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There are 16 comments on Striking Out Racist Terminology in Engineering

  1. Much as I appreciate students taking the initiative to improve their world, this particular effort strikes me as misguided.

    The terminology in question refers to inanimate objects, and has neither historical nor actual connection to human slavery (or racism). Coercing a change in terminology largely serves to entrench politically correct speech in a field that has traditionally eschewed politics.

    For those interested in addressing slavery, there is, alas, plenty of modern-day slavery that can and should be vigorously fought:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_contemporary_Africa

    1. Claiming the terminology has no connection to human slavery is anecdotal. Are you sure of its etymology in STEM fields? If there existed similar terminology like “murderer/deceased” or “rapist/victim”, would you still argue changing it is overly serving political correctness? Or can’t you understand why this terminology is appalling to some people?

    2. Prof. Trachtenberg,

      Of course the terminology has an “actual connection to human slavery;” language is a force with “actual” effects in the world, as the members of the BU College of Engineering profiled in this story correctly recognize. And it’s precisely language that both links the engineering terminology to historical practices of enslavement and causes harmful effects in the present. The effort to abolish ‘master-slave’ terminology, then, is about much more than “entrench[ing] politically correct speech.” It’s an effort at material improvement of the state of things. (That’s what engineers do, right?)

      More broadly, your shot-from-the-hip take here would benefit from an acquaintance with the existing research and literature on the ‘master-slave’ terminology in mechanics and computing. A fine place to start is Ron Eglash, “Broken Metaphor: The Master-Slave Analogy in Technical Literature,” _Technology and Culture_ 48, no. 2 (2007): 360-9. (Available digitally through BU libraries.)

      As for your closing remark on contemporary slavery, I wonder why you allude only to Africa. Surely your study of the topic has taught you that enslavement remains a problem of global scope.

      1. @Brian Regarding your last paragraph – this was simply a mistake. I had meant to link to the broader wikipedia entry on contemporary slavery (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_the_21st_century) and had pasted the wrong link. I did not mean to single out Africa in my post, although it does have a sizable slavery market.

        With respect to correcting speech … should we remove all mention of “Masters” programs from the university lexicon? How about Mastercard (TM)?

        There is value in being sensitive to other people’s feelings and how they may interpret what you say. However, we live in a world where censorship has become commonplace, and, in that context, there is also value in understanding the potential unintended consequences of dictated acceptable word choice to others.

        1. Dr. Trachtenberg,

          I actually don’t think you engaged with the actual argument. Mr. Barone made. The question isn’t whether we make lines around language – of course we make those lines every day; thus the lack of blatant profanity in “most” textbooks. The question is rather where those lines are drawn and who draws them. As NG said, one can imagine repugnant terminology to replace master/slave- however a perception of “repugnant” is likely based one ones lived experience. The master/slave terminology would less likely to have been made by an someone who had a personal experience with the legacy of racism, where a master and slave can only have a primary visceral interpretation. I know that even as a former CS major in 96 when I encountered it I was uncomfortable. But as Dr. Giles stated, callouses form. Yet another call for diversity in STEM.

          Random note – In your example you also separated the dyad and thus changed the meaning. To your example – would you be comfortable with Masters programs if the undergraduate programs were called “Slaves”? Or be a proud of owner of a Master&Slavecard? Ridiculous examples I know, but I think your point was not complete.

          I acknowledge a concern about an over-sensitivity to language. I think that the term censorship is often overused. One can say what they want, they just must suffer consequences. And who gets to say what matters as well.

    3. I don’t believe anyone is “coercing” a change here; writing a letter is hardly forceful or threatening. That being said, while it is true that STEM fields try to eschew politics, STEM fields are as political as any others. Science has been used to justify racism on biological grounds, from craniometrists measuring skulls to determine a racial hierarchy (Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” is great to read on this), to how Darwin’s theories were used to justify eugenics movements in the 20th century. Related fields are not immune to systemic racism simply because chemists study molecules, physicists study particles, or engineers study and develop technology. Scientists conduct research in relation to society, not in a vacuum. Our biases show up in our research, and the terminology we use matters. By incorporating terminology that refers to a violent, racist, horrifying system of chattel slavery to describe as you say, “inanimate objects,” scientists are normalizing that harmful language. One could even say that they are depoliticizing the terms, trying to distance science further its from social, cultural, and historical contexts.

      The current BLM movements have inspired many difficult conversations across STEM departments at/beyond BU about the ways in which scientific practices and systemic racism are intertwined. I for one have been encouraged to see my own department start to consider where our funding comes from – for example, from law enforcement or the military – and how these may contribute to systemic racism. Last month, many chemists were quick to call out a racist article in a prominent journal (https://cen.acs.org/research-integrity/ethics/Essay-criticizing-efforts-increase-diversity-in-organic-synthesis-deleted-after-backlash-from-chemists/98/web/2020/06). Just last week, Black academics held an important series of conversations and panels about barriers they face in STEM fields (https://pme.uchicago.edu/event/experiences-black-stem-ivory-call-disruptive-action-day-one). Scientists are taking responsibility for the long-overlooked issues of racism and sexism in STEM fields, which are usually brushed off as “too political” for “objective” fields of study. I encourage you to do the same.

    4. Why make an objection to this? Cannot there be a both/and here as in so many other recent dichotomies? I am not an engineer. I earned my M Ed from BU (1958), where I learnt much about different modalities of learning. Also I am a woman (very Anglo-European with an inclusive Quaker schooling through high school. As such, I am made acutely aware of the subtleties of language.

      Santiago Gomez has an undergraduate education that has given him a broad view and this may have enabled him to see the human element present in the master/slave terminology and choose to act on it. I used to be embarrassed by the male/female terminology for couplings of hoses, or any other hardware, but I no longer have that prudery. There is not a suggestion of subjugation here as there is in “master/slave”. Changing this term slightly changes a brain’s sensitivity to its use in more directly human/personal terms.

    5. In todays world students actively seek out any perceived social injustice no matter how trivial. It’s like there is a competition to see who can be the most offended over mundane things. This is why many comedian swill no longer play the college circuit. We should also stop referring to master bedrooms in houses because people might be offended, they should stop airing the show “MasterChef”, get rid of Masterpiece Theatre too. Don’t even get me started on MasterCard, I simply can’t believe that a company named MasterCard would let me borrow money and then expect that I pay them back with interest making me a debt slave to them, now that’s racist!!!

      1. Good points. Seems the current paradigm of seeking out some form of offense or victimhood wherever they are available results in the “cancellation” of factual history, free speech, reasonable dialogue and argument, and rationalizes the labelling of entire groups of people or institutions as “racist, xenophobic, mysogynist, homophobic, transphobic, islamophobic” or whatever else suits the narrative. Sad.

        True freedom of speech and expression has left US campuses unfortunately. Said speech is “free” only if it follows the prescribed parameters of the thought-police. Note, the commonplace student censoring of who can and who cannot speak on campus, and the usual rationale being labelling the speaker in question.

        I wonder if this post will be censored? I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t.

    6. I respect your comments immensely, and I think we all need to stop being offended by mere words. The intent In the textbook is not meant to “offend” people whose ancestors have been enslaved. We need to focus on real issues, and stop whining for attention as if we are truly “victimized”. The world has become too negative. We need to laugh, and move on!

      1. Classifying racist terminology as “mere words” is offensive towards all people who continue to suffer from racism today. Intention does not justify the use of dehumanizing terms. It is unacceptable to truly move past the suffering of millions of people. In the same way we remain sensitive to the events such as the Holocaust, we must also remain sensitive to the systemic racism that permeates our society. Changing subtleties is a non-negligible step forward. Trivializing the residual effects of slavery comes from a place of ignorance and privilege. Please revise your Karen perspective.

  2. Kudos to Santiago for his actions. I do worry about censorship and political pressures on science, too, and am slightly alarmed by the uncharacteristically quick and thorough action by the publisher (was it more a reflex than a well-thought-out response?). But I’m struggling to decide whether it’s really politics in this case. There are people who are uncomfortable using this term, and there appear to be other metaphors that are similar and equally intuitive to describe this object. Does switching the term oppress the views of any groups? If so, what views?

    To those who saw Santiago’s action as part of a “sensitivity competition”, I’d like to remind you that the BLM and MeToo movements are reactions to a long-term accumulation of laziness and insensitivity by the offending party, who had dismissed people’s feelings as over-sensitive or insignificant.

    I don’t find the analogy of master’s programs or Mastercard to be a great one, as I’m not sure if they cause the same uneasiness that Professor Giles expressed above of using the term in his classes.

  3. Oh no… not STEM… Higher Education is flirting with falling off the cliff of legitimate academics in order to appease an extreme political fringe group. This is how you deter reasonably minded, non political people simply trying to learn a marketable skill. This can only last so long! I’ve come to expect this sort of self-serving, offended-on-your-behalf, virtue signaling in the humanities… but God… the fact that this garnered so much support within the department makes me very sad for the institution. God, save us.

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