The Merriam-Webster dictionary has announced it will redefine “racism” to include the concept of “systemic racism,” following a complaint by a recent college graduate.
Kennedy Mitchum, who graduated from Drake University in Iowa, had written to Merriam-Webster after she concluded that its definition was not sufficient to describe racism as currently experienced in the U.S.
“I kept having to tell [people] that [Merriam-Webster’s] definition is not representative of what is actually happening in the world,” Mitchum told CNN. “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.”
Merriam-Webster’s current definition describes racism as “racial prejudice or discrimination,” a belief in the racial superiority of a particular group, or “a doctrine or political program” based on racism. The dictionary’s editorial manager, Peter Sokolowski, said that the definition would be updated to include an explanation of “systemic” racism, although the term would fall under racism supported by a political program.
“I think we can express this more clearly to bring the idea of an asymmetrical power structure into the language of this definition, but it’s there,” Sokolowski said. “This is the kind of continuous revision that is part of the work of keeping the dictionary up to date, based on rigorous criteria and research we employ in order to describe the language as it is actually used.”
The update will come after massive demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, an African American man killed during his arrest by Minneapolis police officers.
In September 2019, Merriam-Webster announced that it had updated the definition of “they” to include individuals who conceive of themselves as neither male nor female.