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.
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.