Merriam-Webster announced last week that it is working on drafting a revised racism definition, thanks to a Missouri woman.
You probably think providing a racism definition would not represent much of a challenge.
But a dictionary just decided its definition was in need of revision. A recent college graduate started an email dialog with Merriam-Webster about their dictionary’s definition.
The New York Times ran the story and a portion of an email she wrote about the dictionary’s primary definition of racism. It defined it 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.”
She told them that definition was insufficient. She said she felt their definition downplayed the way racism animates a society to harm entire groups of people.
“It is both prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color,” she wrote.
What happened next might come as a surprise. The dictionary editors were open to discussing it. And after that discussion, they came to an interesting decision:
“…We have concluded that omitting any mention of the systemic aspects of racism promotes a certain viewpoint in itself,” the company responded. “It also does a disservice to readers of all races. Because people often turn to a dictionary to gain a more nuanced view of the way a word is being used in a particular context, and because the use of the word racism to specifically describe racial prejudice combined with systemic oppression is now so common, ignoring this meaning of the word may leave our readers confused or misled.”
They then announced they’re working on drafting a revised definition. It’s not clear exactly when the new definition will appear, but it is in the works.
They also plan to revise definitions of “other words that are related to racism,” according to the statement from Merriam-Webster. They promise to see that the entry gets the attention “it sorely needs.”
Who would think starting such an email exchange would change a dictionary definition?
I’m glad to hear they’re willing to make the change.
The more we understand what racism actually is, maybe the better chance we will have of fighting against it.
That would be a win for everyone.