Merriam-Webster Is Updating Its Definition of Racism After a Woman Asked Them to Change It

The small changes make a big difference.

Kennedy Mitchum expected little in return after emailing Merriam- Webster about its standing definition of the word racism. The 22-year-old was surprised to receive a response from the editor of the dictionary that approved her request to update the word.

Merriam- Webster currently defines racism as:

1:         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

2          a: 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

3:         racial prejudice or discrimination

After speaking to Peter Sokolowski, editor at large of Merriam-Webster, we gained a bit more insight on what changes will be implemented.

As an editor of the large dictionary, words are being updated, treated and revised every single day. Activism changes the language and once the language is adopted by a large number of people, changes are made to the dictionary. The dictionary is just a report on what terms society is using at a given moment.

The current definition of racism was drafted in 1961, which was the very first time the word entered the big book of language, according to Sokolowski. The first part of the definition that reads “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” will remain the same. The changes will be made for parts 2a and 2b that describe institutional racism and insidious racism respectively.

The new lingo is “systemic racism,” which is the more commonly used phrase today and the definition of “systemic” has already been updated to reflect how people are currently using the word. The editors will work to update the language of institutional racism and insidious racism to reflect the current understanding of our government and social structures. Sokolowski believes we will probably see the change implemented in August.

“Systemic racism was first used in sociology in 1969 by scholars and it wasn’t until decades later that it entered the public vocabulary,” said Sokolowski.

Many people have taken to the streets the past few weeks to protest the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, and to push society to begin having more productive conversations about racism today. The changes made to the definition will hopefully help people educate themselves as the first step to making real change. If you are going out to protest, read up on the important things you should bring with you and get inspired by these powerful signs.

Abstract words like racism, such as feminism and socialism are very hard to define. The dictionary works to put concrete words to abstract ideas. While this is a small revision, this is progress to a definition that is going to have to be altered constantly in order to remain as accurate as possible. While the updated definition is pending, improve your education about racism with these documentaries and books. You can also read these racism quotes that speak volumes in the fight against prejudice and racism.

Next, check out why Kareem Abdul-Jabbar believes that the Black Lives Matter protests are different this time.

For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

Popular Videos

Emma Taubenfeld
Emma Taubenfeld is an assistant editor for Reader’s Digest who focuses on digital lifestyle topics such as memes, social media captions, pick-up lines, and cute pets. When she’s not working, you can find Emma reading corny young adult novels, creating carefully curated playlists, and figuring out how to spice up boxed mac and cheese.