1. 48

    I’ve read through a lot of these kind of discussions in the last week, and one thing that really strikes me is that they consist almost entirely of white people discussing this. This seems a bit odd to me because there are plenty of non-white programmers as well. I’d like to think that these people are more than articulate enough to raise these kind of issues themselves if they have a desire to, but thus far I gave not really seen much of that.

    Quite frankly, I find that the entire thing has more than a bit of a “white saviour” smell to it, and it all comes off as rather patronising. It seems to me that black people are not so fragile that they will recoil at the first sight of the word “master”, in particular when it has no direct relationship to slavery (it’s a common word in quite a few different contexts), but reading between the lines that kind-of seems the assumption.

    For me personally – as a white person from a not particularly diverse part of the world – this is something where I think it’s much wiser to shut up and listen to people with a life experience and perspective very different than mine (i.e. black people from different parts of the world), rather than try and make arguments for them. I think it’s a very unfortunate that in the current climate these voices are not well heard since both the (usually white) people in favour and opposed to this are shouting far too loud.

    1. 28

      It’s called White guilt. Superficial actions like changing CS terms and taking down statues are easy ways to feel better about oneself while avoiding the actual issue (aka: bike-shedding).

      1. 5

        I had the same thought: this is something that is easy to have an opinion about and feels achievable. That makes it very attractive to take action on, independent of the actual value it has.

        1. 8

          It is easier to change the name of a git default branch and put that on your CV as an action demonstrating you are not racist, than it is to engage in politics and seek to change some of the injustices that still remain.

          1. 6

            Or to put it really on point: it’s easier for GitHub to talk about changing the default branch name on repos created on GitHub from ‘master’ to ‘main’ than it is for them to cut their contract with ICE.

      2. 14

        It’s not like you can guess someone’s race from a gravatar. Not to mention, one of the liberating features of the Internet is being able to hide your identity and be treated for what you say in stead of what you are. On the flip side that does mean everybody sees everyone as an adolescent white male.

        In any case, there’s a black engineer expressing their thanks in the comment section of the OP.

        1. 11

          I probably wasn’t too clear about this, but I did not guess anyone’s skin colour; I just looked at their profile pictures, names, etc. For example the author of this post is clearly white, as are the authors of the IETF draft he linked (I did a quick check on this), everyone involved in the Go CL was white, and in the Rubocop discussion everyone was white as well as far as I could tell – certainly the people who were very much in favour of it at the start. There certainly are non-white people participating – anonymously or otherwise – but in general they seem to be very much a minority voice.

          Or, to give an analogy, while I would certainly support something like Black Lives Matter in various ways, I would never speak on the movement’s behalf. It’s simply not my place to do so.

          On the flip side that does mean everybody sees everyone as an adolescent white male.

          Yeah … that’s true and not great. I try not to make assumptions on the kind of person I’m speaking to, but “talking” to just a name is very contrary to human social interaction and it’s easy to have a mental picture that’s similar to yourself and those around you. This is kind of what I was getting at: sharing of different experiences and perspectives is probably by far the most helpful thing and constructive thing that can move this debate (as well as several other things) forward, instead of being locked in the shouting match it is today.

          I have no illusions that this will happen, because far too many people seem far too eager to comment on the matter, and to be honest I’ve been guilty of that as well.

        2. 14

          If we look back at how visceral the reaction to these types of ideas can be, and especially how that response is so often personally directed, it should be no surprise that someone who feels in any way marginalized or at risk in the software community might be reluctant to speak up.

          1. 14

            OK, so I think you’re referring to the Reddit Go thread (which was a dumpster fire of “I’m not racist but…” comments; for someone to get so upset about someone else’s internal code base is proof of some underlying issue).

            Here’s some things to think about:

            • “It seems entirely white people discuss this”: There’s a really obvious reason for this. Look at Google’s diversity numbers: their value of hiring vs attrition places the number of black people at Google at 3.7%. And yet the census reports 12.1% in the US are African American. Who do you think is going to be discussing this? They’re not here. They can’t be part of this conversation. Worse, black people leave Google faster than other demographics, so even when they get there they decide they don’t like it more and leave. Why would you work hard for your whole life to get a job at Google and then decide to leave? What is it about the software engineering environment that is toxic? Why bother getting upset and making a noise when you’ve already decided it’s hopeless and given up?
            • “It has a white savior smell”: It is incumbent on the privileged class to show allyship and help build equality for the underprivileged. It is unacceptable to put on blinkers and go “they’ll work it out”, as it ignores the systemic reasons why inequity exists. A big difference about what is happening now is that white people are going out to the streets and showing their allyship. These protests are very similar to those in Ferguson, except in Ferguson it was all black people. Nothing happened. Now that white people have come out, suddenly people start talking about “movements”. You can’t look to black people in CS and say “you overcome all the systemic problems” just like we can’t look to women in CSand say “you overcome all the systemic problems and please suck it up when you get battered with toxic behavior that’s just the way we are lol.” For the privileged class to sit back is for the privileged class to approve of what happens. “White savior” is a weaponized term to say that if you are white, you don’t get to help. Actually, if you are white, you absolutely should be helping.
            • “you should listen rather than make arguments for them”: Again, we are back to who do you listen to? Representation is so horrifically low. The Go thread raised up anyone who identified as black, had the same viewpoint as the mob and held that viewpoint as representative for the whole black community. You can’t just ask someone on the street and say “there you go, he said it”. You have to talk. And talk. And talk. And talk. To as many people as you can. Over and over again. I am so glad Google has the Black Googlers Network for exactly that sort of discussion.

            Names mean something. master/slave has clearly had it’s time. whitelist/blacklist (as in the Go thread) is unnecessary, a term that we basically invented, and is easily replaced. Would I change master to main? Probably not. But I’m certainly not going to come and say that attempting to move the needle, even if it doesn’t work or the needle move only a fraction, shouldn’t be attempted.

            Anecdote: Google offers a number of optional diversity training. I went to one that showed this video. I was in tears. It was so foreign to me and so horrific that I was crying at work and had to leave the room. That video is the result of white America doing nothing.

            1. 12

              I’m not really referring to the Reddit thread as such. Not only is Reddit really anonymous, so much of the time I have no idea who I’m dealing with, Reddit also has its fair share of … unpleasant … people. On Twitter Nate Finch mentioned he banned a whole truckload of people who had never posted in /r/golang before coming in from whatever slimepit subreddit they normally hang out in. Unfortunately, this is how things work on Reddit. There were some interesting good-faith conversations, but also a lot of bad-faith bullshit. I was mostly referring to the actual CL and the (short) discussion on that.

              As for Google diversity, well, Google is just one company from one part of the world. The total numbers of developers in India seems comparable or greater than the number of developers in the US, for example. I’ve also worked with many Brazilian developers over the years, so they also seems to have a healthy IT industry. There are plenty of other countries as well. This is kind of what I meant with the “outside of the Silicon Valley bubble” comment I removed. Besides, just because there are fewer of them doesn’t mean they don’t exist (3.7% is still >4k people) or that I need to argue things in their place.

              It’s one thing to show your allyship, I’m all in favour of that, but it’s quite another thing to argue in their place. I have of course not read absolutely anything that anyone has written on this topic, but in general, by and large, this is what seems to be happening.

              This is something that extends just beyond the racial issue; I’ve also seen people remove references to things like “silly” as ableist, but it’s not entirely clear to me that anyone is actually bothered by this other than the (undoubtedly well-intentioned) people making the change.

              The Go thread raised up anyone who identified as black, had the same viewpoint as the mob and held that viewpoint as representative for the whole black community.

              Yeah, this is a problem: “here’s a black person saying something, therefore [..]”. Aside from the fact that I wouldn’t trust such a post without vetting the account who made it (because, you know, /r/AsABlackMan) a single person commenting doesn’t represent anything other than that single person.

              An initiative from something like the Black Googler Network would probably be much more helpful than some random GitHub PR with little more than “please remove oppressive language” true-ism.

              If you’re telling people who have been used to these terms for years or decades that all of the sudden it’s racist and oppressive without any context or explanation, then it’s really not that strange that at least some people are going to be defensive. I really wish people would spend a lot more thought and care in the messaging on this; there is very little effort spent on actually building empathy for any of this; for the most part it’s just … accusations, true-isms, shouting. You really need to explain where you’re coming from, otherwise people are just going to be confused and defensive.

            2. 4

              This seems a bit odd to me because there are plenty of non-white programmers as well, especially if you look beyond the Silicon Valley bubble.

              Silicon valley is full of nonwhite programmers. White people are somewhat underrepresented in Silicon Valley compared to their percentage of the American population. And of course most of the world is not America.

              1. 3

                I’ve actually never been to the States, much less the Silicon Valley. I just dimly remember reading somewhere that it’s mostly white, but I probably just remembered wrong. I’ll just remove that part since it doesn’t matter for my point and I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about with that 😅

                1. 4

                  In my previous company in SV (I was a remote engineer abroad, everybody else US based) we had literally 1 person on the team that was born and raised in the US, everybody else was from somewhere else. India and China were dominant, but not the only other countries.

                  Other teams looked pretty much the same. CEO (+founder), VP of Eng and all team leads in Engineering were non US born and almost all non white too.

                  I am now working for a different company with head-quarters in SF and it is a bit different. We still have pretty big mix of backgrounds (I don’t know how to express it better, what I mean is that they are not decedents of white Europeans). We seem to have more people that were born in the US yet are not white.

                  Our European office is more “white” if you will, but still very diverse. At one point we had people from all (inhabited) continents working for us (place of birth), yet we were only ~30 people in total.

                2. 2

                  Well, it’s full of programmers from Asian countries, to the point where I wouldn’t call their presence diverse. Being a Chinese/Indian/White male isn’t diversity, it’s a little bit more diverse. So while “nonwhite” is accurate, it’s not really the end game. Software engineering is massively underrepresented in women and in Black and Latinx.

                  1. 6

                    So who exactly sets the rules on what is diverse enough? Is it some committee of US Americans or how does that work?

                    1. 1

                      Ah okay so here we see the problem. It’s only diversity when there aren’t enough of them, then it stops counting as diversity once you actually have diversity and the goalposts shift once again.

                  2. 4

                    Quite frankly, I find that the entire thing has more than a bit of a “white saviour” smell to it, and it all comes off as rather patronising. It seems to me that black people are not so fragile that they will recoil at the first sight of the word “master”, in particular when it has no direct relationship to slavery (it’s a common word in quite a few different contexts), but reading between the lines that kind-of seems the assumption.

                    Agreed that black folks are in the main far too sensible to care about this kind of thing.

                    I don’t know that it is really so much about being a ‘white saviour’ (although that may be part of it); rather, I see it more as essentially religious: it is a way for members of a group (in this case, young white people) to perform the rituals which bind the group together and reflect the moral positions the group holds. I don’t mean ‘religious’ here in any derogatory way.

                    1. 9

                      Not sure about this specific issue, but in general there’s so much systemic stuff that it’s a bit much to ask black communities alone to speak up for everything. It’s emotionally exhausting if we don’t shoulder at least some of the burden, at the same time listening to and amplifying existing voices.

                      To be honest I’d never really thought about the ‘master’ name in git before, and think there might be larger issues we need to tackle, but it’s a pretty low effort change to make. Regardless, the naming confused me anyway when I first used git and then just faded into the background. I’ll let black people speak up if they think it’s overboard, however, although I’d imagine there’d be different perspectives on this.

                      1. 3

                        Not sure about this specific issue, but in general there’s so much systemic stuff that it’s a bit much to ask black communities alone to speak up for everything. It’s emotionally exhausting if we don’t shoulder at least some of the burden, at the same time listening to and amplifying existing voices.

                        Yeah, I fully agree. I don’t think they should carry all the burden on this and it’s not just helpful but our responsibility to be supportive both in words and action. But I do think they should have the initiative. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of white folk sitting around the table musing what black folk could perhaps be bothered by. Maybe the conclusions of that might be correct, but maybe they’re not, or maybe things are more nuanced.

                      2. 2

                        Really couldn’t disagree more — one of the big repository hosting services had this discussion just the other week. Much of the agitation came from Black employees, particularly descendants of enslaved Africans brought to America.

                        I agree with you on one count, though: if you’re white and you don’t have any particular investment in this issue, you should probably keep your opinion on it to yourself.

                        1. 4

                          Which discussion in particular are you referring to?

                          1. 2

                            The idea that this is being primarily driven by white people, specifically as a “white savior” exercise. The word “master” does bring up a painful legacy for lots of Black people, and with the context as muddled as it is with “git master,” it makes sense to defer to them on how they perceive it, especially in an industry where they’re so underrepresented.

                            1. 3

                              You mentioned that:

                              one of the big repository hosting services had this discussion just the other week. Much of the agitation came from Black employees

                              So I was wondering if you have a link or something to that discussion? I’d be interested.

                              1. 3

                                I wish I had something to share — the conversations have been internal and I wouldn’t want to breach confidentiality (any more than I already have). Once we’ve all forgotten about this, if there’s a blog post to share, I’ll thread it here.

                                1. 3

                                  Ah cheers, I didn’t realize it was an internal thing.

                      1. 8

                        Procrastination is, from what I can tell, is your mind telling you that you have unresolved issues that need to be dealt with. For me, it’s usually an indication that I either don’t understand what I need to do well enough, or I have an unrelated issue that needs to be dealt with. Either an unmet social/personal need, or some pre-cursor task that needs to be done. I used to feel really guilty about it, but these days I treat it more like a check engine light.

                        I’ve resolved those things a number of ways, and how to do it will be personal, but it ranges anywhere from building software tools to help make it easier to approach a problem, to journaling about a personal issue, to calling it a night, and taking rest.

                        1. 2

                          Excellent advice. I left a comment about ADHD below, and your comment is the real solution. I’ve been reading a book that describes ADHD in depth, and your comment is pretty much a summary of it.

                          1. 2

                            The phrase “a ‘check engine’ light for the mind” might honestly be the thing that does for me what a hundred task/time/focus managers couldn’t — taking procrastination as an actionable signal rather than as a moral/personal failing to be corrected.