Signifying the larger cultural shift felt around the US, Merriam-Webster will now include systemic oppression in its latest definition of racism.
The dictionary, which has long served as a gatekeeper of the English lexicon, made plans for the update after recent Drake University graduate Kennedy Mitchum emailed editors frustrated about the current definition’s inadequacy.
Merriam-Webster’s current definition of racism reads:
a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
a: doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
b: a political or social system founded on racism
racial prejudice or discrimination.
Mitchum, a black woman who hails from Florissant, Missouri, a city just north of Ferguson, wanted the dictionary to provide a more detailed definition, one that includes an explanation of systemic oppression. She grew tired of having conversations about racial injustice, just to have people point to the dictionary as a defense for why they’re not racist.
“I kept having to tell them that definition is not representative of what is actually happening in the world. The way that racism occurs in real life is not just prejudice, it’s the systemic racism that is happening for a lot of black Americans,” she told CNN.
Mitchum was both shocked and pleased when editors at Merriam-Webster replied to her concern and pledged to make a change. In the response to Mitchum, Merriam-Webster editor Alex Chambers said: “While our focus will always be on faithfully reflecting the real-world usage of a word, not on promoting any particular viewpoint, we have concluded that omitting any mention of the systemic aspects of racism promotes a certain viewpoint in itself.”
As protests against racism and police violence continue around the world, Merriam-Webster’s statement signifies a shift in how people and institutions are coming to grapple with what racism is and the full scope of how it has always worked.
Racism and systemic oppression go hand in hand
White discourse on racism has historically relied on the part of the dictionary definition that says one must believe a particular race is superior or inferior to be racist. Under this definition, someone is racist, for example, if in one-to-one interactions they intentionally mistreat someone or deny them opportunity (a job or promotion, housing, a seat at a restaurant) based on their race. Under this definition, someone is racist if they use the n-word, a term that inherently speaks to the belief that black people are inferior.
But modern discourse has advanced the reality that larger systems and institutions at play in society — whether in education, policing, health care, or the economy — work over time to reinforce the superiority of one race over another. For example, the continued practice of redlining on the part of banks and the US real estate industry in the 20th century systematically disenfranchised black homeowners and furthered segregation and the prosperity of white Americans across the country. Or the country’s policing system, part of a greater criminal justice system that is racist, reinforces the false idea that black people are innately criminals and therefore inferior. Meanwhile, policies like stop-and-frisk criminalize and systematically oppress black people when they target them on the basis of race.
In its revision of the definition for racism, Merriam-Webster will attempt to show how racism isn’t just about discrimination or prejudice from one person to another but also about how longstanding institutions and laws and regulations buttress notions of supremacy and inferiority between the races. Moreover, the new definition may help us better see how white people benefit from racism since systemic oppression is ingrained in the fabric of American society.
“Because people often turn to the dictionary to gain a more nuanced view of the way a word is being used in a particular context, and because the use of the word racism to specifically describe racial prejudice combined with systemic oppression is now so common, ignoring this meaning of the word may leave our readers confused or misled,” Chambers wrote to Mitchum.
Merriam-Webster’s decision comes at a time when national attention has turned to the police killings of black people, from Breonna Taylor to George Floyd to Maurice Gordon. International unrest has followed these deaths, with protesters calling for changes to the systems and people that intentionally and unintentionally enforce racism.
Merriam-Webster said the revised entry for racism is being drafted and will be added to the dictionary soon. In addition, the dictionary said it will “revise the entries of other words that are related to racism or have racial connotations.”