From 'master bedroom' to 'blacklist': What will it take to change racist terms in our everyday language?

The Houston Association of Realtors announced that it would be replacing the term “master bedroom” with “primary bedroom” in its listings. Real estate is one of many industries reckoning with words and phrases with racist origins. (Getty Images)
The Houston Association of Realtors announced that it would be replacing the term “master bedroom” with “primary bedroom” in its listings. Real estate is one of many industries reckoning with words and phrases with racist origins. (Getty Images)

The growing Black Lives Matter movement has caused many people to rethink how they approach several areas of life, seeping into company policies, police reform, entertainment and education, among other things. Now many of the words and phrases that we regularly use are getting revisited in an effort for linguistic equity.

Several words that are a common part of the English language are getting reassessed for having racist undertones or origins. Among some of the more explicit racist terms are “master bedroom,” which can evoke the imagery of master-slave relations on plantations. Tech engineers have used the words “master” and “slave” to describe software and hardware in which one process controls another, and a “blacklist” is a term that refers to a collection of people who are excluded.

The English language is filled with these references, and many people don’t even think twice about where they came from or what they mean, Kristen Syrett, presidential term chair in experimental linguistics at Rutgers University, tells Yahoo Life. “But what happens is that the language we speak, having had those influences in it, implicitly influences the way we think about people,” she says.

Some organizations have taken steps to try to change this. The Houston Association of Realtors announced in late June that it would be replacing the term “master bedroom” with “primary bedroom” in its listings. The Court of Master Sommeliers, a prestigious organization that grants the coveted title of “master sommelier” to select wine experts, announced in a letter in late June that it would stop using the term “Master” before a sommelier’s last name. “Part of what brought us all to the hospitality industry and to the Court of Master Sommeliers is a deeply ingrained desire to serve others. That desire we know was a crucial guiding light on our journey to becoming Master Sommeliers,” the letter reads. “Let us use that light now to do our part to effect the change we know is possible and necessary.”

A leader on Twitter’s engineering team shared on the platform on July 2 that the company would be dropping the use of the terms “master,” “slave” and “blacklist” from its code, noting that “words matter.”

How did these words become such a part of our culture, anyway?

This doesn’t just happen around subjects of race. Patriarchy, gender and other factors of everyday life also seep into language, Syrett says. “We take what’s familiar to us — our culture, our society and our immediate environment — and that finds its way into language,” she says. “It’s a very natural thing that happens, and we might not even think of it as being connected to relationships with people, but it infiltrates our language in subtle ways.”

Over time, people forget the origins of the word or maybe never even realized they existed in the first place, Syrett says. But the terms — and the biases they reinforce — remain, even if they’re unconscious, she says.

These words are allowed to continue to exist because they indicate a larger societal problem, Gabriel Torres Colón, a cultural anthropologist with research and teaching interests in race, politics, sports and intellectual history at Vanderbilt University, tells Yahoo Life. “The most important insight in the study of language and racism is that in order for racism to be embedded in language, linguistic terms need not be explicitly racist,” he says. “This is an important point of departure because we need to be aware that when we debate the need to remove racist phrases from everyday language use, we are not necessarily addressing the entire problem of how racism is embedded in language.”

Explicitly racist words “always exist” alongside “implicit linguistic racism,” Torres Colón says. For example, he points out that there is a lot of attention right now on the term “master bedroom,” but not as much on terms like “plantation shutters” and “plantation”— and “colonial”-style homes, which he says are “equally as problematic.”

What will it take to make a lasting change?

As a society, people may or may not decide that certain terms are explicitly racist, Torres Colón says. “Since humans are creative and not bound by the meaning of words, we might decide that the ‘master’ or ‘masters’ referenced in the term ‘master bedroom’ are not tied to whiteness and simply reference heads of households,” he says.  “Similarly, we could decide that we are all entitled to our own plantation. But these hypothetical decisions are unlikely in a society that continues to struggle with a colonial legacy defined by slavery and racial inequality.”

Organizations and individuals vowing to stop using select words can help, but change won’t really take hold until it’s taken up by younger generations, Syrett says. “Language change is usually driven by children and younger generations — we see this across the board and across languages throughout the world,” she says. Once children start using a word, they will organically reference something that way, Syrett says, but it’s a little different for adults. “The older generations tend to hold on to things like not ending sentences with a preposition or using certain words,” she says. It’s not necessarily a malicious thing — it’s simply what’s ingrained in adults, she explains.

That doesn’t mean adults should just continue using these words, though. “It is hard to shake up the way you speak, but when you compare that to deeper, more substantive issues, it’s easy to see that it’s important,” Syrett says. 

Being aware that these loaded words exist is crucial, Syrett says, along with doing your best to keep language inclusive. “Contributing to implicit bias can be dangerous,” she says. “But recognizing that you’re open to change and being aware that language can communicate these changes is important.”

While words matter, Torres Colón says that actions carry an even greater impact. “What is crystal clear is that there is no reason to believe that changing the way we speak will likely lead to measurable social change,” he says. “In fact, focusing in the way we speak might take up valuable political space for thinking about systemic/structural change.”

As for how long it can take to see a linguistic change in regards to social movements and racism, Torres Colón says it can happen over the course of months or even years. And, of course, it won’t necessarily be uniform across all socio-economic groups and races. “We might observe a rapid change of race-related language amongst, say, white-college educated Democratic voters and not see significant shifts for other racial/socioeconomic groups,” he says. But there isn’t necessarily a set way of speaking across different groups in the United States, and that can make linguistic change difficult — and even anxiety-provoking — on a national level, he says.

“When smaller sectors of society have a heavy hand in shaping how we ought to speak, it can create linguistic anxiety for those who do not fully understand the reason for speaking in new ways,” Torres Colón says. “This anxiety can get in the way of meaningful communication about race and racism.”

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