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Why Merriam-Webster Changed the Definition of Racism

A street sign of Black Lives Matter Plaza is seen near St. John's Episcopal Church, as the protests against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd continue, in Washington, U.S., June 5, 2020.

The death of an African American man while in the custody of Minneapolis police on May 25 drew many reactions across the United States, including a question about the definition of racism as it appeared in a prominent dictionary.

Merriam-Webster, whose dictionaries are ubiquitous in U.S. classrooms, offices and libraries, has announced that it will refine the definition of the word “racism” in its publications to include the concept of systemic racism.

The action follows an inquiry from a recent college graduate who took issue with the publication’s three-part description of the word as a prejudice, doctrine and political program.

As protests spread following the death of George Floyd, a black man who died while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Kennedy Mitchum, an African American woman from Florissant, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, wrote an email to Merriam-Webster editors requesting a revised entry that included the definition of systemic racism.

“Racism is not only prejudice against a certain race due to the color of a person’s skin,” the Drake University graduate wrote to the editing team. “It is both prejudice, combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color.”

Mitchum told The Des Moines Register newspaper in Iowa, "I felt like a lot of people all over the country didn’t understand the magnitude of racism and the depth of racism, and that included the dictionary.”

The eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is seen stacked on other dictionaries at the company's headquarters in Springfield, Mass., July 3, 2007.
The eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is seen stacked on other dictionaries at the company's headquarters in Springfield, Mass., July 3, 2007.

Merriam-Webster agreed to amend the current entry, noting that racism is more complex than a belief held by a single individual.

"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,” editor Alex Chambers told Mitchum.

Chambers said that definitions are revised “when we see large-scale changes happening in the language.”

Regina Brennan, a senior at The Catholic University of America in Washington and an intern for U.S. Sen. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, supports the new definition.

She said the redefinition indicates a greater understanding of racism as a taught, rather than inherent, principle.

“I always feel inclined to remind people that race, like gender and money and economic relations, is a culturally constructed concept founded in beliefs and practices, not scientific foundation,” she said in an interview with VOA.

Although some people may see racism as “evil,” Brennan said, many fail to consider how it penetrates society at large. She cited the justice system and environmental racism.

“These systemic inequities aren't random. They're created,” she said.

Natalie Dodson, a recent graduate from the University of Dallas in Texas, said she was ambivalent about the new definition.

“I think racism has been built into our system from a certain extent,” she explained, but said she also believes that the “breakdown of the family” leads to occasions of systemic racism, such as “lower income and worse housing.”

Both Brennan and Dodson are white.

Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, said the updated definition will include explicit examples of systemic racism.

Chambers added that other entries may need revisions due to their connections to racism.