“Know better, do better” – Dave Chappelle
A few days ago I was having a conversation with a coworker. He had mentioned that there is a newish movement in the tech community to rename certain terms like “master”, “slave”, “whitelist”, and “blacklist”. “Master” devices are usually devices that control “slave” devices. My coworker. White and blacklists are usually configuration items that either allow or deny entities into a system. We are familiar with these if ever we had to block someone from facebook, or add an email address to our spam rules. My immediate response was “Jesus that’s stupid. This doesn’t bother me at all.”
He half joked, “You may want to check your privilege.”
I was offended by this mention of my “privilege” and told him so. I needed to step away from the conversation but as I thought about it more, I had to ask myself why I was offended. So I think I have an answer and I think that this answer is important as I consider the issues of race that we face. Before I go on, it wasn’t what he said that offended me. We have a great rapport at work and we have a relationship where we can inject humor into our day to day. It’s something I like very much about him. Really, this is on me, and the things that trigger me.
But more so, I thought about these terms and I thought about the use of language. In my conversation with him after this I came to the following realization: “Words are at the bottom of any negotiation, subjugation, inclusivity, exclusivity, oppression, and are the core of culture.” Systematic racism depends on us to accept terms like “master” and “slave” when it’s not in the context of actual masters and slaves. Systematic racism thrives on the fact that we can connotate “white” as good and “black” as bad when we talk in the context of “whitelists” and “blacklists”. Words are important, and words have meaning.
I grew up in an era when “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” was the mantra of every parent, little league coach, teacher or adult when dealing with children. The fact is words do hurt. Dostoevsky knew this, Shakespeare knew this. Words have uplifted and inspired, but they have also started wars, enslaved and subjugated people. The more I thought about my conversation and my reaction the more I thought about words. Not just the ones we were debating, “master”, “slave”, “whitelist”, “blacklist”, but also privilege. I was told, even half jokingly, that my response was because I needed to check my privilege. I in fact did need to check my privilege!
Privilege in this case, goes something like this, “These are technical terms. They are not intended to demean, so no one should be offended”, and because I am not offended by these terms, it should stand that no one should be. But this is not something that I am qualified to say. I am not black. I do not know the black experience.
I should mention for context, that I am not white. My family identified as Portuguese because they were from a geographic location near Hong Kong called Macao. The Portuguese were colonizers of that area since the late 1500s and the Portuguese and British ruled in Macao and Hong Kong respectively. It was only a few years ago that by submitting my data to ancestrydna.com that I did in fact find out that the narrative i was told all my life was incorrect. I was led to believe through anecdotal information that I was mostly Portuguese with a little bit of Chinese blood, a little bit of European blood thrown in. As it turns out most of my genetic makeup is Chinese. 60%, over half of my genetic makeup is in fact Asian.
In trying to unravel my own issues with race, I see that within my own family, and within the culture of my parents, grandparents and ancestors, there was a desperate need to identify as white. Much of this has in fact rubbed off on me. And in fact, because I do not have an accent, or I “pass” for whatever the white standard of normal is, I have the luxury of “turning politics off” at a whim. I can play guitar, watch a movie, do all of the simple things that I can do simply because I am not black.
So, maybe the first thing I need to do is as my coworker so wisely said, is to check my privilege. When I hear of a movement such as a renaming of technical terms to something without a racial connotation, I should maybe look why I think something like that is absurd or silly., and when someone does call me out, why I had the reaction I did.