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Words Matter: Nielsen Strikes Out Racist Tech Terms

Nielsen’s engineers have joined an industry-wide fight to strike out racist terminology in technology and engineering. This effort, which started nearly two years ago, was spurred on by the past year’s social justice movement, which has increased the world’s overall awareness of systemic racism, cognitive biases and other triggers. 

For some time, technology terms with racist implications, such as “whitelist” and “blacklist,” have been under scrutiny. “There’s no reason to have that kind of nomenclature,” said Kay Johansson, Gracenote Chief Technology Officer. “It’s wrong. This is terminology that doesn’t serve a purpose and it has negative historical implications. We needed to change this.”

Today, many other companies including Goldman Sachs, Twitter, Microsoft’s Github, Linkedin, Apple and Google have announced similar efforts to remove exclusionary language. 

“It felt good to know that we were already pushing forward with this change. We were on the cutting edge of not just our industry, but from a social standpoint as well,” says JaMile Jackson, Lead DevOps Engineer, one of the engineers who first called out the need to change. 

The shift to new terminology meant building an alternative language. In some instances, adoption was easy because the new terms actually made more sense and were more intuitive. For example when referring to a list of terms that should not be accessible, the word “blacklist” was replaced with “blocklist,” and “whitelist” is now “allow list.” When referring to the hierarchy of databases, the “master database” is now referred to as the “primary database” and the others are “secondary databases.”

“Some of the terms made better sense, and people saw that those words were a more accurate description,” added Jackson. “So the adoption became more natural and people didn’t feel forced into it.” The team is systematically implementing changes within code and in Wiki pages. 

This effort is a work in progress, and Johansson admitted that it will take time for everyone to catch on, especially when the words are tied to an employee’s actual role or work identity. “This requires a shift in mindset. But as the world is changing and we fight against racism, we’ve got to be more conscious about how these terms affect people,” said Johansson. “Anything new that we do or deploy from now on, we will not use that nomenclature. We are acting to change for the future.” 

This effort is part of Nielsen’s commitment to hold ourselves accountable for diversity, equity and inclusion, and to be a partner for change. Over the past year, Nielsen has created solutions that highlight diversity discrepancies across news and entertainment, with the goal of empowering media organizations and content creators to put their customers and communities first. 

“We understand that creating a better media future is not just about ensuring viewers are being seen and heard, but also cultivating an inclusive culture of diverse voices. This is a change we want to see in the industry and through our insights and solutions, we empower others to do the same,” says Sandra Sims-Williams, Chief Diversity Officer.