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Google proposes internal changes, remove any gendered language and terms such as “blacklist” from code

The proposals had been made a while back and are this week getting new attention.
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Whatever happened to “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” Why is this super-powerful expression of human resilience and self-respect today being increasingly “canceled” – especially in the tech world?

There are perfect equivalents to this very same English idiom in many languages. That’s because we as humans all feel, and understand, what that message means.

So why would anyone be discarding this common human experience and truth that is strong enough to find its way across speech patterns in different cultures?

Let’s put a pin in it – and return to the current nightmarish social climate in the US where – rightfully – nobody likes to be accused of racism.

But then, there are equally justifiable accusations of performative “allyship” and supposed anti-racism.

From there, sadly, emerges the poster-child totalitarian “cancel culture” that has long been simmering in the corners of the Web. But now, with racial, security, and ideological upheaval in the US, “cancel culture” behaves like a virus that spreads scarily and uncontrollably with nobody to check it.

With that in mind: it’s with some reluctance that we will call Google’s proposal to remove the words “blacklist” and “whitelist” from the code of its Chrome browser as little more than some pitiful performative acts of “anti-racism” – for the sake of self-protection.

“Blacklist and whitelist” – these terms have been around computer coding “language(s)” for as long as “night and day” have been around in the English language. Google had proposed moving away from such terms for sometime but in light of recent events, internal communication shows many are still unsatisfied that the terms are still being used.

The proposals

Things to avoid:

  • Gendered pronouns: he / she / him / her / his / hers, etc.
  • Instances of the phrases “he or she”, “his/hers”, “(s)he”, etc. All of these still exclude those who don’t identify with either gender, and implicitly (slightly) favor one gender via listing it first.
  • “Guys” as a gender-neutral term, which has male associations. Usually in comments it implies anthropomorphism of inanimate objects and should be replaced with a more precise technical term. If it does refer to people, consider using “everyone”, “folks”, “people”, “peeps”, “y’all”, etc.
  • Other gendered words: “brother”, “mother”, “man”, etc.

Cases that are likely fine to leave alone include:

  • References to a specific person (“Rachel is on leave; update this when she is back.”).
  • A name (“Guy” and “He” are both valid names).
  • A language code (“he” is the ISO 639-1 language code for Hebrew).
  • He as an abbreviation for “helium”.
  • The Spanish word “he”.
  • References to a specific fictional person (Alice, Bob, …)

How to change the remaining awkward intrusions of gender:

  • Try rewording things to not involve a pronoun at all. In many cases this makes the documentation clearer. Example: “I tell him when I am all done.” → “I tell the owner when I am all done.” This saves the reader a tiny bit of mental pointer-dereferencing.
  • Try using singular they.
  • Try making hypothetical people plural. “When the user is done he’ll probably…” → “When users complete this step, they probably…”.
  • When referring to a non-person, “it” or “one” may be good alternatives.

So how on Earth would this kind of performative radicalism from a trillion-dollar company like Chrome’s owner, Google, actually help anybody? Yes – Google has the means to “make the world a better place” – but it just won’t do that. Instead, it will make empty gestures like this one and mess with semantics, to make themselves and their sycophantic press look better in the moment.

Policing and ideologically bending language to your will in the source code of a browser – what difference does this actually make to any person of any color anywhere in the world today, who might be suffering any kind of real-world injustice?

Instead of being useful, it’s the very definition of “performative”: opportunistic, headline-grabbing, seemingly meaningful, in truth utterly meaningless, unnecessary. And ultimately, completely powerless.

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