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Merriam-Webster is changing the definition of “racism” (literally)


Racism is taking on a new meaning—literally. Merriam-Webster Dictionary is redefining the word “racism,” all thanks to a young Black woman who wanted it to better explain the oppression of people of color.

Recent college grad Kennedy Mitchum dropped an email to the dictionary company about her suggestion to update the term. “I basically told them that they need to include that there’s a systematic oppression upon a group of people,” she said to a local news channel in Missouri. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, I don’t like someone.’”

Merriam-Webster’s main definition of “racism” is “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.” For Mitchum, this definition was too surface level.

After a couple of back-and-forth emails, Peter Sokolowski, editorial manager of Merriam-Webster, accepted the suggestion and confirmed that they’ll be modifying the definition. As of the moment, there are three definitions of “racism” in their dictionary, with the second definition touching on Mitchum’s point.

Read more: Singular pronoun ‘they’ is now official, according to APA and Merriam-Webster

In the current version, the second definition defines racism as “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.” However, Sokolowski said that the dictionary “will make that even more clear in [their] next release.”

Other than the word “racism” itself, other words “related to racism or have racial connotations” will also get updated versions. As to what those words are exactly, they have yet to be revealed by the dictionary’s editors.

“We apologize for the harm and offense we have caused in failing to address this issue sooner,” said Alex Chambers, one member of the Merriam-Webster editorial team.

Last year, Merriam-Webster also made the singular pronoun “they” official—so props to this dictionary for keeping up.

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Photo by Cooper Baumgartner on Unsplash



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