Blacklist and Whitelist are not racially charged terms

It is tiring. The wokeness has replaced even basic education.

There is no way anyone can prove blacklist and whitelist are racially charged terms, and yet most in my line of work actually believe this nonsense.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, and if you google the issue, you’ll find tons of projects, software houses, and IT companies rushing to do the same thing: replace terms that have been used technically for decades, all without a valid reason.

An in doing so, they are now doing something that never happened in history before: they are the ones racially charging these terms for the first time, effectively revealing the evil that resides in the human heart.

Origin of the English Terms

Blacklist originates first, for obvious reasons. It’s much more organically natural to start making “lists of disallowed things” than “lists of allowed things”.

The term appears to be in The true peace-maker: laid forth in a sermon before his Majesty at Theobalds written by the Bishop of Norwich, Joseph Hall, in 1624:

Ye secret oppressors, kind drunkards, and who euer come within this blacke list of wickednesse.

The word black when used in this context refers to negative connotations, and is attested as such way before 1624. The term blackball, which is first attested in 1550, describes the act of placing a black ball into a container as a means of recording a negative vote (and vice-versa using a white ball to record a positive vote). That concept is in turn related to the ancient Greek practice of ostracising someone, before modern racism even developed.

Another 17th century occurrence of blacklist is in the tragedy The Unnatural Combat by Philip Massinger:

Might write me down in the black List of those That have nor Fire, nor Spirit of their own

None of these occurrences is racially charged. Not even a subtle hint. Zilch.

Over the course of 1915 and 1916 British government agencies gradually developed an implemented a system whereby neutral firms and individuals suspected of trading with or otherwise aiding the Central Powers would be denied access to Entente infrastructure such as ship bunker, financial services and communications. British government agencies and departments maintained several such lists, but only one of these were public. Officially called the Statutory List, but much more commonly known simply as the British blacklist.

Another example is the Indiana University, which has a great list of mostly non-racist metaphorical uses of “black” in English and Korean. Using the terms black as night, black sheep, black humor, and black magic isn’t racist at all (and the use of black sheep might not be metaphorical as it applies to sheep, since some are black, with varyingly marketable wool), though in fairness some speakers of English would find a phrase like “black as the ace of spades” potentially racist, though likely not strongly so.

Some would question whether using “black” for “bad” is fair to Wicca, witchcraft, and magic. They would so from a worldview that offers no absolute moral standard, anyway. Plus, the use of innocuous and ancient phraseology with the word “black” in it can’t be seen as inherently racist.

The term whitelist is of much more recent origin, first being attested in 1842, and is then explicitly used to refer to the opposite of a blacklist (i.e. a list of approved or favored items).

The Spiritual Connection

Every civilisation on earth has been using “dark and light” (and derivatives) as a metaphor for “bad and good”. The reason should be obvious, since naturally speaking, the darkness of the night renders your own environment more dangerous and riskier on multiple levels, whereas in the light many dangers disappear.

God himself starts His written revelation in those terms, separating actual light from actual darkness, but at the same time establishing the metaphorical pattern used throughout the rest of the Scriptures.

Unsurprisingly, nearly every other religion (the result of the falling away from the true God after the dispersion of Babel and creation of the nations) follows the same pattern. One of the most obvious examples is the Yin and yang.

Seeing evil everywhere

The era we live in is characterised by a widespread tendency amongst younger generations to see evil everywhere (but their own hearts).

As it is written,

To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled.

Titus 1:15


  1. “The word black when used in this context refers to negative connotations, and is attested as such way before 1624. The term blackball, which is first attested in 1550, describes the act of placing a black ball into a container as a means of recording a negative vote (and vice-versa using a white ball to record a positive vote).” Is a direct copy from a post on reddit two years ago.

  2. Well-written and thoughtful – thank you for sharing. I feel like you overlook a key point, though. The original intent of the term does matter, of course, but less so than the more recent sublimation of it.

    Just as the swastika was originally used by many cultures as a representation of the sun, good luck, or spirituality these meanings were subsumed and lost as the Nazis adopted it as the symbol for themselves. Arguing over what it’s “supposed” to mean seems almost silly in this context, because the reality of what it means NOW is somewhat different.

    Sadly, there were whitelists and blacklists – termed as such – in the antebellum and post antebellum US South – and these are much more recent and pervasive usages that carry their racial connotations with them into the IT security space.

    Maybe it is ‘woke’ as you say above disparagingly – but it costs us nothing to be sensitive and inclusive. I am not harmed or inconvenienced in any way to instead use “allowed” or “disallowed” list. I also don’t use “master” branches in git. Or have “master/slave” controllers. And the terminology change from what I learned when I started in this industry is insignificant compared to the new technologies, frameworks, and paradigms I retrain myself on every day to stay relevant.

    English is not an immutable language – it grows, changes, and meanings attach and become charged for reasons we may not always agree with or understand. Take the word ‘nonplussed’ as an example. Google the definition and you will see it means BOTH “surprised” and “not surprised.” And it was not always the case – the “not surprised” definition is recent – drives me nut when I see it, but at the same time I love it as an example of how our language and meanings change.

    Anyway – I appreciate that you wrote such a compelling blog post. I did learn something new regarding the origins of the term and I call that a win.

    • I appreciate your contribution here. Well-mannered and respectful comments are a rare thing on the Internet these days.

      That said, I’ll remain of my own conviction. You see, I didn’t necessarily overlook the point you bring up. My point is that the issue is slightly different, and the core issue is this: no one interpreted these terms negatively on a daily basis, especially not as racially-charged terms, until the very people who claim to be against such use of the terms started using them that way.

      In other words, the woke movement likes a flame and is always ready to start one. They saw the opportunity and seized it. Had they done nothing, nobody would be talking about this.

      They want to see evil everywhere, and even when they themselves don’t see it, they put it there, so that some other gullible individual may see it and spend precious hours of their lives being livid about something completely pointless.

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