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There are 24 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.

        2. That’s well put. Also thanks for clarifying about modern day slavery. No need to single any one place out. It’s enough to note the horrifying fact of modern day slavery around the world.

          Politically correct speech codes do nothing of substance to solve real world problems and often do harm by silencing debate and competing ideas, some of which might actually be effective solutions to actual problems.

          In this case I’m fine with changing master/slave terminology if it makes people happy. It’s probably no skin off anyone’s back.

          What is harmful is a spreading cultural pattern of hyper-sensitivity to mere words, words which are not directed at anyone or anything – just technical terms – and is indicative of the general direction of American culture: toward avoiding open and honest discussion of real-world problems in an open and honest way.

    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.

        1. Comparing the Holocaust to a few words is an example of the extremes that are being used to stifle debate. The Holocaust was real and horrible. Master/slave in engineering has a precise meaning that has nothing to do with the human condition, and even less to do with racism. Other suggestions such as Source/sink that have been suggested have different meanings and will create confusion.

          What happens if we discover that Volta owned slaves? Should we have his unit of measurement expunged from the texts and replaced by something less offensive?

          Science by its very nature needs to be precise. Modifying its terminology at the whim of every offended group will result in chaos.

  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.

  4. “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” – George Orwell. This wave of sensitivity competitions destroys openness of our society, promote tribalism and hate. It makes self-censorship more and more rampant. The process is not slowing down. Each day one more thing or person get torched by justice warriors with prompt support of scared administrators. It may surprise you, but this process pushes black people into a rabbit hole where they expected/forced to see everything that happen to them as result of their skin color. This is depressingly wrong. It is like reanimating racism. There is no light at the end of such tunnel. The word game does not solve much of the problem. But it does offer a tool to mediocre people to shoot down more talented colleagues and take their place. That is exactly how it was done in Sciences and Arts in USSR after October 1917 Revolution. Academia letting students and country down. Young people, please do not fall for it. Each story has at least two sides to be discussed. History cannot be changed, only the future. Each of you should be able to stand up without fear for what you feel is a right idea and be ready to withstand assault to defend your idea in a respectful debate.

  5. Arguments such as this one build a case for others to say that being politically correct is going too far, causing many to miss the forest for the trees, and honestly, wasting time and energy that we could spend on more legitimate academic and linguistic pursuits. Technology has myriad reuses of all sorts of phrases that take on completely new meanings in their technological contexts, including parent-child and sibling relationships. No, they aren’t as potentially inflammatory as master-slave, but in these contexts, the problem is more in the eye of the beholder.

    On a more personal level, I think it’s this type of politically correct behavior that causes people to be drawn to nationalists such as Donald Trump, and we can see how well that’s working for us.

  6. I agree with the Author Gomez that this terminology needs to be changed. This term has been present in technical discussions for decades, and is still used today, to describe how a Distributed System manages its processing. Anyone in the software field today regularly, and likely without thinking, uses this terminology to describe a very common cloud architecure where a cluster of servers has a node or server that manages a request and then coordinates which worker (processing) node handles the computation or retrieval of data.

    I have always been uncomfortable using this terminology that they taught in the 1980s and 1990s while I was studying Computer Engineering, and is still referenced in the workplace today. Gomez suggests reaching out to the textbook authors to make this change in print. This is a good start, but there is much more that needs to be done to erase this terminology from its current use.

    To me, this is a more obvious and blatant reminder of a bleak period in US history than the BU mascot nickname.

  7. What a great article! Not only does it specifically target a problem I have grappled with for decades, but it also sparked a wider debate about the unintentional (I hope) insensitivity of technical terminology.

    I have always believed that the use of a word requires negative intent to make it inappropriate. Intent and context should dictate whether a word or phrase was used to cause harm or demean. However, I thought this within my tower of White Privilege. For years it was easy for me to treat the term “Master/Slave” as having no connection to slavery. Meant in my context, with my intent, and from my tower, it was just circuitry. Until a student objected during a lecture. While I was raised well enough to see and accept my student’s objection, I cannot say that I immediately understood. My thinking, much like the programming languages and computer architectures I teach about, is very logical. I took me no time to stop using the objectionable term. It took no time to understand why it was deemed objectionable. It took me years to understand why the student couldn’t understand the context it was used in. From my tower, context and intent should have been enough. It takes understanding that White Privilege exists to understand that context is subjective.

    In the threads above, someone used the term “no skin off anyone’s back.” I looked it up. Even though the phrase seemingly has no relation to slavery or whipping I thought, why use it in this thread? I’m guessing it was not meant to demean or hurt anyone. But why use it anyway?

    Thank you Santiago Gomez. Thank you Mike Steele.

    ps – I think I will use “Source/Sink” until I think of another set of terms that seem better descriptive.

  8. I’m far more offended by the explicit association of slavery with racism than anything else. To suggest that slavery is a white/black issue is patently absurd and incredibly insensitive to the VAST MAJORITY of enslaved people throughout all of human history around the world! It’s as if in one fell swoop, you conveniently overlooked all of their collective suffering because you are implying that it simply didn’t exist. And where the use of “slave device” may in fact be a completely accurate usage of the term, it is in no way accurate to refer to the term slavery as racist. Anyone who makes this association is a denier of the true history of slavery, and to me it just as awful as a holocaust or similar denier of history.

    People in America tend to think only in terms of American history and ignore others. Those living in modern times tend to think only of more recent events and forget those of a more distant past.

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