Is master bedroom a racist, gender-biased phrase?

by Joe Zekas on 4/22/13

Back in the mid-90s the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued proposed guidelines for bringing enforcement actions for violations of section 804(c) of the federal Fair Housing Act. The proposed guidelines, which were met with a firestorm of ridicule, suggested that the use of terms such as master bedroom, views, family room, walking distance and walk-in closet, among others, in advertising was evidence of discriminatory intent against various groups that might result in HUD taking action.

Ever since, overly-conscientious Realtors have been extremely skittish about the content of their advertising and communications. I’ve been asked, for example, on many a video shoot, to edit a Realtor’s saying “a short walk from” and re-shoot the phrase as “a few blocks from.”

Per a recent Baltimore Business Journal article:

The “master suite” is being phased out — not from our homes, but from our lexicon.

A survey of 10 major Washington, D.C.-area homebuilders found that six no longer use the term “master” in their floor plans to describe the largest bedroom in the house. They have replaced it with “owner’s suite” or “owner’s bedroom” or, in one case, “mastre bedroom.”

Why? In large part for exactly the reason you would think: “Master” has connotation problems, in gender (it skews toward male) and race (the slave-master).

HUD’s final guidelines on the subject (PDF) reflect a more reality-based approach:

Race, color, national origin. Real estate advertisements should state no discriminatory preference or limitation on account of race, color, or national origin. Use of words describing the housing, the current or potential residents, or the neighbors or neighborhood in racial or ethnic terms (i.e., white family home, no Irish) will create liability under this section.

However, advertisements which are facially neutral will not create liability. Thus, complaints over use of phrases such as master bedroom, rare find, or desirable neighborhood should not be filed.

Sex. Advertisements for single family dwellings or separate units in a multi-family dwelling should contain no explicit preference, limitation or discrimination based on sex. Use of the term master bedroom does not constitute a violation of either the sex discrimination provisions or the race discrimination provisions. Terms such as “mother-in-law suite” and “bachelor apartment” are commonly used as physical descriptions of housing units and do not violate the Act.

Handicap. Real estate advertisements should not contain explicit exclusions, limitations, or other indications of discrimination based on handicap (i.e., no wheelchairs).

Advertisements containing descriptions of properties (great view, fourth-floor walk-up, walk-in closets), services or facilities (jogging trails), or neighborhoods (walk to bus-stop) do not violate the Act. Advertisements describing the conduct required of residents (“non-smoking”, “sober”) do not violate the Act.

Advertisements containing descriptions of accessibility features are lawful (wheelchair ramp).

Familial status. Advertisements may not state an explicit preference, limitation or discrimination based on familial status. Advertisements may not contain limitations on the number or ages of children, or state a preference for adults, couples or singles. Advertisements describing the properties (two bedroom, cozy, family room), services and facilities (no bicycles allowed) or neighborhoods (quiet streets) are not facially discriminatory and do not violate the Act.

Does the trend among home builders mark a descent into incoherent silliness or simply reflect a heightened sensitivity to actual home buyer concerns? What phrase will replace “master bedroom” in apartment ads?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

SheridanB April 24, 2013 at 4:34 PM

Owner’s bedroom only works if it’s owner occupied isn’t it? I’ve seen older plans with “parents” or the like, but only when there are multiple bedrooms. Perhaps just numbering bedrooms would skirt the issue (oh not, skirt won’t work either)!

Reply

Joe Zekas April 24, 2013 at 5:47 PM

I don’t think it works at all.

Master bedroom works for me. If for no other reason than it’s a red flag for “more problems ahead” with anyone who finds it objectionable.

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mahlerbone April 24, 2013 at 8:31 PM

I don’t have any problem with the phrase Master Bedroom. The word master can connote all sorts of things, almost all of them having nothing to do with race.

But if these blowhards really have such a problem with it, why not just call it “Main Bedroom”, along with “2nd Bedroom”, “3rd Bedroom”, etc? That seems pretty clear and simple.

Their suggestions are asinine, created from a bunch of bored administrators sitting around a desk thinking of things they can change.

The word “Owner” can also connote slavery right, since you can “own” slaves? You can’t win!

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Joe Zekas April 24, 2013 at 9:17 PM

mahlerbone,

I just looked at a number of old floor plans that simply numbered the bedrooms: Chamber no. 1, Chamber no. 2, etc.

Others simply labeled all the bedrooms – except for “Maid’s room” – just “Bedroom” or “Chamber” or “Chambre a coucher.”

The long-since demolished 936 N Lake Shore Dr had four bedrooms labeled “Master’s” and three labeled “Maid’s Rm.”

1550 N State Pkwy, like a number of very high-end buildings, had: Chambre de Madame, Chambre de Monsieur, Chambre #3 etc, Chambre de Domestique. There were four servants’ bedrooms on the plan.

I scanned scores of floor plans for pre-war buildings in Chicago Apartments and didn’t see a single use of the phrase “Master bedroom.”

Reply

SheridanB May 7, 2013 at 4:04 PM

I think it’s a post-war phrase. I think it was meant to ‘personalize’ the plan for new, upwardly mobile people after WWII. That would actually be an esoteric, if interesting area of study to determine who originated the term.

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