Words Matter

Alternatives for Charged Terminology in the Computing Profession

Our words have direct and indirect impacts on the people who hear or read them. As part of ACM’s efforts to combat exclusion in the computing profession, the Diversity and Inclusion Council has launched an effort to replace offensive or exclusionary terminology in the computing field. Our activities here are alongside organizations such as IBM, Apple, Github, Python, Drupal, Twitter, Android, OpenZFS, and Pearson plc. While changing terminology will not of itself repair social injustices or increase diversity in computing, we believe it can be an important step for education and change.

We suggest that the following computing terms be avoided in professional writing and presentations, since they are not strictly needed and are considered offensive or exclusionary by some groups. To encourage this approach, we offer alternative language that in some cases would actually be clearer than the problematic terms. We encourage you to select whatever wording is clearest in your specific situation.

  • master/slave: terms used in technology to describe the relationship between two processes or components. In addition to being a racially charged term, the terms do not necessarily reflect how the two interact. We recommend using something more appropriate to the context, such as primary/secondary, primary/replica, main/secondary, leader/follower, parent/child, coordinator/worker, or host/client.
  • blacklist/whitelist: terms used to describe whether an agent has access to a resource. In addition to being racially charged, color-based terms are culturally specific, so there is little value in associating permissions with them. We suggest using a self-explanatory term, such as blocklist/allowlist or unapprovedlist/approvedlist.
  • blackhat/whitehat: terms used to describe the motivations underlying an agent's actions. This term is arbitrary and has no explanatory value, as well as being racially charged and culturally specific. We recommend adopting terms that explicitly define the agent's role, such as ethical attacker/unethical attacker, hostile force/friendly force, etc.
  • gendered pronouns (she/her/hers and he/him/his): historically, “he” was used when referring to an unspecified individual; more recently, “he/she” and “s/he” have come into common use. We suggest that it is better to simply avoid mentioning gender, by using “they” as the neutral singular pronoun.

The Diversity and Inclusion Council will expand this list in the future as appropriate, evaluating other terms as they are submitted. We invite you to submit your suggestions for consideration to https://community.acm.org/words.