Merriam-Webster revises its dictionary entry on 'racism' after Missouri woman calls for changes in series of emails

Merriam-Webster is revising its entry on racism after intense lobbying by a recent college graduate in Missouri inspired by the protests and debates about what it means to be racist

The New York Times June 11, 2020 09:02:11 IST
Merriam-Webster revises its dictionary entry on 'racism' after Missouri woman calls for changes in series of emails

Merriam-Webster is revising its entry on racism after intense lobbying by a recent college graduate in Missouri inspired by the protests and debates about what it means to be racist.

Currently, the dictionary’s entry contains three sections. The first defines racism as “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.”

The second calls it a “doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles” and “a political or social system founded on racism.” The third section refers to “racial prejudice or discrimination.”

Peter Sokolowski, an editor at large at Merriam-Webster, said in an interview on Wednesday that editors were working to revise the online entry for racism after the recent graduate, Kennedy Mitchum, wrote a series of emails stating her case.

“This entry has not been revised in decades,” he said, adding that it was not a new division of the word’s meanings, “but an improvement of the wording.”

As a student at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Mitchum had noticed in discussions about racism that White people sometimes defended their arguments by cutting and pasting the definition from the dictionary.

So in late May, as protests against racism and police violence grew, Mitchum, 22, wrote to the editors at Merriam-Webster to argue that the entry should be revised to better reflect how systemic racism was in society.

“Racism is not only prejudice against a certain race due to the colour of a persons skin, as it states in your dictionary,” she wrote. “It is both prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin colour.”

The next day, she got a reply.

Alex Chambers, an editor at the dictionary, said that they revise definitions or add new ones “when we see large-scale changes happening in the language.”

“The usage of racism to specifically describe the intersection of race-based prejudice with social and institutional oppression is becoming more and more common among English users,” he wrote.

After several more exchanges, in which Mitchum questioned whether their sources reflected a diverse society, Chambers confirmed that the dictionary would revise the entry after the editorial staff discussed it and agreed more nuance was needed. Mitchum’s exchange with the editor at the dictionary was reported by KMOV-TV on 8 June.

Chambers said they are also planning to revise the entries of other words that are related to racism or have racial connotations.

“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,” he said. “It also does a disservice to readers of all races.”

Sokolowski said the revision will sharpen the language in the second section to better illustrate the ways racism can be systemic, and to include some examples. The point, he said, was to make the entry’s wording less “opaque.”

“We will make the idea of systemic or institutional racism even more explicit in the wording of the definition,” he said. One way to do that, he said, would be to use more examples, such as describing the system of apartheid in South Africa. (Because of space issues, he said, the print entry will probably not have as many examples.)

The systemic elements of racism have become a central point of the protests that have spread throughout the country after the 25 May killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minnesota. Increasingly, policymakers are reexamining demands to dismantle institutional barriers and policies, and public support for the Black Lives Matter movement has sharply risen.

“People are looking up this word every single day,” Sokolowski said. “These are words that are very abstract, and therefore as ideas are very hard to put into words and that is one reason people go to the dictionary.”

Mitchum, who lives in Florissant, Missouri and graduated on 16 May, got a taste of the inadequacies of abstraction as a freshman in 2016, when race and racism were central issues of the election year.

She got into a debate with one writer on social media who denied being racist by cutting and pasting only the first section of the Merriam-Webster definition as their defense, an omission that Mitchum believed disproved their point.

“I had to explain myself — that is not all there is to racism,” she said in an interview on Wednesday. “There is a system, and then there is individual bias. There are structures that perpetuate racism and then people who give in to that system. These two things should go hand in hand.”

The dictionary argument happened again this year, when a White classmate argued with Mitchum’s take on racism in the United States. Mitchum, an NAACP activist at the university, said the classmate also copied and pasted only the first section of the Merriam-Webster entry without recognising the second part and its wider implications in society.

“They use that as a way to be ignorant” about racism in all its forms, such as microaggressions, Mitchum said. “People are programmed to think a certain way. They are not shown the whole picture in a few places.”

Sokolowski said that public requests for revisions often coincide with the national discourse. The marriage entry no longer contains references to gender, for example. “Activism doesn’t change the dictionary,” he said. “Activism changes the language.”

Christine Hauser c.2020 The New York Times Company

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