No More Inflammatory Jargon: Change Blacklist To Blocklist

Andrew Kraft headshotData-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Andrew Kraft, a principal at AQKraft Advisory Services and a former ad tech executive, most recently at Maven and AppNexus.

Eighteen months ago, well before the recent protests against systemic racism, I was approached by a colleague at Maven about the terms blacklist and whitelist. My colleague was a Black professional – a leader at the company – who, after I had given an internal presentation on our whitelisting and blacklisting strategy, asked me to have the company stop using those particular phrases.

He explained that it didn’t matter that the etymology of the terms had nothing to do with racism. The term blacklist was first used in the early 1600s to describe a list of those who were under suspicion and thus not to be trusted, he explained. But regardless of the words’ origins, my colleague went on to impress upon me the discomfort he felt everyday living in a world where black was equated with bad and white with good.

It reminded me of an iconic BBC interview with Muhammad Ali in 1971 where he recalled that all the positive things he grew up with were white, from White Cloud tissue paper to the White House, while all the negative things, from the bad luck of a black cat to the term blackmail, were black. Nearly 50 years later, that linguistic measuring stick is alive and well.

The conversation changed the way I think of the language we use, for it was then that it truly struck me: Language creates culture far more than culture creates language. The words we use matter.

Long before any could claim that such a change in our phraseology was part of a political agenda or even a social agenda, I was impressed upon by this colleague to focus instead on the humanist agenda. We have industry jargon that actively makes people uncomfortable. There was no reason for us to be OK with that, regardless of the origins of a phrase.

We took a stand at Maven, changing blacklist to blocklist. We also looked at the term whitelist, and after a brief flirtation with the term includelist, we decided that allowlist was a more accurate representation of the meaning. In all of our client meetings, we described why these new terms were on our materials, and yet, while everyone seemed supportive, few other companies made the change in their own efforts.

While large companies such as Microsoft and Google have had similar loose guidelines for nearly a decade, few have made the change an actual mandate. Recently, however, there have been a number of calls to action on this and similar terms. The ad industry thankfully is responding. For example, in mid-June, MediaMath and SpringServe began to change their interfaces to move from blacklist to blocklist and whitelist to allowlist.

I have heard several people call these terms only “subtle forms of racism.” They are not subtle. They are a continuation of what Muhammad Ali – and my former colleague at Maven – talked about: a systemic stigma caused by using the same terms that describe the color of our skin as a delineation between good and bad.

The reason to change our terminology is simple. Regardless of our political leanings or our own ancestry, there is zero benefit to creating dissonance between our colleagues by continuing to use a set of outdated, polarizing terms. Rather, we can remove these and similar phrases from our environment and, through that, perhaps allow ourselves to create a new culture together.

Let there be no more bastion for inflammatory jargon. Use blocklist, not blacklist, and allowlist, not whitelist. Make the change.

Follow Andrew Kraft (@aqkraft) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Nick Jasmine

    Great post, Andrew. We’ll be making some changes in our terminology here at LiveRamp.

  2. Matt Collins

    I struggle with this on several levels, but primarily because the efforts to drum up support for this change seem misplaced. As stated, the phrase blacklist/whitelist have etymological roots that are unrelated to race/racism. It is true that substitute phrases exist, but by pressuring society to abandon vocabulary — and more importantly, disregard context — we may be doing ourselves a disservice. Not only are we disregarding context, in some cases we are actually recharacterizing context by personifying select words to fit a racial narrative that wouldn’t otherwise exist. I believe a more progressive approach would be to call into question the use of ‘white’ and ‘black’ as descriptors for skin tones that are clearly neither white nor black. I understand that the lift of this effort is much bigger, but come on, did you really think you would fix systemic racism by simply advocating for a discontinuation of the word ‘blacklist’ while continuing to accept broad generalizations of people as either ‘white’ or ‘black’? I’m not suggesting we be insensitive, I am suggesting that we address the issue closer to the root of the problem and encourage an open dialogue about our word selection. In some cases it will be appropriate to discontinue use of racially charged phrases, but in others it is education and conversation that will help everyone understand when word choice is accurate and benign.

  3. I find myself somewhat in agreement with Matt Collins here. The words “black” and “white” have long been associated with bad and good respectively, for very valid reasons. I think that the error we have is with terming people of a given race as “white” or “black”, and that the proper correction is to stop doing so – rather than trying to stop using every word/phrase that uses the good/bad connotations of white/black.

    This article I think covers it well:

    An excerpt:
    The term “Caucasian” originated from a growing 18th-century European science of racial classification. German anatomist Johann Blumenbach visited the Caucasus Mountains, located between the Caspian and Black seas, and he must have been enchanted because he labeled the people there “Caucasians” and proposed that they were created in God’s image as an ideal form of humanity.

    And the label has stuck to this day. According to Mukhopadhyay, Blumenbach went on to name four other “races,” each considered “physically and morally ‘degenerate’ forms of ‘God’s original creation.’” He categorized Africans, excluding light-skinned North Africans, as “Ethiopians” or “black.” He divided non-Caucasian Asians into two separate races: the “Mongolian” or “yellow” race of Japan and China, and the “Malayan” or “brown” race, which included Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders. And he called Native Americans the “red” race.

  4. In line somewhat with what Matt and Caleb said, I think we need to work on our cultural perceptions of color. The fact that night time is dangerous and secretive, and also happens to be the color black, is nothing that will change, nor can we change the black color of decaying corpses. Humans have observed those things for millennia, deriving vocabulary in the process.

    In addition to removing the cultural fixation on skin color, I think we should stop looking at white and black as implicitly good or bad, actually. There are a lot of good things which are black, and a lot of bad things which are white! When a person’s skin is *literally, actually* white, it’s almost always a sign of serious illness. Much of the world’s important knowledge is written in black ink and black pixels.

    Many of our modern phrases have ancient origins, and I don’t think policing languages into having no color-related value-giving words will simply remove the long cultural heritage stemming from natural phenomena. But there’s so many things which are good and bad and all different colors in both the natural and man-made worlds; it would be trivial to teach that to kids, gradually helping to remove stigma and such strong associations with white and black. Also, English is not the only language out there which has these types of phrases, so does the color-removal goal mean that every single language needs to be modified, including languages not even spoken much by white people? (That would feel, to me, like colonialism all over again: the dominant culture subjugation and modifying other cultures for conformity.

  5. Although I am really sick of the black and white racist issue in America.. I do think BLOCKLIST is a much better term for words we use to block comments.. Thank you kindly

  6. Matt and Caleb are spot on with their comments. We’re now redefining words and phrases that have zero racial origin, purely because the PC brigade thinks the only way to go is over the top. The rest of us are being somewhat forced to go along with it so as not to offend anyone. It’s getting to the point where we simply cannot use the words black or white no matter the situation for fear of upsetting someone. What if I were to get offended that referencing the raising of a white flag as surrendering was offensive to me because it’s suggesting all “white” people were quitters and likely to give up easily? Ridiculous, right?

    The correct approach is to stop referencing people by their skin colour or race altogether rather than trying to remove common, non-racist words from our language. Treat people as people and the problem goes away. A very simplistic idea to a very complex and deeply ingrained issue, I know. But surely it’s the right way to go about it. Just removing words isn’t going to change the way people behave.

    Anyway, rant over.

  7. Proud to say that at Amazon we’ve embraced this thinking, and are MANDATING these types of changes.

  8. Jordan Knight

    No. If a black coworker were to ask me to do so around them because it made them uncomfortable I would absolutely attempt to put them at ease, even if that did mean revising vernacular that I’ve been using – with ZERO ill will or negative racial connotations – but I’ll be damned if I let it be MANDATED to me. That’s a direct impingement on our – not MY, but rather EVERYONE’S First Amendment rights. and that’s a slippery slope we’re already too far down for comfort.
    I respect my coworkers. I have no racist underpinnings. Indeed, my family is Polish, and arrive in the US decades after abolition. None of us had anything remotely to do with slavery or segregation. More to the point, though, at what point does this become ludicrous? As I said: I’m Polish. As such, you may no longer call it “nail polish remover.” It offends me that you want to remove my people. It has to be acetone exclusively henceforth. Asinine, right?
    And where is the line drawn? Are we abolishing all references to the words black and white? Sorry, are we doing away with them? Maybe we should start a list on the greaseboard? Hand me that achromatic marker, I’ll do it.
    Oh! And what about inferred terms? Are we to segregate those too? Sorry, are we to “delineate” them? By inferred terms I mean, of course, those that are mixed – err, sorry, “combined”. Or is that a gray area? Oops, I mean “nebulous”!
    Are we seriously volunteering to allow LEGAL precedents to be set to ENFORCE our not calling him “Voldemort”, so we can collectively taken on “He Who Must Be Shamed”? “Mandates” (which, I suppose should be “persondates”, so we can pander to the 84 new genders) are personifestly reactionary responses to attempts to solve the wrong problem. You want me to be equitable and respect you? Sure. No problem. Happy to do it, same as I’ve always been to do so. You want me to do so by ceding my fundamental rights as a free man – the self-same thing that those who seek equality wanted for themselves? To allow myself to be oppressed out of some, what? Sense of racial guilt for a crime neither I nor my ancestors had anything to do with? Nobody sees any kind of disconnect here?
    If you guys want to pass around a list to sign so you can feel like you’ve done your part or taken the moral high ground or whatever, knock yourselves out. But hand me that bottle of liquid correction fluid so I can remove my name. I’m not pledging myself to simply invert the status quo. It’s behavior like that that leads to uprisings and death. Either we’re unified, all one team, working for equality together, or we’re serving to DEEPEN the undercurrents of hostility, and ENCOURAGING the same tribalism that made this mess to begin with.

  9. Couldn’t an equal argument be made to stop calling people black and white? no one is actually black or white we are all brown…

  10. Stephen Skinner

    It is wrong to control speech, especially in this case where blacklist and whitelist has utility and came into being for utility. It is more important who is saying any particular word and why they are saying it, otherwise all that is required is for those with ill intent to use the ‘agreed’ words and their intentions become invisible. In addition by characterizing words in this way anyone with good intent can end up committing a ‘transgression’ simply by using words they have learnt for the purposes of communicating. Will all 6,500 languages on the planet be subject to this subjective scrutiny or just English?

  11. The new words are more intuitive to their purpose anyway so it is a couple issues addressed. But still this goes much further than this. The colors black and white already have lots meanings associated with them that simply don’t apply to people. I’ve never seen a “black” person that was black. Similarly I’ve never seen a “white” person that was white. Granted there are some people that are very close to these extremes. Still, trying to undefine all of the extra semantics and cultural associations with these color words seem like a far more difficult task than to simply stop calling people “black” or “white” or another color for that matter. As a people, do we really desire so strongly to be referred to as “white” or “black” that we’d take offense if these labels were discarded?

  12. I am a person of African backgrounds, and part of another minority. People usually just assign the label black to me due to my looks.
    Reading the comments of people who think that these terms are not racial connotations I ask myself, is anyone of them black? because I just don’t see a black person disagreeing with what the author says. But if a black person did, I would like to hear the reasoning to understand their point of view.
    It the people talking about this issue are not black, I also can see how they cannot see an issue with this terminology. One would have to go thru life not being discriminated for their skin color to not be able to understand that the association hurt people like me more than what you could guess. I say guess, because if you have not dealing with racism everyday of your life, it would be very difficult to understand what a person like me have to deal with.

  13. I heard someone use the term “blacklist” yesterday and looked up the alternative for the reasons you cited. I was surprised that many comments in different sources argued that it was fine as is. I remember when “Spokesperson” sounded strange and forced but all it took was a generational change and it was part of our everyday vocabulary. From now on I will use and advocate for “Blocklist” and “Allowlist”.

  14. I don’t really care that it happens but the reasoning and justification has always been weak and if anything reinforces the racial connotations they so desperately try to remove. For as much as people like to claim they do not judge a person by the color of their skin, they sure as hell like to attach racial meaning to anything related to color.

    Oh I know, next we have to make a (side note: Who uses this unironically?) to force all Spanish speakers to change their word for the color black to something else because we’re offended even though it has nothing to do with racism.

    Next up they’ll be complaining that using “dark” in a negative connotation (“That horror movie plot was so dark”) is racist or saying white teeth is racist because obviously minorities can’t have good teeth. Ah, can’t forget racist astronomers naming celestial bodies black and white dwarfs. Then there’s The Dark Knight, where do we even begin with this? How can a white man be the dark knight if his skin isn’t dark?! Why is an illegal market called the black market or the dark web? Because only black people deal in illegal trades, of course. Our bodies turn darker when bruised, a side effect of being hit. This is obviously a connection between dark = violence. Geez, even my biology is racist…

  15. I’m quite willing to bet that the people who are vocal about being unwilling to make the change are probably not Black, the very people that are most impacted by this….

  16. Terry Benton

    This is fairly ridiculous, I have to say.
    So while we are disregarding the etymology of a term, I suppose we should dispense with every use of ‘black’ and ‘white’, should we?
    Where do we stop?

    Approaching it this way leaves the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ as racial descriptors. They are not. They are misused as such and THIS use should be what is put to an end. Using ‘blacklist’ is not racism even slightly and to think it ‘might be’ or to get offended by its use is frankly misguided sensitivity for the sake of it.

  17. I am going to remove both the Black & White from every box of crayons I can find to promote equality.

  18. I agree that this is ridiculous, and Matt is right on. In addition, I believe Caleb is spot on as well, and we should instead think of the races perhaps more as “peach” and “iron”. However, then we may start to perceive of one race as being “tastier, but perhaps spoils easily” while another race could be “strong and hard, but perhaps tending to rust”. There can be so many things implied based on what is chosen, so choose carefully. While “black” and “white” were the initially chosen ones, let’s think about everything else that will need to be changed today. WE CAN NO LONGER USE THE TERM RED LINING a document, since the native Americans could be upset. Also, we can no longer use the term YELLOW JOURNALISM since that’s also derogatory. Let’s think about how to describe races in more than just color. I don’t think peach and iron are the answer here, but if we want to still want to red-line documents in the future we should think long and hard about not having this type of hard discussion about these issues with the iron and peach races.