Unpacking the ‘Master Bedroom’: The History of the Term and How It’s Changed

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One of the biggest stories of the 2020s has been renewed attention on how the racial injustices of the past have ongoing effects in the present, in areas from fair housing to the language we use.

Things that were once considered wholesome are being viewed through more nuanced lenses and could possibly be deemed exploitative in retrospect. One example: Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben have retired from store shelves and now reside in the same place where the public consciousness sent other emblems of subtle and not-so-subtle racism.

Today’s new awareness, rekindled in 2020, extends to all the margins and all the people who occupy them.

While this high-voltage spotlight of awareness exemplifies justice in the minds of some, others feel on edge. Some fear that this hyper-vigilant examination of our thoughts, actions, and words is just coddling a national oversensitivity, and others think these conversations don’t go far enough.

Well, we’ve got the spotlight warmed up, so we thought we’d take a close look at a possibly problematic term hiding in plain sight: “master bedroom.” Should it go the way of Uncle Ben, or is the conversation around the term a massive overreaction?

Let’s look at the history behind the term “master bedroom.”

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The word “master” carries a hefty load of baggage. In addition to conjuring a mental association with slavery, it is also term that inexorably describes a male person in power. (Swap out “mistress bedroom ” or “madam bedroom” for “master bedroom,” and we’re probably not talking about real estate anymore.)

A fully loaded term in every sense of the word, “master” is a three-for-one: it’s a noun, a verb, and an adjective. With its Latin roots (“magister,” meaning “teacher”) and frequent usage, this word has a deep history in our lexicon.

It’s unlikely that the editors of the 1926 Sears catalogue had any of this in mind when they introduced the term to sell a kit house. And to Sears’ credit, without all the baggage, “master” is a pretty good adjective to describe the biggest and best bedroom in the house… but why “master” instead of “grand,” “primary,” or “owner’s”?

The terms we use to describe our world have to grow as our world changes. Although it’s hard to imagine, for much of our history, average American families have lived in one- or two-bedroom homes. The relative newness of extra money for extra rooms for sleeping gave rise to a term in keeping with the times: “master” was a three-for-one word that people were applying to all kinds of linguistic needs.

So it’s not so surprising that the masterminds at Sears came up with the master plan: As masters of their craft, they mastered the art of capturing the imagination of the American homebuyer. With no reverence to the history of slavery or the inherent male/female power disparity, “master bedroom” was on the map.

But you can’t go anywhere on a map without some baggage, and this term is packed to bursting at the seams.

A master bedroom with a balcony and furnished porch through a sliding glass door.
Source: (Bruce Clark / Pexels)

What’s happening now?

We talked to two highly experienced (and successful) agents to get a close-up view of how this conversation is (or isn’t) happening in their professional circles. Laurel Davies and Mario Greco, who represent Sacramento and Chicago, respectively.

Their take? Words matter: Lose the term.

Fortunately, words and ways of talking change all the time (not many people are using the work “thou” in everyday speech, for example). Though they both have doubts about the overall efficacy of changing a single term, they believe the history of discrimination and inequity in real estate must be addressed by the industry. But are they a minority?

It’s hard to say. A 2013 article in the Washington Business Journal showed a trend among builders who replaced the term with “owner’s suite.” But between 2013 and 2020, the conversation mostly died down to a murmur.

Currently, there is no consensus in the real estate industry at large, but there are some who champion the change.

The Houston Association of Realtors (HAR) replaced “master” with “primary” in the listing descriptions. In practical terms, this means that area MLS listings will reflect the change, but no measures have been put in place to restrict (or reprimand) the use of the term by agents.

On the flip side, the National Association of Realtors (NAR) has defended use of the term. In a statement to the press, NAR President Vince Malta states, “NAR sees no reason that real estate professionals cannot use the term, as there is also no evidence that it has any historical connection to slavery or any other kind of discrimination.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has not made moves to eradicate the term, believing it does not run afoul of any protections of the Fair Housing Act.

Greco, who has stopped using “master bedroom” of his own volition, says it was an easy choice.

“There’s no reason to not call it something else. It’s not going to confuse anybody — ‘primary bedroom,’ everybody knows what we’re talking about. I think it’s easy. It shows compassion for your fellow human, and there is no reason not to.”

Sports, tech, government, agriculture

Outside of real estate, change is more forthcoming. As mentioned, Mars retired Uncle Ben, PepsiCo replaced Aunt Jemima, and Conagra dismissed Mrs. Butterworth’s.

In 2018, Python, one of the most important computer programming languages in the world, made a system-wide substitution of the terms “master” and “slave,” common programming terms describing database hierarchy. GitHub, owned by Microsoft, dropped “master” in 2020. And city and state governments have recalculated the dignity of historical symbols and monuments — flags have been redesigned and statues have been removed. The NFL team in Washington, D.C., is now the Commanders.

The term “master bedroom” is far from the biggest racism issue plaguing real estate. Redlining, steering, and other blatantly discriminatory practices have shaped segregated neighborhoods and upheld systemic racism. Musician John Legend famously called changing the term a “fake problem” in a 2020 tweet, noting that the real problem is that agents “don’t show Black people all the properties they qualify for.” (This practice is known as steering.)

Will increased accountability to language lead to further industry accountability for the real estate history of redlining and other forms of discrimination against Black, Indigenous, and people of color? Again, only time will tell. While clarity on the past and future of this term is lacking, there is something to be said for the conversation it started.

Two BIPOC who are discussing ideas like the master bedroom in a coffee shop together.
Source: (Helena Lopes / Pexels)

The conversation

One of the points made by those who believe that asking for this change is “taking things too far” is that masters and slaves never lived in the same house, so the term is obviously not directly linked to our history of slavery.

And that is true. Slaves, generally, did not live in the homes in which they worked. But that also isn’t necessarily a great reason to maintain the status quo —  it could be a good argument for or against dropping the term “master bedroom.”

When Davies, who supports changing the term, comes across people in the “taking things too far” camp, she uses the opportunity to open up a conversation. She says, “I don’t totally disagree with them, and conversation over conversion of the terms we use will have a far more lasting impact.”

With this in mind, maybe the spotlight is the wrong type of illumination to use to explore this topic. Instead of a tight beam focused on two words, maybe we need something more like a lantern, casting soft light in all directions and better suited for extended conversations than harsh scrutiny.

Davies says: “You can change all the words in the English language, but until what is in the hearts of people changes, it won’t matter. Education, honest conversations, and a commitment to eradicate racism and the financial inequality that comes with it will.”

It is clear that for those who support dropping the term, this issue is more symbolic than pragmatic. But how can we be expected to navigate a symbolic linguistic landscape when 2020 has offered unrelenting other stuff to deal with?

The answer is: We’ve always navigated that landscape.

Language is dynamic

Even armchair scholars of linguistics are familiar with the Sapir-Whorf theory, which says that the words we use affect the way we think and behave (and not just the other way around). Sapir and Whorf were scholars working in the 1940s and ’50s, but the theory is thoroughly vetted, and explorations of the topic continue today.

In 2005, University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner published a widely-acclaimed book, Freakanomics; it explores the empirically mappable relationship between the subtle forces of suggestion and their effect on our thoughts, words, and actions (the book was spun off into a weekly podcast).

Like Sapir and Whorf, their conclusion, drawn from numerous, measurable trends, is that the words we use shape the world in which we live in subtle but enormous ways.

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We’re swimming in it!

Language is powerful, even when that power is furtive. Bold expressions of flippant disregard for human life, like the casual use of the phrase “sold down the river,” are easy to single out as problematic. But it’s possible that until you were reminded, the fact that the term “master” is technically just as masculine as the word “uncle” had never occurred to you.

Most of us are as unaware of the impact of our words as a fish is unaware of the water in which it swims.

We live in the exchange of our words shaping our environment, and the environment shaping our words. The term “master bedroom” is best understood with this exchange in mind, and it helps to carry both a good lantern and a strong spotlight to shed more light on this small piece of language.

Header Image Source: (Terry Magallanes / Pexels)