Master-Slave, Whitelist-Blacklist: Stigmatisation of semantics pops up every now and then. Now with NLP, the consequence is ever more…
THEN the #BlackLivesMatter movement began weeks ago, I saw a tweet on Twitter that left me an impression. I could no longer find it, but it was regarding the use of the term “blacklist” in cybersecurity lingo.
Commenters were quick to dismiss the idea, claiming nitpicking or racialisation of innoucous words.
Then a comment in the thread quickly turned the table. That reply was simple, it wrote, “I will leave this here,” followed by a video link:
Truncated version — Muhammad Ali | Why Is Everything White.
“And I always asked my mother, I said, ‘Momma, how come is everything white?’ I said, ‘Why is Jesus white with blond hair and blue eyes? Why is the Lord’s supper all white men? Angels are white, the Pope, Mary, and even the angels.’ I said, ‘Mother, when we die, do we go to Heaven?’ She said, ‘Naturally we go to Heaven.’ I said, ‘Well, what happened to all the black angels?’
So anyway, I was always curious. I always wondered why Tarzan is the King of the Jungle in Africa, he was white.
I saw this white man swinging around Africa with a diaper on, hollering. Did you all see Tarzan over here?
And all of the Africans, he’s beating them up and breaking the lion’s jaw, and here’s Tarzan, talking to the animals.
And the Africans have been there for centuries and they can’t talk to the animals. Only Tarzan can talk to the animals. I always wondered why.
And Miss America was always white. All the beautiful brown women in America, beautiful sun tans, beautiful shapes, all types of complexions, but she always was white.
And Miss World was always white, and Miss Universe was always white.
And then they got some stuff called White House cigars, White Swan soap, King White soap, White Cloud tissue paper, White Rain hair rinse, White Tornado floor wax, everything was white.
And the angel fruit cake was the white cake and the devil food cake was the chocolate cake.
I said, ‘Momma, why is everything white?’ I always wondered. And the President lived in the White House.
And Mary had a little lamb with feet as white as snow, and Snow White, and everything was white.
Santa Claus was white and everything bad was black. The little ugly duckling was the black duck, and the black cat was the bad luck. And if I threaten you, I’m going to blackmail you.
I said, ‘Momma, why don’t they call it ‘whitemail’? They lie too.’
I was always curious. And then this is when I knew something was wrong.”
I dropped everything.
Suddenly, the claim that “blacklist” is inherently racist is not so ludicrous anymore. Muhammad Ali’s eloquent discourse on structural racism in our very culture was a turning point for me. And for many others.
It is easy to defend semantics based on their etymology and history, some as long as language itself. Then again, words are anything but unchanging. English words frequently go out of favour. We don’t say “Good dawning to thee, friend” without turning heads.
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