Words Matter: Driving Thoughtful Change Toward Inclusive Language in Technology

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Words shape our worldview, how we regard others, and how we make others feel.  Right now, in the midst of a health and societal crisis, we are at a pivot point where people are willing to not only talk about our hard-wired issues of systemic racism and bias but to take action. While common expressions like “sold down the river” and “blackmail” are clear and demeaning vestiges of our historical connection to enslavement, other common terms may not jump out as readily. But they too demand eradication.

Like everyday colloquialisms, the language used in technology can create and reinforce discriminatory stereotypes. Technologists often use the phrase “master/slave,” for example, to describe components of software and hardware in which one process or device controls another.  Untrusted websites that are used to steal private data are put on a “blacklist” and their access denied. A hacker who violates IT security for a malicious thrill or illegal personal gain is known as a “black hat”.

The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and far too many others remind us that the fight against racism and bias is still necessary and urgent.  The much needed change to make our society more inclusive must also extend to our workplace behavior and language including our IT language.

Inclusion in Language

As part of Emb(race), our social justice movement to combat racial inequality, the IBM Academy of Technology launched an internal initiative to identify and replace IT terminology that promotes racial and cultural bias. Our goal is to promote the use of inclusive language in IT and provide opportunities for IBM employees to work together to achieve this goal.

To read more on this, visit the IBM THINK blog.

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