Merriam-Webster Is Updating Its Definition of Racism to Emphasize Systemic Prejudice

Joanne K. Watson/Merriam-Webster via Getty Images
Joanne K. Watson/Merriam-Webster via Getty Images / Joanne K. Watson/Merriam-Webster via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines racism as the belief that "racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race" or "a political or social system founded on racism." Now, in light the current social movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd, the dictionary is planning to revise the entry for the first time in decades, The New York Times reports.

Twenty-two-year-old Drake University graduate Kennedy Mitchum recently sent a series of emails to Merriam-Webster arguing that the entry needed to be improved. She pointed out that in past discussions she's had about systemic racism, white people have used the dictionary definition of racism to make the case that prejudice only happens on an individual level. By tweaking the definition, Mitchum explained, editors could emphasize the harm racism causes on a societal scale—which is the issue at the heart of the recent wave of protests in the U.S.

The editors agreed with Mitchum that their definition of racism was due for an update. The entry won't be rewritten completely; rather, the second section of the definition, the one that calls racism "a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles" or "a political or social system founded on racism" will be revised for clarity. Editors plan to do this by rewording it to be less oblique and adding real-world examples of institutional racism, such as South African apartheid.

Dictionary editors are very aware that moments of social change can have a lasting impact on the way we speak. A lexicographer's job involves tracking changes in language and deciding which of these changes has staying power. Some additions that reflect current events may seem politically motivated, but dictionary editors only highlight usages that already exist in the real world. When Merriam-Webster added they as a non-binary pronoun in 2019, for example, they were acknowledging a usage that had existed for centuries.

[h/t The New York Times]