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'Merriam-Webster' to Update Definition of 'Racism' Upon the Request of a Young Woman

By Mehr Sohal

There are some things in life that one tends to accept without any questions. For example, no one ever questions the "love laws" as detailed in 'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy; we simply know to love our mother in one way, our sister in the other and a friend in another. Similarly, I would never have imagined that the definition of a word– that is the essence of what it means– can be up for debate and challenged (known as semantic change).

However, Kennedy Mitchum, a young lady from Iowa, truly proved me wrong. She believes that the definition of 'racism' as shown in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is not an accurate representation of "what is actually happening in the world." The following is the current definition of the word:

  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

According to her, the definition needs to include a reference to systematic oppression, especially in light of George Floyd's death. Mitchum stated that, "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." Much to everyone's surprise, the editor at Merriam-Webster understood the woman's request for additions to be made to the definition, and has announced that an update will be made shortly. The change is likely to be an addition of– "divided to express, first, explicit institutional bias against people because of their race, and, second, a broader implicit bias that can also result in an asymmetrical power structure."

The mere meaning of a word has larger implications than one would believe. In Kennedy Mitchum's case, the lack of 'systematic oppression of certain groups of people' from the definition of 'racism' leads to people living in the false pretence that their actions are not racist; and that they, essentially, are not propagators of racism. What the young lady from Missouri has done is truly admirable, and hopefully Merriam-Webster will follow through with their promise of semantic change, that will help the black community and all other groups that are subject to oppression.

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