Blog: It’s Time to Retire ‘Master/Slave’

Article By : Leonard Ellis

"Master / slave" isn't even a very accurate phrase to describe such systems anymore...

For many years there has been considerable energy in not just our nation, but worldwide, concerning the Civil War and reminders of such.  The Civil War is represented by Confederate statues and names of streets and schools, and of course at the root of this is slavery.  And now with recent events, there is even more energy to remove these reminders.  As such, I believe it is time for IEEE to take a leadership role and not just recommend, but demand elimination of the word “slave” and “master / slave” from products, software, and documentation in the Electronics Industry.

For decades our industry has used the term “Master / Slave” to denote a set of ICs or firmware/software where one device has control over one or many others.  The use of this terminology has always made me and many others feel uneasy.  While my “engineering brain” has an idea of what this term defines, my “human brain” relates this as a human condition, a human rights issue.  With all the energy in recent years around symbols of slavery and repression, such as the Confederate Flag, Confederate statues, street names, school names, and seeing the changes that have come about once the issue was brought into the light, I believe it is now time for our industry to make a similar change, eliminate the “master / slave” label, and I believe it is time for IEEE to take a leadership role and demand a change.

Research has shown that the use of the word “slave” evokes strong feelings of degradation and human rights issues.  It carries with it the association to the brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery.  Even though in the usage of the term for electronic circuits there is no implied offense, the term harbors racist views.  It evokes images of times past and by continuing the use of the language today, it gives credence to the idea that it is okay to continue such relationships; therefore it still has power.  To that end, I envision nothing but a positive effect in the industry if the term is eliminated.

In society today, we have migrated from the use of the word “slave” to that of “human trafficking”.  It has been shown the word “slave” is racially charged, and to many people, insensitive and offensive.  I propose IEEE take a similar path, using the word “controller” to replace “master” and “responder” instead of “slave”, and literature will now talk about “Controller/Responder” configurations.  There is another benefit to changing the designation, and that is, “Controller/Responder” more clearly defines the roles of the respective components!

And there is support for this change in society.  From this article from TechTarget: “…The County of Los Angeles, saying the term master / slave may be offensive to some of its residents, has asked equipment manufacturers not to use the term. Some manufacturers prefer the term primary / secondary.”

Wikipedia has also addressed the subject, stating there have been efforts to replace the terms, and support from many companies, although mainly for database representation.

I truly hope this proposal will be given some consideration, as it has been a topic that has been heavy on my heart for some time.  I believe this incentive is important and will have a positive impact for many years to come.

 — Leonard Ellis is a senior applications engineer at Texas Instruments.

Leave a comment