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Are the terms WhiteList and BlackList racist??

Written By: Gary on February 25, 2007 27 Comments

It’s kind of a simple question, but I can’t find a specific answer. Do the terms, WhiteList and BlackList, that we commonly use these days to block/allow e-mail, web sites and comments have racist origins?

I can’t find the answer. I think about it every time I modify instructions for our mail filtering at work, just waiting for someone to ask me, but I can’t find an answer anywhere on the history of it. I’ve found some things when looking on-line related to hollywood (usually political writing) and on blackballing people (also from work or organizations) but nothing on the origins of the word even in that context.

I’ve seen some software FAQs skate around it with some stupid explanations to avoid the issue, but I think red + green universally mean stop + go so greenlist and redlist makes sense and since we don’t have green people it wouldn’t be considered racist (or even incorrectly thought to be). Maybe this is a non-issue, but I’m wondering what you think.There are tons of options: stop/go, allow/deny, junk/non-junk, etc. Also, even if it doesn’t have racist origins if people perceive it to be, then how much of a difference is there.

Later: Ah, I found this and I do recall part of the origins of blackball, (I knew this already, I just forgot that I knew it) but it’s still not an answer.

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27 Responses to “Are the terms WhiteList and BlackList racist??”

  1. Dawn Kelley says on: 26 February 2007 at 7:43 am

    Okay… according to THE Oxford English Dictionary… the origins of black-list are dated back to 1619 and explained as “The blacke list of those That have nor fire nor spirit of their owne”, by writer of the time Philip Massinger. There is no reference whatsoever to race in the OED… but culturally and historically… all the way back to early religious representations, “white” was considered a heavenly, good color… and black, its opposite, therefore “bad”.

    I think it matters less if the original intention was racially derived or not. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense to use those terms now. Similarly, why are “white lies” acceptable?

    I like the red/green idea. Let’s have green lies and red ones.

  2. Kurt V. says on: 4 March 2007 at 12:00 am

    I’ve got two answers and a couple of links in answer your question.

    When I Googled racist computer term blacklist THIS post by you was the first site listed! Yeah! A fun, but not helpful result.

    My first answer is to point to the Hollywood cowboy terms “black hat” and “white hat” as one possible set of predecessors to blacklist and whitelist. Also, there’s the term “Hollywood Blacklist” and its neologism “whitelist” but answering either of those just sidesteps the question of racist origins because of course were those terms originally racist or have morphed into being racist…?

    Here’s a link to a related controversy about two other electronics terms (master and slave) that got some press a couple of years ago: http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/outrage/master.asp

    Here’s my second (and hopefully more thoughtful and considered) response to your question: I think it is very telling that you (and I) feel sensitive enough to at least in passing wonder/worry whether the terms blacklist or whitelist are racist or not, BUT that we’re still too isolated from the “black” community to know whether that is truly the case or not.

    Hell, the “Think Different” Apple advertising poster that I have at my desk is the one with Martin Luther King jr. on it, and I’ve had it up there for YEARS, not just for the month of February, and to paraphrase the man, I would really like to think I do not judge by the color of skin but by the content of character. Having said all that, however, I have to admit that I can still be just as confused as you are by the simple question you posed. At least wondering whether a term is offensive or not, is a start. KNOWING, and knowing because we don’t feel so separated that we have to wonder, would be much better.

    Here’s one more link to a nine minute audio commentary (podcast) that is worth listening to on the subject of “color or skin/content of character”
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4456353

    A really good book to read to smaller kids is “Old Turtle and the Broken Truth” by Douglas Wood. (Illustrated with great watercolors by Jon J. Muth (yes, that Jon J. Muth of comic book fame)) which of course you can pick up at The Book Beat in Oak Park, Michigan (and yes, I am going to finish this post by plugging them and posting their url…)
    http://www.thebookbeat.com/

  3. Phil says on: 6 September 2007 at 2:43 pm

    I Googled “is blacklist racist” and ended up here. Whilst I hoped for a definitive answer, in a way I was pleased that there was none!

    My research about the term led me to the old English public school tradition of writing the names of naughty school boys in a black leather bound book, called the Black List. Obviously, this was in no way a racial concern. However, the origins of phrases are not necessarily a good barometer of the situation today and the white=good/black=bad distinction certainly carries racist undertones that need to be acknowledged.

    I like the red/green list approach, although for the time being, it would have to be explained in terms of its black/white equivalent!

  4. Jim Manico says on: 31 January 2008 at 4:20 am

    Great discussion. Redlist as a replacement for Blacklist might be offensive to Native Americans since the term “Redskin” in a very derogative term that implies that a Native American is “not human.” I propose that we use the terms “Goodlist” and “Badlist”

  5. sebo says on: 1 April 2008 at 5:28 pm

    Interesting. I was in the same quest when I stumbled here. I have been using allowlist and denylist for my firewall and email server. In a different context, where allow/deny is not so meaningful, I was considering goodlist and badlist as Jim suggested. On a second thought it occurred to me that I am thinking within the box xxxx-list. Why not good-ones and bad-ones?

    I see it as more than political correctness and sensitivity – for me, goodlist/badlist or good-ones/bad-ones is more meaningful than black/white/green/red list. Same goes for black box and white box. I would find close box and open box more meaningful – you don’t need to define them.

  6. Brian Mac says on: 25 July 2008 at 12:45 pm

    I think what has happened is that, like “backronyms,” racist implications have been suggested in terms whose origins have never been related to race. If we get trapped in worrying about being politically correct about everything, we may have to rethink the whole belt system as it relates to karate and other martial arts. After all, why should a “white belt” represent the most amateur and “black belt” the most advanced?

  7. Scott Davidson says on: 10 April 2009 at 1:31 am

    Whitelist and blacklist by their very definition and usage are clearly racists terms. What is wrong with pushing the concepts of accept list and deny list, or watchlist, blocklist, trusted sites, etc.?

  8. Ifeanyi Chijindu says on: 14 September 2009 at 1:36 am

    I want to write a longer comment, but I’m pressed for time, however…here’s a quick test I think will work:

    I believe using terms like “white”=good, fair etc. and “black”=evil, negative, wicked etc. are definitely racist and archaic. I really like the whole red/green or just negative/positive…the list goes on and on of OTHER words we could use.

    My test is this…for anyone who doesn’t feel the same…try using all of those negative “black” terms and replace them with “white” and tell me how that makes you feel.

    There’s your answer. =)

  9. Demian Sellfors says on: 28 December 2009 at 8:05 pm

    At (mt) Media Temple, several years ago we had this discussion and the answer was pretty simple. We changed our terms to “block list” and “allow list”.

  10. Kenny says on: 29 December 2009 at 5:51 am

    I was also wondering this evening about the origins of the word ‘black’ in blacklist. And I agree with those people that propose to avoid the use of this word because the origins seem to be unknown. And if it has something to do with ‘black-book list’, then it should be called ‘blackbook list’, and not ‘blacklist’, as blacklist has easily a racial tone to it. I agree with proposing to use ‘blocklist, banlist, badlist’ etc.

  11. Ben says on: 11 August 2010 at 2:15 pm

    I think the racist act was not in coining the term “blacklist,” but in assigning the terms “black”–with its figurative meanings of dark, strange and other, and “white”–with its figurative meanings of known, seen and light, to groups of people who’s skin is “brown” or “cream” respectively.

    Secondly, while “blacklist” seems to have its origins in the figurative sense of the word, “black,” the term “whitelist” seems to have been coined using the same false black/white dichotomy. Instead of perpetuating this false dichotomy (and bad analogy, since blacklists and whitelists are not, in fact, opposites–i.e. not being on a blacklist doesn’t place on a whitelist), why not use more descriptive terms, such as those proposed by Demian and others?

  12. Troy says on: 1 July 2011 at 1:10 pm

    I came here looking for similar answers. I decided to change mine from Whitelist to AllowedList just to remove the question of racism.

  13. DM says on: 26 October 2011 at 1:14 pm

    I was looking at blacklist for all together different reasons.

    Here there is an organisation called The Blacklist, who have an annual awards dinner, which in their own words; ‘The annual Black List Awards celebrates the contribution of the Black community across all levels of the game[soccer].’

    I find it hard not to see this as racist, as a person who pushes for equality for all, how can an organisation which perposefully segregates itself to exclude all others be anything other.

    Surely awards for great contributions should be given out to you whatever your colour or creed.

  14. cynthia dennis says on: 16 November 2011 at 10:25 am

    I think that the term is offensive, no matter what the origin or intent is. The use of black (= bad) and white(= good) has been around for eons BUT it is nonetheless offensive and disrespectful – especially if you happen to be a person who is black. What does using these terms in this way subtly teach our children? I for one would like to see these types of terms and phrases disappear since there are other ways to phrase this. If you are white, you probably will have trouble relating to this because white always = good. But put the shoe on the other foot for a day or two and you’ll look at the world differently.

  15. cynthia dennis says on: 16 November 2011 at 10:27 am

    There are so many better ways to phrase this concept >
    “block list” and “allow list” make so much more sense!!!!!

  16. Ted says on: 30 December 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Interesting discussion. I also ended up here by looking for the origin of whitelist and blacklist. It had never occurred to me as it being an issue, until I was standing there discussing a programming issue my application was having with another white person with a black-skinned person in the cubicle. Suddenly, it sounded very very wrong. White = Good, Black = Bad.

    I appreciate the imagery of the red/green list. In any case, the allow/block list sounds like a reasonable alternative. Thank you for the information!

  17. Aaron says on: 17 January 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Something I find very amusing about this discussion is that even if the term “blacklist” is changed to something like “badlist” to appease those who think race is basis of the term, you have just injected race into the terminology! From that point forward, the etymology of “badlist” will include the fact that it was changed from “blacklist” because of racist implications, cementing the “fact” that black is the same as bad.

  18. Erik says on: 23 May 2013 at 6:28 pm

    I don’t know about you guys, but I have never met a black person or a white person in my entire life. I’ve met people of darker and lighter skin colors, but none were actually black, nor were any white.

  19. Miss Crystal says on: 20 March 2014 at 11:13 pm

    I heard the term whitelist today and wondered if it was a racial term. And before I came on here, I too came up with the idea of redlist vs. greenlist. I am unsure if the terms whitelist and blacklist have racial origins, but what I am sure of is I won’t use those terms. I thought they probably did, so I’m choosing to use other terms. I think that I will do the same for master and slave in technology, and male and female in tools…. I think we are in a day and age where we are smart enough, and have easy enough access to information that we can educate ourselves easier and it is our duty as such people to do so, and to make well rounded decisions.

    Live well,
    -Miss Crystal

  20. Stale says on: 3 August 2014 at 10:38 pm

    Slow down people! How dare you propose “goodlist” + “badlist” or “greenlist” + “redlist”. I myself am a proud bad, red person and I find that a derogatory remark towards people of my kind. I think we should resort to unintelligible sounds to be sure we don’t ‘offend’ anyone. Oh… that wouldn’t work because then we would be offending babies.

    But seriously, it’s like you are all so simple minded! Racism is the belief that some races are inferior to others. Using a colour to label blocked/unblocked websites is NOT racist.

    The slave trade is alive and well in Africa, and I am pretty sure the people in captivity would think you all a bunch of morons worrying about if “blacklist” is a racist word or not!

  21. Jason says on: 2 September 2014 at 8:56 pm

    I came here trying to find the origin of the phrase, just in case. Someone here touched on my understanding of the real origin of “white=good, black=bad”, and it is nothing to do with race. I just want to restate differently what was said above… The white=good, black=bad dichotomy is ingrained in the human subconscious. It stems from the time when we had to fear the darkness, when things that we could not see were eager to prey upon us…when the danger of a storm approached, things also grew dark. Dark = danger, which = bad. The sunshine (light, = white) meant safety. That is why we naturally associate black as bad/dangerous, and white as good. It is simply unfortunate that we live in a society where the mere mention of a specific color in almost any context, makes us all cringe for a moment and wonder if we have said something inappropriate. It might make a lot more sense to stop classifying people using colors, so no one has to worry if a color’s name is inappropriate. (idealism, of course.)

  22. B says on: 8 September 2014 at 2:43 pm

    The history of blacklist is closely connected with the expression in one’s black books. It’s probable first use was in the reign of Charles II, with reference to a list of persons implicated in the trial and execution of his father, Charles I. On his accession to the throne, he hunted them out, executing 13 and imprisoning many others. Particularly in the 20th century, the principal use has been in relation to management and union affairs. However, wider uses are fairly common, for example, a library might have a blacklist of borrowers who abuse the system. See: http://users.tinyonline.co.uk/gswithenbank/curiousa.htm#blacklist

  23. michelle says on: 21 September 2014 at 6:42 pm

    For starters if the word blacklist comes from the 1600’s then yes it’s very racist. Secondly, for many year as well as present day pretty much everything with word black all means something in a negative ie: blackball, black male, black market. Everything with the word white means nice, clean pure.

    This country is very racist and extremely negative towards other races besides white. Its very ridiculous and ignorant to whomever thinks that their race is better. NO ONE on this earth is perfect or better.

  24. EnemyOfMisinformation says on: 22 October 2014 at 1:19 am

    @michelle You are a simpleton. Black has historically been equated with bad because it suggests darkness, the unknown, something obscured. White is bright and illuminating, suggesting positivity. What leads you to think that because the term is first documented in the 1600s makes it racist is unclear to me. The plague was first called the black death by Danes and Swedes in the 16th century, when there were no “black” people anywhere near the areas in Iceland they were writing about. Your comments are uninformed and asinine. Ten minutes of research will show you that “blacklist” did not originate from black/white racism. Go read a book instead of fueling the fire and perpetuating anachronistic myths.

  25. Mi says on: 22 October 2015 at 5:35 pm

    I find it disgusting that I am forced to have boxes called ‘blacklist’ on my own machine. I feel like shoving this back up Apple’s A…. I want to delete or rename the box. If not let me delete MAIL and get another email programme. Angry anti-racist. Tech nerds who design these things should get an education instead of sitting in Silicon Valley all day.

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