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Merriam-Webster Is Updating Their Dictionary Definition of The Word ‘Racism’

A 22-year old college grad wrote them a letter explaining why the current definition wasn’t good enough

Since the senseless killing of 46-year old George Floyd by the hands of white police officers late last May, the United States has been in fiery revolt. Upheaval and unrest followed, from the streets of Minnesota, to New York, to Los Angeles, and everywhere else in between. 

As cities in America burned, countries across the world protested in solidarity as well. Scenes from Milan, London, Dublin, and Toronto show streets full of people saying that enough is enough, that they’ve had it—even wrecking statues of racist colonial figures. 

This moment in history has led white people and non-Black people of color all over the world to examine themselves and check their privilege, and think about the ways in which they might have thought of or treated a person differently because of their race—especially Black people—whether consciously or not.

It can be something as simple as thinking that casting a Black girl as Ariel in The Little Mermaid is preposterous, or singing along to the N-word while listening to rap music. It’s possible that even though we don’t live in America, we still contribute to the systemic oppression that Black people have been facing since time immemorial. 

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Early this week, Alex Chambers, editor of the Merriam-Webster dictionary replied to the email of a Drake University alum that “a revision to the entry for racism is now being drafted to be added to the dictionary soon,” and that they are also planning to “revise the entries of other words that are related to racism or have racial connotations.”

This comes after Kennedy Mitchum, a 22-year old college graduate wrote to the dictionary last month, because she wanted to let its publisher known that she believed its definition of the word ‘racism’ wasn’t good enough.

Currently, the word ‘racism’ is defined on Merriam-Webster as the “belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” This definition is insufficient, as it leaves out the importance of power imbalance in the dynamic.

“I know what racism is, I’ve experienced it time and time and time again in a lot of different ways, so enough is enough. I emailed them about how I felt, saying, ‘This needs to change,’” Mitchum told news outlet KMOV 4 on June 9.  

“I basically told them they need to include that there is systematic oppression on people,” she added. “It’s not just, ‘I don’t like someone.’ It’s a system of oppression for a certain group of people.”

Peter Sokolowski, editorial manager of Merriam-Webster confirmed this to the AFP. “This is the kind of continuous revision that is part of the work of keeping the dictionary up to date, based on rigorous criteria and research we employ in order to describe the language as it is actually used,” he said.

Merriam-Webster has a history of using words and definitions to pass commentary on what is happening around the world—politically, socially, and economically. After all, words—their meanings and how they’re used—make up part and parcel of our society.

The dictionary’s most recent word of the year, “they,” was chosen after the word rose to the top of their data, brought about by the increasingly popular way it’s being used by nonbinary individuals. “Lookups for they increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous year,” they said. In September 2019, the “nonbinary pronoun sense” of the word ‘they’ was added. 

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