© 2022 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
WKAR News

Cybersecurity Expert Suggests People Replace Biased Words In Their Vocabulary

dictionary entry for blacklist
Scot Pohl/WKAR
/
Charlot suggests replacing blacklist with blocklist to be more specific and inclusive.

Words and phrases like blacklist, black box, and black hat might seem innocuous to some, but these terms carry an implicit meaning that black is inherently bad, opaque or malicious.

Now, there’s a push to reexamine biased words in our language and substitute them for words with more neutral or inclusive meanings.

Firmin Charlot is a part of that effort in the cybersecurity field. He’s an Identity Management Officer with Michigan State University. WKAR’s Sophia Saliby spoke to him about his article, "Eliminating Bias Language in Cybersecurity and Beyond."

Interview Highlights

On How He Feels When He Hears Biased Words

Once I hear it, I have to decide, is this story important enough to me to continue to hear it? Or should I just turn it off? And often I'll just turn it off. And you know, a number of times also, it's even with WKAR, and I'm listening to various shows, then I decide whether or not if I want to continue to hear it. But it's tough; it's a very difficult thing to worry about [because] it sort of pulls me out of the story, if you will.

On One Example Of A Word That Should Be Replaced For A More Neutral Term

Instead of using blacklist, which is by the way, it's a term that is widely accepted in the cybersecurity field. It is embedded in the code for firewalls and various software pieces and stuff like that. And what they meant to say is to actually block traffic. And so, my suggestion was, well, why don't we use blocklist? Because this is more specific [on] what we're trying to do.

On How People Can Begin To Change Their Vocabulary To Remove Biased Words

We often think about discussing those things in a "safe" setting. I will push back on that. I will say if you are at a conference or something [and]someone says something like that. That's actually the time to say, "Hey, you know, why don't we think about using it in a different way or using something different?" Now, I'm not suggesting to stand in the middle of a huge crowded room to say it, although I've done that, but it might be a case where if you're able to speak with the speaker on the side or something like that, because if we then pull these things on the side and have a separate conference to talk about it, folks who really need to hear it, won't hear it.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR. I’m Sophia Saliby.

Words and phrases like blacklist, black box, and black hat might seem innocuous to some, but these terms carry an implicit meaning that black is inherently bad, opaque or malicious.

Now, there’s a push to reexamine biased words in our language and substitute them for words with more neutral or inclusive meanings.

Firmin Charlot is part of that effort in the cybersecurity field. He’s an Identity Management Officer with Michigan State University. He joins me now. Thank you for being here.

Firmin Charlot: You are welcome. Thank you for having me. I do want to say that I am not talking on behalf of Michigan State. I'm just somebody who sees something and thought that I will say something about it.

Saliby: So, you wrote this article called, "Eliminating Bias Language in Cybersecurity and Beyond." What inspired you to write it?

Lots of people just didn't see the big deal.

Charlot: I've been in the field for about 20 years, and during that time, at about halfway through, it was about 10 years ago, actually, I had sent a note to an email that sent out that made reference to those words. And I responded saying that, "Hey, you know, this is a Big Ten university. There's a lot of research going on, and we'd like to be more specific and accurate about how we're describing things." And I got a big backlash, actually, for that, you know, lots of people just didn't see the big deal.

And then later on, I participated in a leadership series at MSU. I was fortunate to be invited to be part of that. And then I sort of shared that story there, and then from there, a member who was at that meeting, he actually took steps on his own to start making changes behind the scenes without telling me. So, I heard about it at that table, so that was really moving to me.

And then I went and decided to go for a master's degree on cybersecurity, and my instructor, at the time, we were trying to figure out what would my paper be. And so, I wanted to do it on the topic of the various lists and stuff like that. But she said, "Well, you couldn't really solve that." And so, I ended up doing something different.

But more recently, because of the, you know, attention that was given to racial biases and stuff like that, she actually reached out to me and said, "Hey, you know, I remember you mentioned that you wanted to do a little bit more [of a] deep dive on the references to certain words, and so on." And she encouraged me to write something about it, and I did. And the result of it is the paper, and she is listed also as a co-author.

Saliby: Can you tell me more about how you feel when you hear these biased words being used in professional settings?

I have to decide, is this story important enough to me to continue to hear it? Or should I just turn it off?

Charlot: Oh, it's very offensive actually. Often, I can't hear anything else. And I have to say that, that it's everywhere. You know, once I hear it, I have to decide, is this story important enough to me to continue to hear it? Or should I just turn it off? And often I'll just turn it off.

And you know, a number of times also, it's even with WKAR, and I'm listening to various shows, then I decide whether or not if I want to continue to hear it. But it's tough; it's a very difficult thing to worry about [because] it sort of pulls me out of the story, if you will.

Saliby: Can you give me some examples of replacements for some of the bias words that you list in your article?

Why don't we use blocklist? Because this is more specific [on] what we're trying to do.

Charlot: In my article, I mentioned that, you know, instead of using blacklist, which is by the way, it's a term that is widely accepted in the cybersecurity field. It is embedded in the code for firewalls and various software pieces and stuff like that. And what they meant to say is to actually block traffic.

And so, my suggestion was, well, why don't we use blocklist? Because this is more specific [on] what we're trying to do.

And similarly, for whitelist, you know, what they want to do is to allow the traffic through, and my suggestion is, well, why don't we use that? Just use allowlist?

Saliby: Your expertise is in cybersecurity, but this is a universal problem. Do you have any tips on how people can start to phase out and replace biased terms in their vocabulary?

Charlot: I think one of the things that I will recommend is to say something at the time. So, like, for example, you know, we often think about discussing those things in a "safe" setting. I will push back on that.

I would say if you are at a conference or something [and] someone says something like that. That's actually the time to say, "Hey, you know, why don't we think about using it in a different way or using something different?"

If we then pull these things on the side and have a separate conference to talk about it, folks who really need to hear it, won't hear it.

Now, I'm not suggesting to stand in the middle of a huge crowded room to say it, although I've done that, but it might be a case where if you're able to speak with the speaker on the side or something like that, because if we then pull these things on the side and have a separate conference to talk about it, folks who really need to hear it, won't hear it. And so that's my suggestion on how to begin to raise awareness.

And I can't tell you like, you know, a lot of folks that I've talked to about it, they just had no idea. It was a blind spot, you know, like they couldn't, you know, they just didn't have that reference. And so, I see it as one of the things that I can do from within my circle to help raise awareness about this.

Saliby: Firmin Charlot is an Identity Management Officer at MSU. Thank you for joining me.

Charlot: You are welcome, and thank you for having me.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

READ CHARLOT'S ARTICLE BELOW: 

News from WKAR will never be behind a paywall. Ever. We need your help to keep our coverage free for everyone. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. You can support our journalism for as little as $5. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.