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Tech companies, we can do better: Whitelist & Blacklist alternatives

Blacklist and Whitelist Alternatives

It’s time to come to grips with the institutional racism within the tech industry so that we can take action to make lasting change. Sometimes it’s right in front of us, but until someone points it out, we don’t see it. I’m trying to be more aware and more proactive to call it out when I see it. One example is the use of Blacklist and Whitelist.

While many of us in the IT and Security industry have been having this discussion for the last couple of years, many people are waking up to realizing all of the ways the tech language we use can perpetuate racism. Blacklist and Whitelist are one example.

In fact, many heavy hitters have already announced sweeping changes to reform the use of Blacklist and Whitelist. Google is one example.

Since October of last year, Google Chrome — or more specifically the Chromium open source project — has included guidance in its official code style guide on how to write “racially neutral” code. The document clearly outlines that Chrome and Chromium developers are to avoid the words “blacklist” and “whitelist” in favor of the neutral terms “blocklist” and “allowlist.”

Terms such as “blacklist” and “whitelist” reinforce the notion that black==bad and white==good. That Word Black, by Langston Hughes illustrates this problem in a lighthearted, if somewhat pointed way.

Google had already made some headway on swapping “blocklist” in for “blacklist,” with efforts having begun as early as May 2018 to remove the user-facing instances of “blacklist” and “whitelist” in Chrome. However, Chrome’s internal code still has many many references to blacklists including an entire section of code called “components/blacklist.”

In light of the recent protests against racism and police brutality, at least one Chromium developer has taken it upon themselves to make good on Chrome’s desire to have racially neutral code. A week ago, a new code change was been submitted that attempts to safely replace every possible instance of the word “blacklist” without breaking any part of the browser, with the ultimate goal of renaming “components/blacklist” to “components/blocklist.”

In total, over 2,000 references to the word “blacklist” are set to be replaced, once the code change has been reviewed and accepted. It’s encouraging to see Googlers taking action to combat racism in all its forms, and serves as a reminder that all of us have the power to fight the racism within our own realms.

Another is the use of Slave and Master that has to go. There are so many other alternatives that don’t perpetuate institutional racism.

I challenge us to do better.

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