Using inclusive language in programming

The Cloud Native Computing Foundation launched the Inclusive Naming Initiative for an inclusive programming language.

Published on: 11/06/2021
Last update: 15/06/2021
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The Inclusive Naming Initiative aims to help create international standards for the replacement of non-inclusive and harmful IT language with neutral terms, and share them to both industry and public sector.

The renewed sensitivity towards diversity, triggered by the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the United States, affected the open source (OS) community too. Ranging from the Linux kernel to Red Hat, the open source community all around the world kicked off a series of projects and initiatives to tackle the issue of offensive terms within the programming language and documentation. The IT terminology, in fact, features words such as master/slave as well as whitelist/blacklist, which have been labelled as non-inclusive. The goal, here, is to remove them as quickly and smoothly as possible.

In order to harmonise and standardise this endeavour, the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) launched the Inclusive Naming Initiative (INI), a working group that aims to outline processes and tools to remove harmful language and replace it with neutral terms. To achieve this objective, INI informs the decisions of standard development organisations (SDOs) such as IEEE, by providing them with related documentation, such as frameworks, a glossary of offensive coding terms to replace, and inputs on how to standardise the effort worldwide. 

The initiative formally started in April 2021, featuring an organisational structure as well as specific goals arranged into five subgroups called ‘workstreams’. Amongst these, two of these are domain-specific. For instance, the Company workstream guides the inclusive naming work within open source projects and the Standards Organisations workstream relates to the cooperation with the SDOs. On the other hand, the workstreams can be cross-cutting. A good example is the Language workstream, which is the research and recommendation branch to detect specific inclusive language to use in code and documentation. As part of this workstream’s endeavour, a ‘Word replacement list’ has already been produced, which sheds light on the hidden meaning behind some of the non-inclusive words as well as the reasons why it is imperative to change the status quo, and lists valid replacements. Other than the word replacement list, the initiative has produced an implementation path, which outlines the technical specifications of the project, and a language evaluation framework. The latter consists of guidelines to navigate the evaluation of both language and terminology that might cause harm to the community.

The Inclusive Naming Initiative was inspired by the effort made by the Kubernetes Naming Working Group in tackling and replacing harmful language connected to “racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, or discrimination against any protected or historically underrepresented group”. The scope of the Working Group is the Kubernetes project, which is a growing open source software project gathering a global community of developers, that aims to deliver better software to private and public bodies. The renewed interest in diversity within the IT domain that the public sector is nurturing has been highlighted by the EU Commissioner Margaret Vestager at the virtual internet conference re:publica 21, when she has pointed out the absolute importance of "creating digital technologies in full for an inclusive society".