of the list, especially with what is going on in the States, the most recent source of all this tension

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Raphael Habereder

Do you think it's a coincidence that everything black in the English language connotes something negative (black magic, blackmail, blacklist) while everything white has a positive connotation (whitelist, whitewash, 'great white shark')?

To be honest, reading these words, mostly they actually spark the opposite effect for me, since I am more biased towards black being "exciting, more appealing to look at", so I am not sure how qualified I am to answer your question.

But I'll humour your very good question and will try to also insert my point, that I do think that personal perspective plays a huge roll, as I will demonstrate with your examples.

  • Black Magic is kind of cool (I'm more the destructive guy, which I know, is a bad example in this context), while White Magic (Healing) is boring to me. (I also don't know why this paragraph is completely bold)
  • Blackmail, very bad, that one I agree, undeniably. Though I don't know if there is "whitemail" of any kind that would be "good" in comparison. (Apparently, yes there is "whitemail", and it's supposed to be good. Never heard of that tbh)

  • Blacklist, this one, is different to me. I rather blacklist "bad.domain" than whitelist 1000s of domains I think are "good". Blacklisting is much less effort and in my opinion more helpful. Though the movement toward accept/blocklist is perfectly reasonable in that case. That would get a thumbsup emoji from me, if I knew how to type it on a keyboard :D

Whitelist, Whitewash, great white:
Whitelisting, as I mentioned before, I hate it. SO much work. Please let me blacklist instead, I beg you. Whitewashing? Bad shit, especially in movies.
Great whites? Scary as all hell, they are monsters.

Though, and that is where I am wary, I might be heavily biased toward the color black being good, because I find black, as a color, way more appealing than white.

Or could it be that those in authority in the past made a conscious effort to make it that way?

To be honest, I can't say no to that. Etymology is a complex and very interesting topic and most words that are bound to a color, have the basic color somewhere in their history. So I would like to reserve that judgement to the specialists in this case.

Maybe it's just my naivety to hope "humanity is mostly good" when creating words.

Those with the authority now should use it so I think it's the right thing to do!

I agree to a point. If it's something that actually hurts people, that would undeniably bring a positive change to the world, then by all means. Bring down the hammer of justice and bring it down hard.

But I don't see the positive it is going to bring the world to rename a default branch in a code management tool. Especially not, if there are so many more obvious things with much more impact we could do with this newly sparked drive instead (for example to bring down the hammer on the police, which I know, is a US-Centric problem right now and not a global thing).

I just think it's a huge uproar over a small thing, when this drive could bring so much more change somewhere else.

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Ben Calder

maybe white people will realize how easy it is to change shit when we start to use our voices about it.

White people are perfectly aware of how to "change shit": we've had hundreds of years of experience doing just that; and we've used our voices and power to rig everything in our favour. That's precisely the problem.

If you don't want to pick the wrong battles then don't rob Black people of agency as you have done in this comment: they have voices and they want to be heard. White people (myself included) need to step back and listen to Black voices and act meaningfully - or better still remove the barriers that stop them acting for themselves. We should not simply muddle along making empty gestures that have no real consequence.

This clip from Kim Krayton talking about white fragility seems particularly relevant here.

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Damien Cosset

Yes. I am reflecting on the harm I have done so far. There are a lot of things that are wrong with the way I approach this issue and how I used my privilege.

You are right. And I have a lot of work to do to get better. Wish I had understood that earlier.

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blindfish3 profile image
Ben Calder

Well we Europeans have a long and sorry history that gave us that privilege, and our education systems are designed to preserve it; so it's inevitable that we make mistakes.
Let's see if Git can follow up the gesture with something more meaningful...

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Rémy 🤖

It's not really easy to change. Changing those defaults will break a ton of test suites, git-related software and confuse developers around the world (and especially newcomers reading tutorials). This change is making development less inclusive due to the confusion it brings to people that are not already in the game. One more intricacy that does not need to exist.

All of that so a bunch of white dudes can feel better about themselves?

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Rémy 🤖

Best summary of the situation I've read so far, thanks!

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Sandeep Menon

Its like when a child falls on floor and hurts itself, we pretend to hit the floor to appease the child.

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Beautus S Gumede

"Bad floor, you're a very bad floor" 😅 😅

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Ben Calder

Thank you for posting this. I totally agree on all points. Git are in a position to take far more affirmative action. Let's hope they do so.

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José Muñoz

This is the easiest way to do nothing and still pat yourself in the back, if Github is serious about their social responsibilities they should cut their contracts with ICE, cheap stunts like this are a shameless PR move.

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Rémy 🤖

I was going to say exactly the same thing

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Sebastian

I second that. 👍

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rolfstreefkerk profile image
Rolf Streefkerk

These terms have existed for decades and now suddenly we feel they're racially loaded? I think this is a knee jerk reaction to a problem that doesn't exist.

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Raphael Habereder

The whole debate wouldn't be as problematic, if it didn't go the way every outrage debate goes.
"We say it is bad, prove us wrong", and suddenly there is a whole bandwagon without any proof or argument to be made.

This is not how a discussion should work, and most of the time the path of least resistance is just to give in to the demands, to save your face publicly.

I'm not against the change, if it makes people happy, go for it. I'm just against how the discussion and stigmatisation in this whole process works, every damn time.

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Dan Dascalescu

Very well put! I've linked to your quote in my post.

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Jan Petrů

"Road to hell is paved with good intentions" is what I think.

What will this change for people of color? Everybody will have to use new term they are not used to. This only creates more unnecessary work for creators.

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Jesse Houwing

The fact that it is causing a lot of people a small frustration may also get them to think. I've seen a lot of discussions happening on why these terms are bad. Even if people were to completely leave their branches alone, they may have learned something.

The master branch in Git was just a placeholder name anyway. With repos forking there is no real concept of master. Or, as the Pro Git book often calls it the 'blessed master', which, in hindsight, sounds even worse.

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Dan Dascalescu

The fact that it is causing a lot of people a small frustration

Renaming "master" will be no small frustration.

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Jesse Houwing

I'm guessing it won't be as horrible as painted. Plus, you don't have to change. It's entirely optional. It's not that there will be a blocklist of bad branch names built into every git command line...

And there are safer ways to do this than just renaming everything. Adding a little automation to make main mirror master, update the builds over time, add hooks to warn users etc.

It will be far less painful as we adopt ways to more easily resolve these problems.

The small frustrations I was alluding to were the small open source projects and personal Repos that can change easily. I was done in less than 2 hours. But maybe some of my forks may need to spend some time too. And maybe some links from blogs and stackoverflow will break. For me, that's ok.

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ItsASine (Kayla)

Considering that tech has moved towards worker for a while, I'm not surprised by the change. Like, boss-worker nodes vs. master-slave nodes. Or even child processes. Things that are under or spawned off of a controlling element have been moving away from historically charged phrasing.

I'm glad to see them making progress towards a better way of phrasing, but it makes me think less of them that they're doing it now... There's no way they actually care and aren't just doing it for the pat on the back for being progressive during #blacklivesmatter.

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Dan Dascalescu

Wait until someone thinks "child process" is offensive because of "child labor".

There's no way they actually care and aren't just doing it for the pat on the back for being progressive

Exactly. GitHub has far worse social problems to fix than the name of a branch (see point 6 in my post).

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ItsASine (Kayla)

Thanks for gathering all of point 4 in one spot! I remember each of those individually, but seeing them all in one place is particularly damning.

I don't know about the point here, though (and similarly point 3 at your write-up). Since language and meaning evolve over time, I don't see an issue with renaming child processes if a lot of people associate it with child labor instead. In that case, it doesn't affect me at all if it stays or if it changes, but it could help people if it changes, so net win. This is also why I see Github's timing as the suspicious part -- they're getting positive feedback and recognition for something that they weren't affected by and a lot of people in what they see as affected populations don't see issue with.

They aren't doing it out of empathy when there's rarely a person affected. They're doing it to look good.

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Jesse Houwing

I just renamed mine in GitHub. Given I have Azure Pipelines linked to my repos for CI and CD, I also had to make a few changes there:

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Ben Halpern

I don't think anyone feels like this is a huge deal, it's a small gesture. I think the biggest thing this gesture relates to is the inherent need for software to evolve alongside new ideas.

A topic that's much more impactful, but related in essence: Software that needs to evolve beyond binary concepts of gender. There is likely a lot of software written today that literally stores m/f as binary inputs. There's also a lot of software that stores peoples' names as fixed unchangeable primary keys instead of a fluid concept (names can change for a variety of reasons, but is often an overlooked need).

If software can't change, what's the point?

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Manuele J Sarfatti

I agree 100% with you, and every step is important.

At the same time I can't help but think that this is not some independent OSS maintainer we are talking about, but a corporation that is currently in business with an organization that literally put people in cages like, last week.

I hope they do not feel off the hook.

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Dan Dascalescu

It's an insignificant1 gesture made into a cheap PR stunt2.


  1. See points 2 and 3 in my post

  2. See the end of point 4 on the same post. 

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Saša Zejnilović

I am just thinking how many pipelines this will break. Am I the only one?

BTW would it mean the next step is that we cannot use these words in our repositories?

Wait until they see how my RaceConditionExceptions class is named.

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Jesse Houwing

Yeah, those pipelines were a bit more work. With config as code it's mostly a simple search and replace. And some folks inside GitHub already seem to be looking into a more platform supported option to reduce the fallout.

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Saša Zejnilović

A note, if I may. Not every pipeline is a DevOps pipeline that can even be defined in code. There are process pipelines and tools that do not allow this.

Let's say you are a corporation with GithubEnterprise and you depend on another 3-rd party git tool. GitHub changes master to main but your 3-rd party provider did not yet update. What now?

As a QA (mainly) I shiver whenever people say "simple" and even more with "search and replace".

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Jesse Houwing

It was in my case, but then again, I own almost every step in my process. And I use different branch names in some other cases already.

In complex environments I'd take a more cautious approach, maybe start using automation, like GitHub actions to sync master to main. Roll out hooks to detect dependencies on master etc. That way you can take the slow and cautious approach.

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Hibo Abdilaahi

I'd be interested to know whether this idea came forward from a POC. I don't think this would've been the first thing that came to mind for me if asked what Github could do in response to the #Blacklivesmatter movement. I personally don't feel this will accomplish much for POC but I guess changing it won't harm anything.

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Dan Dascalescu

Probably not. See point 4 in my post.

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Kirill Shestakov

Good for them. However, there are things that help the victims, and there are things that don't. This one doesn't, and it's probably done for their own image of themselves, to seem like they're doing something. This response is meek, at best, and egoistic, at worst. That's my opinion.

If they truly wanted to help, they would advocate and lobby for abolishment of private prisons and war on drugs, as well as demilitarization of police.

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Dan Dascalescu

Exactly. GitHub could spend therr time and PR resources to stop their contract with the ICE, and rethink banning based on ethnicity.

Github contact with the ICE

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Dan Dascalescu

I think renaming the "master" branch is,

  • useless to the assumed target audience, who hasn't even been offended by the term
  • a cheap PR stunt
  • hurting far more developer due to the time wasted by having to change countless build pipelines, and the frustrating caused by staying up all night fixing P0s due to the inevitable ensuing breakage
  • possibly humiliating to black developers, because we assume they're incapable of treating "master" like the mere label that it is.

I wrote more about these in another post.

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Damien Cosset

When white people start to care about something, things change REALLY quickly. All we have to do is care about the things that will have a real huge impact on the lives of underrepresented people.

It only took world wide protests to change one word. I don't know what we'll need to do real change... Is there even hope?

No reason to stop trying💪

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boolie205

Is this a joke? I'm not trying to be provocative here but surely this is just insane?
blacklist/whitelist isn't racially loaded at all. There's basically no way to make that argument.
Master/slave. Ok sure, MAYBE you could make that argument. but that implies that no other race has ever been enslaved?

This whole thing sort of seems like a massive virtue signal, to show "wow look how progressive we are" Without actually doing much of anything.

Changing some technical terms isn't going to end racism. It's just going to inconvinence some people. Might not even do that.

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Greg Bowler

I can see how master/slave could be problematic, but the "master" branch doesn't imply that there are slave branches, and certainly isn't racially loaded, just like a master bedroom doesn't imply there are slave bedrooms.

Either way, it doesn't really make any difference, and seems like a hollow gesture to me, but if it means that diversity increases on GitHub, then I'm all for it.

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Martin Salinas

The title should be: "Github is racially-loading terms like master, slave, whitelist and blacklist".
That'd be more accurate.

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Alain D'Ettorre

For those of you thinking this is a good thing, just know that the word "master" is not english, it's latin, and it's used for teachers and artisans: it inspires students to learn and become one. It has nothing to do with slavery. It literally means "three times greater" which is what you have to be in order to be able to teach.

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Jesse Houwing

In the case of Git, the name carried over from BitKeeper. Their docs talk about master repositories and slave repositories.

The fact that master also has the "Gold copy" and the "person who has mastered" meaning doesn't really matter though, does it. And if a lot of people "mistake it" for the intended "master/slave", then it's a good default to change.

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Raphael Habereder

Why do people always post this link to the gnome mailing list?
There are a lot of "maybes" and "possibles" on this thread, and no proof whatsoever. It is all just speculation to produce an uproar.

Might as well rename git, since a git is an "unpleasant or contemptible person". And who wants to work with these?

Seriously, who is actually going "Yes, now I can finally work with git" after this change?

This is opening a massive can of worms, because of a version control system. An engineering tool.
IMHO this change is just producing work on a global scale and will have literally zero impact to the world, except the disruption of people's workflow.

It appears that if we made the obvious one-line change to builtin/init-db.c, we'd have 304 tests that fail, which is about a third of our test suite.
source: Git Mailing List on Kernel.org

Like this.

While the discussion is important to have, the effort should be invested somewhere else maybe.

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Rémy 🤖

I would add that Git is officially a self-reference from Linus Torvalds towards his own personality, and he's fairly offensive.

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Sebastian

While your reasoning is sound, the word still has a connotation (just like every word). It is associated with ideas that have little or nothing to do with the origin of the word.

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Joe Duarte

Who says they're "racially loaded"? I don't buy it. The import of extreme leftist ideology and narratives is out of control. This is a fear-driven subculture, and these moves are bizarrely orthogonal to anything to do with software development. It would never occur to me that blacklist and whitelist had any racial connotations whatsoever.

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Rolf Streefkerk

welcome to the world of identity politics, it's a mine field.

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🦄N B🛡

I wonder if the name of the "git" project will one day end up on the chopping block, because blokes in England see it as having an offensive meaning?

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Douglas Cordeiro

Master/slave is the name of a technic not something related to slavery. Stop whining,