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My company is developing a management tool for managing SIM cards. One of the features of the tool is to block the SIM card if it's put into a disallowed device by device IMEI validation.

The feature for this was mocked up using the terms blacklist and whitelist. However, after a while someone raised the point that these terms could feel a bit controversial.

The advantage of using these terms is that they are clean and easily understandable, but then again if they could invoke any racial issues we don't want anything to do with them.

So far we've come up with these possible alternatives:

  • Blocked List
  • Unblocked List
  • Allowed List

And honestly, we're not very excited for any of these words.

Are blacklist and whitelist controversial? Are there better words we could use?

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    If this is to be used by technicians, you should stick with vernacular they're already used to (blacklist/whitelist). It won't be controversial to them.
    – webbiedave
    Dec 8, 2011 at 18:57
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    I think it would be positively bizarre if blacklist were to be blacklisted on the grounds of being racist. Dec 8, 2011 at 22:22
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    "Goodlist" and "ungoodlist" comes to mind; you can use "plusgoodlist" or doubleplusgoodlist" if you need more emphasis ;) Dec 9, 2011 at 12:07
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    Here I am 8 years later to say that I just received a company email encouraging us to stop using the terms blacklist and whitelist! You sir are a prophet Jun 19, 2020 at 14:52
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    I'll pick up where Piskvorleftthebuilding left off, and tie into kojiro's concept of ACLs. Plus-list and Minus-List. The logic within the terms is simple enough that it doesn't require a lot of explanation, which are adaptable to a variety of situations and cultures. I would say it's universal. It's immediately adaptable and translatable. The plus and minus inherit context from the parent subject. Add to this list, take away from this list. It would also help when the terms are mainstreamed and can be represented with symbols in devices.
    – Bewc
    Jun 23, 2020 at 14:29

11 Answers 11

56

Blacklist and whitelist are fine, I don't think they are in any way racist, unless you're actually using them for discrimination.

Wikipedia's IMEI entry repeatedly uses blacklist for blocking stolen phones.

Many mobile operators, such as Vodaphone, O2, T-Mobile and Orange, all use blacklist for exactly the same thing as your use.

Whitelist is also widely used by many other applications for adding known, safe things.

If you really, really must avoid these industry standard words, blocklist has the same meaning and is nearly a homonym. For the antonym, I've seen "safe senders list" for email, so I suggest safelist to succintly convey the required meaning.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Feb 11 at 19:26
128

'Whitelist' and 'blacklist', though they are very common usage, can sound somewhat strange nowadays because of, whatever the provenance, their connections with racially tinged words.

An alternative, which is based on current technology but not yet widespread is:

  • allow list
  • deny list

'Allow' and 'deny' are the labels used for some kinds security specification.

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    I believe my mind is made up, I don't think the potential harm for using blacklist and whitelist is big enough for finding alternatives. however, I don't have final say in the matter, so if we go with alternative terms these two you listed looked very good. Much better using 'allow' rather than 'allowed' Dec 9, 2011 at 8:25
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    @AndroidHustle: there's a lot of controversy over changing language to follow cultural practices (in this case 'politically correct' or PC issues, some for some against). I'm just offering an alternative. Some PC things sound silly (eg 'herstory') and some sound very reasonable (deprecation of the n-word). But whatever it is, it is culture that is driving things. If some people start to point out that 'blacklist' sounds racist more and more (either through unintended associations, or through realization that it -is- a terribly racist thing), then it might turn out to be deprecated also.
    – Mitch
    Dec 9, 2011 at 21:47
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    I teach college CS. I dread saying "blacklist" and "whitelist" during lecture as it always causes at least some uncomfortability. I also despise political-correctness; however think it prudent to bury this archaic usage of black/white. Block/Allow list it shall be.
    – rdtsc
    Nov 2, 2015 at 2:08
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    Block list/Allow list has the added advantage of explaining the consequences of the lists, too. Good suggestion! Sep 7, 2018 at 12:07
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    allow/reject is pretty good since they have the same character count
    – Meredith
    Dec 2, 2018 at 5:09
35

I'm almost a decade late to the party, but I tend to use different terms depending on the context.

When appropriate, I use:

  • Exclude List
  • Allow List

In other contexts, I use:

  • Block List
  • Allow List

Sometimes, I find it appropriate to use:

  • Reject List
  • Permit List

Or, in specific contexts, I use:

  • Minus List
  • Plus List

And in some other contexts, I use:

  • Exclusions
  • Inclusions

It's usually obvious which is the best fit for the context.

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    I used this answer as the basis of the list of alternatives I provided in my work chat. Oct 8, 2020 at 18:50
  • @RoboticRenaissance I am happy to learn that my list helped you. Oct 9, 2020 at 13:44
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    +1 for pointing out that the usage can depend on context. imho, this is the best answer and should be accepted. Nov 2, 2020 at 18:32
  • Having terms that are general terms that encompass all these meanings, rather than each instance using a different term and having to determine exactly what they mean, has advantages. Dec 27, 2020 at 22:06
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    @ColdFrog Those are great additions. I also like how both terms are visually quite different. Would you like me to add them to this list? I am happy to do so. Sep 22, 2021 at 7:22
17

Blocklist is a well known synonym for blacklist. For example, the Wikipedia article on blacklists can be looked up under blocklist. A major spam tracker, Spamhaus, uses the term.

As for whitelist, it's pretty much universal. That's the term Spamhaus uses, and there are no Wikipedia redirects from other terms (other than alternate spellings).

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    Then again I don't think we should use something other than blacklist in combination with whitelist. Then the underlying reasoning shines through a bit too much. I wouldn't be surprised if a common user query would be then why don't they use blacklist. the alternative words have to be good enough for the user never thinking in terms of black/white -list. Dec 9, 2011 at 8:42
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  • @Mitch If that's so, was the use of safelist influenced by this question and Pureferret's answer?
    – MetaEd
    Sep 7, 2018 at 14:51
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    @MetaEd 1) with the current 'crowdsourcing' tech where provenance is difficult to establish, it's possible. 2) Pureferret's comment that 'blak' and 'white' are inoffensive seems to suggest intent the opposite of the direction of the tweet. But at least, 'block' and 'safe' say what they mean which means they are easier to adopt. I'm never sure about 'white' list.
    – Mitch
    Sep 7, 2018 at 15:07
15

I would normally assume the words blacklist and whitelist are so pervasive as to be practically inoffensive*. However, it may still be wise to avoid them, so I would suggest something like:

Safelist

As in 'the device is safe to be used with that SIM'. As recommended by MetaEd's answer, a good antonym is Blocklist.

But I say this, coming from a white background, so YMMV considerably

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    It does have a nice ring to it, thanks for the tip! Dec 9, 2011 at 8:17
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    One substantial benefit of the "safelist" suggestion is that it works as a verb. Others, such as "allow list" don't flow well off the tongue. I'm adopting this and blocklist internally today. Thanks! Jul 20, 2020 at 14:31
11

UK NCSC to stop using 'whitelist' and 'blacklist' due to racial stereotyping.

The UK cyber-security agency to use "allow list" and "deny list" going forward.

From the article:

"However, there's an issue with the terminology. It only makes sense if you equate white with 'good, permitted, safe' and black with 'bad, dangerous, forbidden'. There are some obvious problems with this," she added.

and

The issue was also a talking point inside Chromium, the open-source browser engine at the base of Chrome, Edge, Vivaldi, Opera, Brave, and many other modern-day web browsers. Microsoft engineers asked, and Google engineers agreed to stop using the whitelist and blacklist terms.

https://www.zdnet.com/article/uk-ncsc-to-stop-using-whitelist-and-blacklist-due-to-racial-stereotyping/

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    Is it that article that is bringing everybody here? There's been a spike in activity on this ELU question in the past couple weeks.
    – Mitch
    Jun 18, 2020 at 21:50
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    I think also Google searches are leading people here. I searched for "alternatives to blacklist" and first hit was this StackExchange answer saying that the term is not racist. I obviously tweeted that WTF, as would a proportion of people, and that in turn results in the answer being driven further up the Google results. It's a perfect storm of failed algorithms, by StackExchange, by Google.
    – vk5tu
    Jun 21, 2020 at 4:47
9

There are already numerous good suggestions, but because some possibilities like green-list and stop-list haven't been mentioned, I decided to list several additional possible pairs:

• pass/stop • go/stop • go/no • pro/con • yes/no • green/red • we/de • good/bad •

For example, “go/no” represents the pair of names, “go-list” and “no-list” (or “go list” and “no list” if you prefer to leave out the hyphens). Some pairs are better with hyphens, and some without.

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  • Thanks for your suggestions! I argued this with my product owner (who was the one who wanted to change it in the first place) who finally decided to keep Black/white -list. I believe he's still sceptical about it though. And the feature hasn't been introduced to the product yet so the terms may come to change, I'll definitely discuss the ones you mentioned with him. thanks! Aug 16, 2012 at 7:11
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    One comment to add on this, "go" and "no" are relatively easy to mis-hear or mis-read. Nasa use "go" and "no go" in pre-flight checks to avoid that chance, for example. It's worth avoiding terms that can be mistaken for eachother. I'd avoid we/de on the same basis. Jul 23, 2020 at 18:15
8

Why not stretch the well-known (at least in technology) acronym ACL? While the term commonly applies to controlling access for users and networking devices, there's no good reason it couldn't be used to describe other kinds of access control. Then the individual files that make up the ACL can be referred to as the include ACL and the exclude ACL.

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  • +1 it's not a bad suggestion, and it differs from what anyone else has proposed. However I fear the connection is a little too vague, and that the acronym isn't prevalent enough to be understood by all.. But thanks any ways! Dec 9, 2011 at 8:34
5

I wouldn't consider Black List or White List to be controversial because they are both widely acceptable phrases and are not derived from a racial context.

However, if you absolutely must play it safe, you could use the following pairs.

'Accepted' <-> 'Rejected'
'Go' <-> 'No Go'
'Yea' <-> 'Nay'
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    I don't think its credible to say they are not derived from a racial context because "black-white dualism" is descendant from western (i.e. European) culture. The Chinese Yin-Yang use black-white to represent complementary forces. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black-and-white_dualism and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yin_or_Yang (although the first is not well cited).
    – David W
    Nov 17, 2012 at 19:02
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    @DavidW, +1. Whether racially derived or not, if they reinforce such associations then its worth looking for terms with less baggage. IIUC, the derivation is analogous to "white-box" vs "black-box" in circuit analysis, which goes back to the relationship between words meaning dark/obscure/unknown and light/transparent/known in European languages. In circuit analysis a "black-box" is something you can't see inside, so "black-box analysis" is limited to looking at inputs and outputs while "white-box analysis" can include the internals of the circuit element. Aug 6, 2018 at 15:13
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    @David W I don't think its [sic] credible to say they are not derived from a racial context. This is wrong, divisive and abhorrent: more than that, it adds to the sum of ignorance in the world. The first reference for “black” in a negative sense is in c. 1000CE: OE Byrhtferð Enchiridion Hig [sc. the faithless] ne þicgeað þæs lambes flæsc þe soð Crist ys, ac þæs dracan þe wæs geseald þam blacan folce to mete, þæt ys þam synfullum. This was a time when almost nobody in England has heard of a black person. Black is negative as it indicates "a lack of [God's] light."
    – Greybeard
    Mar 28, 2020 at 10:36
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    Greybeard states that the first reference to “black” as negative (and faithless, i.e. non-Christian) was in 1000 AD/CE. That assertion is demonstrably false (search Greek black Indian) They also say my comment was abhorrent. In retrospect, I wished I used a softer word then “credible” but I look forward to the day when we all recognize racial bias as abhorrent rather than well intentioned attempts to diminish it.
    – David W
    Mar 29, 2020 at 15:58
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Perhaps open vs closed list.

A definition can be closed or open.

  • A number is a thing that can participate in arithmetic.
  • A number is an integer, complex, or real.

The first is open because we might discover new instances like octonions or surreals. The second is closed because, though infinite, it won't expand as our knowledge expands.

This can also apply to lists used for security decisions.

Maybe we need to define "cat" so we can limit access via a cat door. We could come up with open and closed definitions:

  • A cat is a quadruped with fur, whiskers, and retractable claws.
  • A cat is a member or descendent of a prehistoric population of proto-cats.

The first definition is open. We might discover a new planet with aliens that have four legs, fur, whiskers, and retractable claws which would then fit our definition.

If we build a cat-door based on the first definition, we grant access to undiscovered space cats before we know whether any have laser eyes.


The second is closed. Space cats would not meet this definition.


This distinction gets at why we care about "blacklist" vs "whitelist."

Closed lists are easier to reason about, so if we build a cat-door based on the second definition, we are not granting access to space invaders, and we can investigate how much work an evil genius would need to augment Earth cats with laser eyes.

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I'm developing software in the world of Linux where whitelist and blacklist are often used for drivers, devices, etc. The software being developed today is a music player that needs to get song lyrics and initially all facebook, youtube and instagram results were black and everything else was white.

However there are 10 key sites that are known to contain really good lyrics which would require "white supreme" moniker which makes me extremely uncomfortable.

So I will be using:

  • green known to be the best
  • yellow may be good or may be bad
  • red known to be bad

You can read into this answer whatever you like and read into the other answers whatever you like. I will continue the Master / Slave naming conventions in software development because we can all be slaves to our jobs regardless of color or creed.

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