Everyday words and phrases that have racist connotations

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 7/7/2020, 4:19 p.m.
The words and phrases permeate nearly every aspect of our society. "Master bedrooms" in our homes. "Blacklists" and "whitelists" in ...
The words and phrases permeate nearly every aspect of our society. "Master bedrooms" in our homes. "Blacklists" and "whitelists" in computing. The idiom "sold down the river" in our everyday speech. _Credit: Photo-Illustration: Getty Images/CNN

By Scottie Andrew and Harmeet Kaur, CNN

(CNN) -- The words and phrases permeate nearly every aspect of our society.

"Master bedrooms" in our homes. "Blacklists" and "whitelists" in computing. The idiom "sold down the river" in our everyday speech.

Many are so entrenched that Americans don't think twice about using them. But some of these terms are directly rooted in the nation's history with chattel slavery. Others now evoke racist notions about Black people.

"Words like 'slave' and' master' are so folded into our vocabulary and almost unconsciously speak to the history of racial slavery and racism in the US," says Elizabeth Pryor, an associate professor of history at Smith College.

But America's reckoning with systemic racism is now forcing a more critical look at the language we use. And while the offensive nature of many of these words and phrases has long been documented, some institutions are only now beginning to drop them from the lexicon.

Pryor suggests people think about the context certain words can carry and how using them could alienate others.

"Language works best when it brings as many people into communication with each other," she says. "If we know, by using certain language, we're disinviting certain people from that conversation, language isn't doing its job."

Here are some familiar words and phrases you might consider dropping from your vocabulary.

In real estate

Master bedrooms/bathrooms: A master bedroom typically refers to the largest bedroom in the house, often accompanied by a private bathroom.

Nationally, 42% of current property listings on Zillow use the term "master" in reference to a bedroom or a bath.

The phrase "master bedroom" first appeared in the 1926 Sears catalog, according to the real estate blog Trelora. It was a feature of a $4,398 Dutch colonial home, the most expensive in the catalog, referring to a large second floor bedroom with a private bathroom.

"Master bedrooms" were more widely implemented in American homes after World War II, intended to give working parents a private space within their own homes, Trelora notes.

While it's unclear whether the term is rooted in American slavery on plantations, it evokes that history.

Now, because of its slavery-era connotations, some members of the real estate industry are now calling to retire the term "master."

The Houston Association of Realtors recently announced it would replace "master" with "primary" to describe bedrooms and bathrooms on its listings.

And the Real Estate Standards Organization (RESO), a group that includes associations, data companies and multiple listing services, told CNN that it's discussing its standards around the use of the term.

In computer technology

Master/slave: Tech engineers use these terms to describe components of software and hardware in which one process or device controls another.

The terms have been around for decades, and they've long raised concerns.

In 2014, the programming language Drupal replaced "master/slave" terminology with "primary/replica." Django opted to use "primary/replica," too. Python, one of the most popular programming languages in the world, eliminated "master/slave" terms in 2018.