Efforts to eliminate signs of racism have swept across the country. From the toppling of confederate statues to the retiring of the Aunt Jemima image by Quaker Oats, individuals and businesses are getting rid of racist symbols. The word “master” is something that’s used in the real estate world to describe the main bedroom in a house. In one city, realtors have decided to replace that word on the MLS because it “can” invoke thoughts of slavery.
The Houston Association of Realtors stopped using the words “master bedroom” and “master bathroom” on June 15th. Instead, the association is describing those rooms as “primary bedroom” and “primary bathroom.” The change was inspired by a Facebook conversation among association members about whether those terms can be interpreted as racist and whether they should be changed. A HAR spokesperson told Inman news, “Many members responded favorably but expressed a variety of reasons for supporting a change. We also received a number of emails from members requesting we look at changing the terms.” (1)
The Original Use of “Master Bedroom”
The phrase “master bedroom” is not connected to plantation farming or slavery however. It came into being in the early 1900s, about 50 years after slavery ended. According to a blog by Trelora, the earliest recorded use of the term was 1926 in the Sears catalog. (2) It was part of an ad for a $4,398 Dutch colonial kit home. It was the most expensive kit home in the catalog so it had more exclusive features like a sunroom and a “master’s” bedroom with a “private” bathroom.
The term “master bedroom” became more widely used after World War II, during the baby boom years. As Trelora explains, it was more common for couples to marry out of romance, and when the kids started arriving, hard-working parents needed more privacy. The master bedroom became a retreat for the parents. They’ve also grown in size over the years thanks to the use of central heat and air which made them easier to heat and cool.
Today, the master bedroom isn’t just for parents. It’s a word that represents a more luxurious and larger bedroom, typically with its own bathroom. Among roommates, the one with the master will probably pay a larger share of the rent. Homes with two masters are also becoming more common. Referred to as “dual masters,” they are great for couples who want their own rooms. A second master also makes a nice guest room, or a place for kids or grandparents.
Meaning of the Word “Master”
The word master is not inherently racist. A master chef is someone you’d like to have cook your dinner. A student who just received a master’s degree may be someone you’d like to hire. And a Mastercard is something you probably have in your wallet. There are many more definitions, with a few that have racist and sexist connotations.
The point being made by Houston realtors is the result of what’s going on today, and the idea that a master bedroom is for the “master” of the house. They are also not the first to make the change. According to Trelora, many homebuilders have already started phasing it out and using the term “owner’s bedroom” or “owner’s suite.” Trelora says a 2013 survey in the Washington, D.C. area shows that 60% of homebuilders were not using the word master anymore. Houston realtors are choosing to say “primary bedroom.”
Will the Term Be Changed Nationally?
According to local reports, the change in Houston has been met with a mostly positive response. (3) Some members have worried that the word is being forbidden, but that’s not the case. Even though HAR has eliminated “master” from the MLS template, realtors can continue using it in their own property descriptions and marketing materials. And it does “not” violate fair housing rules. The National Association of Realtors reportedly checked in on that with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. NAR President Vince Malta, “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.”
New ways to describe the nicest bedroom in a house could catch on however. And HAR claims the issue is being debated nationally for a change that would affect all MLS’s.
(1) Inman Article
(2) Trelora Article