When You’re Confronted With Racially Insensitive Terms at Work

2 min read

View of Downtown San Francisco from "When You're Confronted with Racially-Insenstive Terms at Work"Last week I sat in a meeting where the word “slave(s)” was said at least 20 times.

No, I wasn’t involved in a discussion on slavery or history, as someone asked when I tweeted about it. I was in the office of a tech startup. [I’m contracting in my old career until my new one takes off.]

Each time “slave” escaped someones’ lips, I cringed internally, trying hard not to externally display my discomfort. However, with each “slave” uttered, I sank deeper in my chair as my tension found other ways to release itself: a bouncing foot, a tapping finger, deep, quiet sighs, shifting positions in my chair. With every vocal release of “slave” it was as though someone tossed the sharp-edged word directly at me. A lashing by lexicon.

I was the only black face in the room. Of course I was, this is tech in San Francisco.

In technology, “master/slave” terminology describes the relationship between entities. In the case of this meeting, the discussion centered around databases.

I’m familiar with the terms from reading about them during my undergrad studies, though they never made the cut for class usage, thank goodness.

I’d also heard the terms during orientation months ago. Mercifully, they were only vocalized twice on that occasion. Afterward, thrown by the incongruity of this word usage in 2015, I turned to Google to research if it’s a topic that’s been addressed before.

Master_Slave_Diagram from "When You're Confronted with Racially Insensitive Terms at Work" on The Girl Next Door is Black

Diagram representing the relationship between databases.
Source

While I didn’t find much, there is one notable case. In 2003, Los Angeles County requested the naming convention not be used in county operations, despite much opposition to the change. They took action after a county employee filed a discrimination lawsuit upon coming across the phrase at work.

Unsurprisingly, those online who criticized the change – with the majority who weighed in being non-black people responded with over-intellectualized arguments about the origin of the terms, their multiple meanings, complaints about an overly PC culture, and other irrelevancies.

As a black American who descends from enslaved people, in a country where the legacy of slavery STILL has its tentacles ensnared in so many institutions and systems, not to mention daily life, it disturbed me.

Do I think that the folks in the room used the words to hurt me directly? No.

Do I think they are evil racists? No.

What I do think though, is that usage of the terminology is insensitive because it ignores the negative affects such words have on some employees, regardless of how small they are in number.

I don’t really care about the history of the words, anymore than I care about the history of the words “ghetto” or “thug.” I do not care about the usage of the phrase in other countries or in peoples’ bedrooms. I care about how the words are used here, where stolen human beings were treated like chattel, with fewer rights than a dog, for hundreds of years. I care about the fact that no one’s work experience should involve them feeling assaulted by the free usage of outdated terminology.

Words evolve in meaning and association. It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. We can talk circles around the topic, but I will never again sit through this crap.

I wish I’d left the conference room. I think I was rendered immovable by the shock of the situation. My mind reeled with options. I’d considered walking out as I uncomfortably anticipated the next utterance of “slave.” I didn’t want to seem unprofessional, especially if I left mid-meeting without explanation. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I didn’t want to make a scene.

Ultimately, I endured the meeting and bolted out of the room the instant it concluded.

I am somewhat ashamed by my response. I promised myself I’d no longer refrain from addressing difficult subjects just because it might make other people uncomfortable. I WAS EXTREMELY UNCOMFORTABLE. The longer I sat in the meeting, the more I heated up, stewing over the fact that if the racial makeup in the room were different, this wouldn’t be an issue. But, I was alone and no one else appeared bothered.

I don’t expect the use of this terminology to change – at least not anytime soon. Tech is ruled largely by white men and as the thinking goes in this country when we gauge offensiveness, if it doesn’t bother them, why should it bother anyone else, right? If they don’t see a problem, it doesn’t exist.

The tech world is known for a serious lack of diversity. Words matter and continuing old practices like usage of “master/slave” terminology doesn’t help people like me feel included, nor valued.

If the tech industry really wants to attract and retain more black talent (as well as Latino/a, Native American and female), issues like this require addressing. People whose experiences differ from the majority shouldn’t be dismissed as “too sensitive.” Diversity isn’t solely about increasing the number of employees from underrepresented groups, it also involves adapting and evolving customs and practices to foster a culture of inclusion rather than marginalization.

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24 Comments
  • @brianvhughes
    November 14, 2015

    Very good read… @DUNX: When You’re Confronted With Racially Insensitive Terms at Work | The Girl Next Door is Black https://t.co/eSkBash37v

  • @PDXNALTA
    November 13, 2015

    When You’re Confronted With Racially Insensitive Terms at Work via @texafornianycer https://t.co/FcCKC6w73F

  • @motherforce
    November 8, 2015

    Pause for thought(fulness) @texafornianycer …Confronted w/ Racially Insensitive Terms @ Work https://t.co/kCv2ihWaTR #diversity #inclusion

  • Mai Tran
    June 26, 2015

    It’s quite normal to hear racism comments at work. I’m an Asian living in Europe and people are insensitive over here. I just have to familiarize myself to it.

  • Sherry
    June 25, 2015

    I’d like to say that I’m shocked to hear this happened to you at work. I hear things like this almost every day at work. I’m amazed that they still think it’s okay. It’s not.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      July 1, 2015

      Yeah, I think it’s important we’re aware of how some of our words might impact others. I don’t want to work in a place where people feel like they have to tip-toe around afraid to offend others, but there is a line.

  • Linda Manns Linneman
    June 23, 2015

    I am so sorry you had to sit through a meeting like this. Some people just do not seem to be sensitive to other peoples feeling. I pray that it will get better for you. It seems like our world is getting crazier every day. Continue to stand tall and keep your head up

  • Alina Conn
    June 23, 2015

    We’ve had diversity training here at work. And yes, most definitely, it’s not the intent. It is the words being used.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      June 23, 2015

      Precisely. It’s like when someone apologizes for wrongdoing and starts with “I’m sorry, it wasn’t my intention to…” Nope. Doesn’t likely matter to the person you’ve upset.

  • jboelhower
    June 18, 2015

    I am always amazed how life brings things together for me (and others) to consider. Over the last couple of weeks the idea about the power of words have been a constant in my life. This post, and other post I have read from your blog hit home two things for me. First, words matter. Many people don’t want to acknowledge that or take the time to simply think before they speak. As you indicated in your post people rationalize the use of the terms because it is tech based. But like many phrases people use today that still foster a negative mental picture, they excuse their use of it because “That’s not what I mean.” Second, is that words are two way streets. And again many people do not consider that. In a society that seems so one-sided, updates on Facebook and Twitter, Memes, and other ways we converse in a one-sided way, we forget that our words will be heard by someone. I really enjoy your voice / blog. Thank you for sharing.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      June 20, 2015

      Well said.

      they excuse their use of it because “That’s not what I mean.”

      Yes! In many cases, intentions don’t matter, words have impact.

      Thanks for your comment!

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      June 22, 2015

      But like many phrases people use today that still foster a negative mental picture, they excuse their use of it because “That’s not what I mean.”

      Right. It’s easier for some to dismiss an issue than to admit that their choice of language might cause injury.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  • trininista
    June 6, 2015

    I never knew of this master/slave concept in technology. Wow. That’s powerful, in that it has been such a significant part of a significant sector for a while and noone has called it out. I have found generally though that we have become so culturally and historically insensitive – or maybe indifferent – that we do not even realise the ramifications of what we say etc. I know white people like to say “oh you have a chip on your shoulder’ when we voice our distaste for things like this, but that is all part of bucking the trend and doing our bit in the education. Wear your chip and tell them next time…hey…I am sitting right here. Cheers!

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      June 9, 2015

      I think a small few have called it out, but their voices are drowned out by the majority who see it as a non-issue.

      If having a chip on my shoulder means that I won’t tolerate disrespect, disregard or dehumanization, so be it. Like you said, I’ll be wearing that chip and varnishing it as needed.

  • @maryjrowen
    June 1, 2015

    When You’re Confronted With Racially Insensitive Terms at Work http://t.co/LDFxd0Hay5 via @texafornianycer #racism

  • Ray F (@BritishMumUSA)
    May 30, 2015

    Reading this is shocking, along with the comments. Last night we were all around the bonfire and just chit chatting. When F (oldest daughter) started talking about how if the conversation were to come up at her job (hypothetical) regarding sexual orientation/religion/politics with a boss that she should not give up her opinions without understanding the ramifications. We then began discussing terminologies, and female/male ~ master/slave ~ and other such terms came up. It was an interesting conversation where we all came to the agreement, that words do have meaning and people need to be more clued in.

    I once got up from a very large, predominantly male, top executive meeting and stated that using the word retarded numerous times to describe ineffective actions was appalling at best. I refused to sit there another minute, and insisted on an apology.

    They were shocked, and yes I did have to put up with side ways glances for a while. The top executive did come to my office and apologize. About month later, we had another meeting along the same lines, and it was much better, little uncomfortable but much better…

    xoxoxo

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      June 6, 2015

      she should not give up her opinions without understanding the ramifications

      It’s a tough situation to consider because on the one hand, I feel like it should always be the time to stand up for what’s right. However, when we’re talking about being in the workplace, where your income is potentially at stake, it introduces more complexity, especially considering how defensive some get when they feel they’ve been called out on ignorance.

      Good for you for addressing the use of “retarded.” I’ve gotten so used to not using that term, nor hearing it, that it gives me pause to hear someone say it.

  • heidi
    May 29, 2015

    I feel a bit dumb about this, as I’ve sat in more than one meeting where this terminology has been used and it has never occurred to me to think of it in this way. For some reason, I’ve always thought of it in the dominatrix way… should I be admitting this on your blog???
    It’s a very ingrained bit of IT unfortunately. Mother/daughter coils be used, but it’s not exactly the same relationship as mother/daughter would imply one came from the other….

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      May 29, 2015

      You should see what my search history looks like after Googling “master/slave” in different variations. I won’t be surprised if I start seeing targeted ads for BDSM sites.

      The terms are very ingrained IT, but change is possible if people care enough.

  • Kenya G. Johnson
    May 29, 2015

    Wow I have never heard this technology. I think I would have had a spasm after hearing it 20 times. You did good to make it the entire meeting. I kinda wish you had of got up to leave abrubtly and I wonder if in fact it would have made a statement or if they would have been clueless and wondering what was wrong with you. :-/ I’m guessing the latter. I had a co-worker to use the term wigger in my presence. She was describing someone who was driving with their music up too loud. I had never heard the term before but it didn’t take me a second to “get it”. And I was like, “Hello. I am standing right here?” She said, “Oh was that offensive?” I said, “Yeah” (like duh?) and walked out of the breakroom. I honestly can’t remember if I actually said that outloud or left out of the breakroom and wished that I had said something.

    • The Girl Next Door is Black
      May 29, 2015

      As much as I hate it, I still get concerned about making sure I don’t get typed as an “angry black woman” at the office. It’s tough because sometimes if you don’t smile at someone they assume you’re angry or unfriendly, because of their own prejudices.

      Your story reminds me of something similar that happened to my younger sister at her job. A white co-worker called her “my nizzle.”

      Tyra

      I wonder what your coworker thought the origin of “wigger” was and why she felt it was appropriate to apply the term to someone playing their music loudly.

  • Ally | A Home Called Shalom
    May 29, 2015

    Huh. I didn’t even know about that tech terminology (probably because I’m just not techie at all!) but I totally agree with you. Those names are inappropriate for a technical workplace definition. Thanks for shedding light on that!

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