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.


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