There’s always the possibility of going too far.
As our language gets long-overdue scrutiny for which of our everyday words have racist histories and ought to be retired, some individuals have bent so far backward that they’ve conjured problematic histories where none existed before. These efforts ignore history and etymology, and ultimately cheapen the otherwise worthwhile endeavors to identify problematic language. As a result, everyone loses.
Last month the Houston Association of Realtors made national news for its decree that real estate listings would no longer mention master bedrooms or master bathrooms because of the word master’s slavery connotations.
Sounds like a well-meaning idea. Trouble is, that’s the wrong history.
The word master is old. Like, really old. Forms of it crop up in early Old English, hundreds of years before slave traders brought Africans to the Americas. To be sure, enslaved people had to refer to their owners as “master” even before the dawn of the American slave trade, and so did many women when referring to their husbands. Condemn master for its sexism too if you like, but tying its use in real estate entirely to slavery is a stretch.
Maybe we shouldn’t take language advice from a group that thinks REALTOR should be written in all caps. Master bedroom isn’t nearly as problematic as real estate listings of “lovingly maintained” homes that mean you get sad wood paneling in every damn room, or of properties in Point Breeze that refer to the neighborhood as “Graduate Hospital South.”
Eliminating master bedroom is a nice, arguably misplaced gesture. But like so many of the gestures since half the country discovered systemic racism two months ago, it’s a fig leaf for the harder work of undoing a history of oppressive industry practices. Start by providing reparations for the deadly effects of a century of redlining (through which banks and governments wouldn’t grant mortgages in BIPOC neighborhoods), restrictive covenants (racist property deeds that restricted who can buy or rent a home), and real estate agents not showing as many housing units to nonwhite families as they do to white families. Then we can talk about the biggest bedroom in the house.
It’s not just real estate. The tech world is another industry that has moved in recent weeks to change some of its terminology — some words more inherently problematic than others.
This month Twitter, along with several other tech giants, announced that it was abandoning several common industry terms: master and slave, which refer to different types of computer code, and blacklist/whitelist, which anyone who’s had an important email get caught in a spam filter has encountered.
Yes, master and slave in those contexts should go — usage of those terms minimizes an atrocious history. But trying to undo a couple thousand years’ of negative associations between the words black and evil is going to take more than a few tweets.
Negative references to darkness go back at least to the Bible, which establishes “light” as “good” from its opening lines. But while there was certainly slavery in the Bible, anti-Black racism didn’t yet exist at the time of its writing. Later societies would use the Bible to justify slavery and racism, falsely citing the Mark of Cain and the Curse of Ham, both found in Genesis, as evidence that slavery was God’s will. Though scholars differ on exactly where racism originated, most agree that those biblical interpretations didn’t crop up till centuries later. Darkness and light had negative and positive connotations very early on, but for a long time, they were just abstract concepts; they didn’t apply to people. It would take centuries before those general associations were applied to “darker” and “lighter” people, evolving into what we today recognize as racism.
When we consider eliminating words like blacklist, whitelist, and master from our lexicon, we have to heed those words’ histories. If every association you have with the word black is negative, and every association with white is positive, perhaps you have to examine not the words, but yourself.
To do otherwise is just a careless, ahem, whitewash of history.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions and giedds (Google won’t help you here, so I will: that’s Old English for “stories”) to email@example.com.