On Thursday, June 4, 2020, a 22-year-old activist named Kennedy Mitchum reached out to the publishers of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary to express her frustration with their definition of the word "racist:"
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.
Mitchum felt this was inadequate to fully cover the scope of systemic issues and unconscious biases that affect race relations in America. Growing up in Florissant, Missouri — just a few miles away from Ferguson — she'd grown tired of trying to explain to people that racism can come in different forms than cross burning in white hoods. It's not always a conscious, intentional, or deliberate attitude of hateful violence; it's often something more insidious. As she explained to CNN, "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."
Mitchum didn't expect to hear anything back from Merriam-Webster. But to her surprise, they responded the very next day — and after a brief back-and-forth, they were sufficiently convinced of Mitchum's point, and agreed to update the entry. "This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem," wrote Editor Alex Chambers in an email. "We sincerely thank you for repeatedly writing in and apologize for the harm and offense we have caused in failing to address this issue sooner."
The official Merriam-Webster definition of "racism" now reads as follows (with emphasis added):
- 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
If you're a linguistic prescriptionist — that is to say, you revere the dictionary as some objective authority that speaks from on high like the voice of a syntactical God handing down the Ten Commandments of words — then this is probably an insult to your entire perception of reality.
If you — like Noah Webster himself, and anyone else who isn't a disciplinarian dictator — are a linguistic descriptivist, then you recognize that languages are constantly evolving, and the only thing that dictates the meaning of a word is how actual people actually use it.
While I'd argue that racism was never as simple as some conscious, calculated hatred of skin color, it's still important that we're finally starting to recognize all the ugly complications of the issue that have allowed it to fester all these years.