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Why GitHub renaming master is good

_garybell profile image Gary Bell ・4 min read

Following the announcement by GitHub that they are working to replace master branches with main or similar (as covered by ZDNet), I admit I had mixed feelings.

There's a lot to consider when undertaking such a task, and I imagine it wasn't something taken lightly when the decided to do it. I'm not a GitHub user, so it doesn't impact me (I use GitLab). Not firstly that it's going to cause a lot of things to break. And that was my first thought.

Genuinely, my first thought was "That's going to cause a lot of problems with pipelines and builds", and got me a little angry that they would risk so much chaos just by implementing it. I imagined the headache I would have if someone renamed the master branch of my projects without consultation or time to plan. Going in to work on a Monday and seeing emails for build failures, release failures, merge failures, and all the associated problems. I made it about me.

Fortunately, it was then time to shower and reflect on it more. The more I thought about it, the more I then worried that they weren't going to actually rename. They couldn't possibly just stop things from working like that. Surely it was just going to be an alias to keep current projects working. Finally, the coffee kicked in and I realised that the issues it would bring directly aren't all that important.

I'm not fortunate enough to have my infrastructure set up using Ansible or anything cool like that to manage the configurations. At the same time, my infrastructure isn't big enough for me to worry that much about the time it would take to fix the issues. I'd be looking at low single-digit hours, and could have everything fixed by lunchtime. The time and productivity I would lose doesn't even constitute a rounding error when it comes to the suffering which was, and still is, suffered by the communities which politicians like to call "minority".

No, my biggest issue with the whole thing is that we're trying to sweep away the atrocities of the past by forgetting words have multiple meanings. The meaning of "master" is relational to the context in which it is used. I had never thought of Git's master branch as relating to any form of slavery of injustice. I'd always thought of it as meaning the master copy aka primary copy, main copy, or original. Unlike database replication where master-slave always brought negative thoughts.

The issue, therefore, isn't that words have multiple meanings. It's that people are lazy and don't think about alternative meanings for words, and the connotations they have. I'll ultimately be changing my projects to remove "master" branches and rename them with something more appropriate.

It is worth noting that Git is 15 years old. People didn't consider, as deeply, the extra connotations words may have, and how they may offend. Times and outlooks change. Hopefully for the better.

The good behind it

Solidarity

By standing in solidarity with the protests around the globe, and working towards the renaming, GitHub are helping to legitimize the movement for equality and an end to racism. That's a brilliant move, and should be applauded.

Inclusion

The development community prides itself on being an inclusive community, open to all. We absolutely must be in support of equality for all, and should not be adding barriers of discomfort by our naming conventions.

Consideration

I firmly believe that doing this at such a high profile level will cause a lot, unfortunately not all, of developers to consider what they name things in future. Not just for branch names, but also with the likes of "blacklist" and "whitelist", as GitHub are also doing.

Whilst these words don't originate from race, the sad truth of the matter is that people will see "blacklist" as being bad (which it is), and some of those will then see "black" as being bad, and apply it to skin colour. That perpetuates racism, and can easily be avoided by considering the words used.

Summary

There will always be people who resist change, and who are uncomfortable with this decision by GitHub. They will say that they have never thought about 'master' in git as referring to slavery and oppression. They will point out that "blacklist" doesn't relate to skin colour. They will find reasons to oppose the change because, ironically especially within development, people are reluctant to change.

The point isn't whether something was meant to have a negative connotation. It's that if it does, the "terminology not only reflects racist culture, but also serves to reinforce, legitimize, and perpetuate it" (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6148600/).

By not changing and adapting with the times, we will perpetuate racism. We will create inequality and discomfort. We will fail to be an inclusive community.

We cannot let that happen.

It's not going to be quick or easy to make the changes, but we must make them.

Discussion (14)

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dandv profile image
Dan Dascalescu

I firmly believe that doing this at such a high profile level

... may be a cheap PR stunt, given the far more serious social justice problems that GitHub has. See point 6 in my post.

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_garybell profile image
Gary Bell Author

Yes there's going to be a level of PR about it, but given the climate and current active global movement on this, there's the fear from some organisations that they may seen to be ignoring the issues for things they have control over, and that make people uncomfortable. The cynic on me also believes there's a solid fear of missing out from marketing departments on this.

Because of where I live, and that I have deliberately spent 90% of my career in smaller organisations, I don't have a network of black developer friends with whom I can discuss whether this is an issue with. I know there's small pockets of racists in the development community, but I know the majority of the community wants to be inclusive.

The current global protests are highlighting and reigniting the negative connotations of various words, and that is going to make people feel uncomfortable. If renaming something will help remove the discomfort of some of those people, then we are being more inclusive.

Regarding the tweet in your post for point 6 - yes doing so id going to cause discomfort too. It's impossible to keep everyone happy all of the time. But if/when all of this settles down, those who were offended or uncomfortable at renaming the branches away from master will likely no longer care. The movement, however, may have stoked a fire in those who found themselves offended or uncomfortable with the terminology master.

This is just a small change in a very long game.

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dandv profile image
Dan Dascalescu

I don't have a network of black developer friends with whom I can discuss whether this is an issue with

No worries, that would be too small and too localized of a sample anyway.

I've looked at the comments here and on Twitter. All back developers I've seen either didn't give a damn on the alleged connotations of the word "master",

Blacks don't give a damn

or...

If renaming something will help remove the discomfort of some of those people, then we are being more inclusive.

... what if on the contrary, this whole discussion is unnecessary and actually makes black developers more uncomfortable than the word itself (which AFAICT wasn't a problem before)?

Black developer made uncomfortable

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Sherif • Edited

....should have read the rest of the thread twitter.com/Speedkicks/status/1272...

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Dan Dascalescu

I have. I'm quoting that tweet as an argument that some black developers have been made uncomfortable by the change.

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Gleb Skibitsky

How changing master to main legitimize the movement agains racism when there is not racism in the usage of master term?

"Master-slave" terminology refers slavery for sure, however that isn't the case with master branch.

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Jesse Houwing

The term came from bitkeeper, they used the term master/slave, see also:

mail.gnome.org/archives/desktop-de...

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Jesse Houwing

The word "master" has many meanings and the slavery one isn't the first that comes to mind regardless of the skin color.

To you. to many others.

But to many other people when you say master, they say slave.

And yes, naming is hard. Renaming is sometimes harder. But it may be the right thing to do. And remember, nobody is forcing you to. This is happening by choice, not by a malevolent master. You can choose not to participate. That's OK too.

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Simon Willison

Why?

Because they live in America, a country that still has living citizens who's grandparents were born into slavery - and who remember hearing stories of slavery from their grandparents when they were children.

I'm from the UK but I live in the USA now. Until I moved here I had never understood how recent and raw the wounds of slavery were.

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BrutusTheCat

In the end, there will be some minor pains that everyone has to get over if they are using the service provided eventually it will blow over and that is fine. Personally I think it is a little bit of an over reaction to the current climate, we are not going to rename Masters degrees, or so many other things so it just feels weird to single out this context of the word.

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