Words matter

Why and how we decided to use more equitable language in Firstup's documentation, starting with "allowlist".

Words Matter x

The year 2020 has been a time of change, upheaval, and revelations. For many of us, 2020 was the year of recognizing the extent of racial inequity in America. Among other things, this has driven us to reckon with racist language in both our daily lives and our workplaces. Software terms like “blacklist” and “master” are now under greater scrutiny.

This year, Firstup founded a Diversity & Inclusion team that first raised the idea of updating “whitelist” to “allowlist” in our documentation. They were inspired by public dialogue in 2020 that was in turn sparked by a 2018 whitepaper about racist language in predatory publishing. As a content manager for the Firstup Knowledge Base and other customer-facing documents, I want to balance principled language with terminology that is recognizable. 

I monitored the online conversation. Debate raged about whether this change was necessary, what alternative terms made the most sense, and folks had to grapple with whether “allowlist” could even be used as a verb.

We decided to make the change. Regardless of the exact history of the terms “blacklist” and “whitelist”, they are not benevolent today. We believe that using more equitable language is key to becoming a more inclusive workplace. To help our customers shift with us, some of the documents say things like “allowlist (aka whitelist)”. Searching for “allowlist” or “whitelist” will return the same articles, which all now say “allowlist”.

We’re not alone. Some major players such as Google and Microsoft’s GitHub have also embraced this move to change our software language. However, a major sign that this shift is still not universal is that Wikipedia still only talks about “allowlist” in the controversy subsection of their “whitelisting” article.

It will take time for everyone to become comfortable with saying “allowlist the following domains”, but that new future will arrive sooner if we take action now. While a change like this may seem small, taken in a constellation of actions we hope it contributes to a more equitable industry.

Has your organization asked itself, what language could be changed to be more equitable? And language isn’t the only way that we can be better – check out our article on more ways to improve diversity and inclusion in your workplace. Start the conversation now and join us in making a brighter, more inclusive future.

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Picture of Angela Frey

Angela Frey

Angela Frey manages the self-service documentation and the learning management system for Firstup. Angela has 8+ years of experience in technical support and customer education. Her mission is to empower her clients to be self-sufficient and successful.

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