After receiving a letter from an engineering student, publishing giant Pearson agreed to replace “master-slave” terminology in textbooks. The move signals progress in the movement to uproot racism from academia and industry.
The effort to replace problematic language has been increasing in tech circles, including the localization industry. Terms like “whitelist” and “blacklist” are on their way out, for example, replaced by terms such as “allowlist” and “blocklist.” The push gained momentum recently with textbook publishing company Pearson. Santiago Gomez, a Boston University graduate in engineering, catalyzed significant movement in the academic world last month when he wrote a letter to the authors of engineering and programming textbooks about terminology with questionable implications.
The words in question are the engineering and computer programming terms “master” and “slave,” which refer to the control relationship between circuits or codes. Gomez addressed both the inaccuracy of this language to describe the process taking place, and the obvious connotations that the language evokes.
The letter made it to Pearson, which responded enthusiastically, promising new editions of textbooks with updated language. Along with reprinting their textbooks, Pearson also agreed to reach out to relevant organizations and working to continue propagating the change.
“I recognize that you don’t make change with just one book or one publisher,” Gomez said in a video posted by Boston University. “This is really about trying to make a change in education, where it’s antiracist.”
The recent progress follows a decades-long push to replace the master-slave language from engineering and programming language. A complaint filed in 2003 with the Los Angeles County Office of Affirmative Action Compliance led county officials to request manufacturers, suppliers, and contractors to review and replace problematic language, but industry leaders at the time mostly disregarded the request.
Recent years have brought about more progress with Python and Github both announcing changes in their programming language. Red Hat announced in June that it would also take an active approach by creating a team to audit their code, documentation, and content to root out insensitive language.
Pervasive in industries from automotive to tech, master-slave language will require a broad effort to eradicate from the common parlance of engineers and programmers. Furthermore, the language only represents deeper divides at stake in many of these industries. Nevertheless, the willingness to interrogate problematic language and practices will allow companies to make changes internally and identify possibilities for widespread change.