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The Washington Redskins need a name change – and so do these terms

President Obama recently suggested that the Washington Redskins change their name to something less offensive. Owner Dan Snyder responded last week with an impassioned letter that ends “We are Redskins Nation ... and we owe it to our fans and coaches and players, past and present, to preserve that heritage.”

I imagine this same tone has been used to defend backwards thinking for many centuries. It’s difficult to admit and take action against something that is now considered racist when once upon a time it didn’t seem to be. Mr, Snyder, or perhaps the next owner, will likely changed the name of this great football franchise, because he’s on the wrong side of history.

Having been in technology all my working life, I recently realized that I have been using some offensive language as well, terms so ingrained into my everyday techno-vocabulary that I didn’t even notice it. It’s time to take action and clean it up.

I teach two online courses about professional webinars and virtual events – Gov Meetings Go Virtual and Meetings Without Walls. As part of my standard introduction email to course attendees I ask them to “whitelist” the main course email address so that future correspondence escapes their junk mail folder.

This semester, after that email went out, I received this from Jessica York, Faith Development Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association:

“I wanted to drop you a short note about the use of the word “white list.” I had never heard this term before; I’m not the most computer savvy person. However, I could certainly guess its meaning by comparing it to “black list” and many other phrases where “white” denotes something good, legitimate and “black” means something bad, something to be avoided. I understand it is probably a commonly used term in the computer world. Nevertheless, as a person of color, I have made a commitment to speak up about subtle ways our society has to reinforce stereotypes and try to separate us by color. In that spirit, I must say that the term offends me and I respectfully ask if you might consider whether you wish to continue to use it.”

Her email absolutely stopped me in my tracks. I instantly realized that this term derived from racist language of the 1950s. It took me all of 5 minutes to find an alternative phrase: “add the email address to your approved sender's list.”

That got me thinking, what other old, offensive terms might technology be inadvertently using?

I searched through my course and it didn’t take me long to find another example – when I talk about adding or removing someone from a virtual conference site I have been using the terms enable and disable. I didn’t need to wonder how the community of people with various disabilities would feel about my using this term in such a negative way. Especially since I represent myself as having some expertise in Section 508! It didn’t take long to iron that language out of the course -- I now refer to users being made “active” or “inactive” in a virtual conference event site.

This is new learning for me, and now I’m all ears about the topic. Do you know of other technical terms that could be considered offensive? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What did you substitute once you realized you needed to make a change?

Lance A. Simon, CGMP, CVEP/GVEP
[email protected]
(202) 870-6146

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