by Erin Grace
In 2014, the Django community merged a pull request to replace “master/slave” terminology with “primary/replica.” The change sparked much gratitude and much chagrin. On one side were people of color and their allies who understood the need to move away from language that others members of the community, and on the other side were those who didn’t understand (honestly or otherwise) the need or desire for the change.
A (very) brief history of the terminology
In technology, the “master/slave” concept is not new – indeed, the earliest manual I could find referring to it was the 1969 PDP11 Handbook.
In the English language, the words are not new either: “master” is over 1100 year old, while the younger “slave” is 700 years old.
In human civilization, slavery is older still: it has existed in nearly every culture on earth since before recorded history. And despite the formal abolition of slavery in the 20th century, the practice continues to this day.
Why change the terminology?
In the discussion of this terminology change, some ask (often disingenuously) who could possibly find the original terminology legitimately disturbing. Although I think there are several candidates, in this article I’ll focus on the group facing the greatest impact: people of color. I encourage you to explore for yourself the reasons why current and former slaves, women, and others find this terminology disturbing.
Trauma: past and present
Despite the historical ubiquity of slavery, many in the West typically think about slavery in terms of the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 19th centuries, and the chattel slavery practiced as part of it. Under chattel slavery, enslaved people are considered property that can be bought and sold. Because of their status as property, the children of chattel slaves are also considered property; disturbingly, chattel slaves were compared with cattle in this regard.
It’s important to note that there were other forms of forced labor practiced in this period of history, notably indentured servitude. Although the conditions of indentured servitude could be horrific, the period of servitude had an end date. This period could be extended based on a number of factors, up to the point of being life-long, but an important distinction from chattel slavery is that an indentured servant was not considered property, and their children could not be forced to work simply as a consequence of their relation to their parent. Indentured servitude was typically forced upon White people; Chattel slavery, by contrast, was reserved for people of color.
The Atlantic slave trade began with arguments about whether it was moral to enslave Native Americans, but as the practice showed itself to have major economic gains for countries willing to ignore the humanity of other races, people from Africa and their descendants grew into the dominant population of enslaved people. These racial lines developed into an institutional racism that has yet to be eradicated more than a century after the abolition of chattel slavery in the United States.
We have a clear historical record in the United States of the abuses wreaked on enslaved people. However, because of the sheer number of Black people brought to America and Europe as part of the Atlantic slave trade, the clearest record is of abuses against Black bodies in particular: beatings, sexual assault, rape, psychological torture, physical torture, family separation, abduction, and murder were features of the system, not bugs.
I do not bring these abuses up for their shock value. Instead, they are an integral component to understanding some part of the continuing grief and terror that people of color experience to this day.
Knowing that these things have happened to anyone is terrible. But to know that they were wreaked upon people of your race – because of their race – is a deep wound that alters your understanding of life and your place in society. Although I am not descended from enslaved people, as a Native American I live with the history of genocide. To know that your ancestors were singled out for something so horrifying does not easily slip your mind; the wound causes chronic emotional pain. Pain in the deep knowledge that just beyond the edge of living memory, your ancestors were considered literally sub-human. Pain in the deep knowledge that others reaped huge rewards for exploiting the people who gave you life. Pain in the deep knowledge that the story of racial pain has been passed to you, while the story of racial success was passed to the descendants of the exploiters. Pain in the deep knowledge that the reason for it all was nothing more or less than a singular determination to ignore shared humanity.
Although chattel slavery ended in a single day, the attitudes and institutional racism associated with it didn’t have such a clean break. In the century after political emancipation, people of color have continued to face physical and political horrors: lynchings, segregation, voter suppression, and extreme poverty remain commonplace. Even now, the judicial system and other institutions continue to play their part in oppressing people of color while acting with relative leniency on White people. With the deep knowledge of the source of the injustice baked into a person’s very fabric, it’s impossible not to draw connections between history and contemporary reality.
People of color are not consumed by this reality every waking moment, but the pain is never far out of reach. The pain burns when you find yourself the target of an overly watchful store clerk and you’re forced to remember that you are deeply distrusted because of nothing more than your skin color. The pain throbs when you hear a police siren and recall Brown lives lost to police brutality and the system that refuses to punish the police executing those lives. And when learning to code, or while interacting with a well-loved system in a new way, the pain gnaws when you see that word – slave – and recall the horrors your ancestors experienced for the “terrible crime” of looking the same way you do.
Beyond the everyday reminders of trauma that people of color experience, representation plays an important part in this discussion as well. Representation describes the ways groups of people are portrayed in media and the culture at large. It has two major components: the ways people outside the represented group understand the representation (out-group representation), and the ways people inside the represented group understand the representation (in-group representation).
Although legal segregation has been abolished, racial segregation continues to persist, particularly in urban areas. This means that media portrayals are often the only meaningful way White people interact with people of color.
“Media” as a whole is a complex topic but includes words and metaphors as its smallest components. Although the representation of people of color is gradually becoming more positive – due in no small part to increasing willingness to include creatives of color in the development of mainstream media – much representation remains problematic at best.
On the backdrop of the current media landscape, the inclusion of the word “slave” as a metaphor for a technological communication process only serves to provide another brick in the wall of negative representation. Because of the recent history of Black enslavement in the West, the most easily accessible image of a slave in the minds of most Americans and Europeans is a Black person – usually a Black man. This further reinforces the concept that Black lives are one-dimensional, and that Black history can be compressed into a single word. Meanwhile, many forget entirely that slavery in the Americas began with Native Americans enslaved by colonizing European powers. The pain of that struggle, too, is largely erased in the broader American and European consciousness because of the connotations behind that one word.
In-group representation, meanwhile, considers how media portrayals shape the way people of color people think about themselves.
In the study “Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots,” Fryberg et al studied the reactions of Native American high school and college students to stereotyped images of Native Americans such as “Chief Wahoo” and Disney’s Pocahontas. They found that seeing these images lowers the students’ self-esteem, their sense of community worth, and their sense of an achievement-related future. The likely reason is summed up in the abstract: “We suggest that American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited way others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.”
Circling back to “master/slave” terminology, it isn’t hard to imagine a similar mechanism working on other communities of color. Although individuals understand the rich inner lives they lead and the complexity of the members of their own community, the reminder that others fail to see this complexity is deeply hurtful. When remembering this, it’s easy to feel as though your actual work matters less to others than than the role they have mentally pigeonholed you into. The memory of times when others’ stereotypes have prevented you or someone you know from advancing can be destructive. The worry that these stereotypes will also prevent others from understanding or empathizing with you is deeply isolating.
This is of particular worry in the realm of technology. Although women and people of color (particularly Black people) formed the backbone of the tech world in the 1950s and 60s, they have been systematically pushed out as the industry gained traction. As of 2017, racial disparities were worse in tech than even gender disparities, with Black women facing the worst levels of parity. Understanding this, it’s incredibly important to understand how alienating “slave” terminology can feel, regardless of denotation. As in many cases, connotation is everything.
The experiences of current and former slaves
As I mentioned earlier, slavery continues to this day despite that no government sanctions it. As of 2013, there are an estimated 30 million people enslaved globally. An estimated 60,000 enslaved people live in America alone, and between 5,000 and 15,000 live in each country in Europe. Many enslaved people in North America and Europe work in domestic service, but particularly in Asia, these people provide labor to the tech industry. In 2016, KnowTheChain ranked 20 companies across seven themes that contribute to the use of slave labor. Out of 100 possible points, the highest ranking company (HP) received only 72, and several – including Texas Instruments, IBM, Hitachi, and Canon – received less than 50 total points.
That enslaved people exist is not in question. Bearing in mind their horrific experiences and the real human toll slavery takes, it’s important not to blunt the word used to describe it. “Slave” describes a position of such powerlessness that it is utterly opposed to Western notions of freedom. That we need to end slavery is not in question, but using the word “slave” in such a casual context slowly dims our perception of its horrors.
More disturbingly, many people who prefer “slave” terminology state that it is because they understand “slave” to mean “a person who unquestioningly follows the orders of the master.” Although I cannot argue that this is the intended effect of any interpersonal master/slave relationship, the reality is much more complex. Large-scale slave revolts have been known as far back as 73 BCE. Slave escape attempts were hugely frequent in the American South before emancipation, as well as in the Caribbean during the period of widespread Native American enslavement there. Individuals and small groups of enslaved people have run away, staged protests, refused to work, and performed other explicit and subtle acts of disobedience, likely since slavery’s inception. In extreme circumstances, slave uprisings have literally created nations, as in the case of Haiti.
Knowing this, it is not only inaccurate but grossly disingenuous and harmful to enslaved people around the world to compress them into the category “people who will always do what they’re told.” It is the nature of human beings to strive for freedom, and this kind of terminology doesn’t reflect that reality.
The experiences of neophytes
As I dug through the comments on the original Django commit to change the terminology, I found several people who worried the change would be jarring to new people in the community. After all, the original terms have been used “forever.” Strikingly, these comments sat among others conceding the new terminology (primary/replica) was more technically accurate. Despite this, some still balked at the change. As I read through these comments, I was reminded of the power and responsibility that comes with communicating through metaphor.
Several years ago, some members of my family participated in a church mission trip to an orphanage in Haiti. They planned to teach children’s Bible classes, during which they wanted to make “salvation bracelets”: a cord bracelet with six or seven colored beads, each color representing an aspect of Christian teaching. However, as my mother gathered supplies, she was struck by two of the bead meanings: the black bead, which represents sin, and the white bead, which represents forgiveness.
No connection to race was intended in this context, but my mother could see that it would be easy for a child to extend the metaphor to skin color. Regardless of the intended meaning, she didn’t want her students walking away with the sense that their black skin conferred “wrongness.” In the end, the church decided on a different craft.
Metaphors are designed to facilitate communication. Communication is particularly important when we interact with people who are new to a community or to technology as a whole. Whether a term has been used “forever” means nothing to someone who encounters it for the first time. Instead, if a term harms them, the harm is genuine and deep. They don’t have a scar to protect them, and they don’t understand that no one is trying to trigger their specific pain. They only know that it hurts.
When metaphors achieve the goal of facilitating communication, they become integral to the message. But when metaphors break down communication, they no longer suit our purpose and must be removed.
Writing without toxic terms
Now that we’ve learned how this terminology can be toxic to our audiences, how do we write about these kinds of communication going forward?
Strive to be clear
The foundation of technical communication is clarity. Terminology like “master/slave” is metaphorical, which can do as much to hinder clarity as to help it. Try to move away from metaphors; instead, make the nature of the technology more clear.
Django adopted the terminology “primary/replica.” However, depending on what makes the most sense for the system or process you’re describing, “leader/follower,” “primary/secondary,” “original/replica,” and “alpha/beta” are all good alternatives. If you have a strong case that your voice and tone restrictions allow it and you’re certain that your entire user community will understand, less conventional alternatives like “jedi/padawan” or “master/apprentice” may be acceptable. However, as with all technical communication, clarity is the gold standard by which you must measure your work. If you write for an international audience (or an audience that’s likely to become international), it’s better to be clear than clever.
Use copious links
You should already be using links to contextualize unfamiliar terms. But particularly in cases where your audience may not be familiar with certain terminology, it’s important to define it clearly and then link to or otherwise reference a glossary or topic explaining the term. In your explanation, avoid using the terms “master” and “slave.” Since many people are slow to change around these points, using the old terms to explain the new terms will only further entrench the old terms in the minds of experienced users. Additionally, using these terms invites argument about why the new terms are appropriate “since the old terms mean the same thing.”
Work with your community
There are times when you’re able to make significant changes as a writer, such as by using more inclusive terms in your documentation. However, there are also cases where you have less freedom to make radical changes. For example, if you’re documenting an existing process that already uses “master/slave” terminology, changing the terminology in the documentation will make it harder for your users to understand what you need to tell them.
In cases like this, work with your community to make the change on the project side. Engaging the community is especially important if you’re in a position of privilege – white, male, able-bodied, cisgender, rich, or holding a position of power in the project. Don’t wait for people of color to tell you they want the change; bring up the change yourself and be willing to fight for it.
Bear in mind that in this process you may encounter people of color (or people claiming to be people of color) who oppose the change. Hear out their reasons, adjust your strategy if needed, but ultimately remember that your community of color is more than this one person. To the extent you can, try to get voices from other people of color to support the change, and support them if they speak out in favor of it.
Even if you only manage to make the change in the documentation, this is a huge step forward toward helping people in your project feel more safe and accepted. Stay consistent with the new terminology as you write more documentation, and encourage others to help propagate the change in the places where they interact with the project.