The Dictionary Definition of Racism Has to Change

Dictionaries can lag behind societal developments, and the idea that a “word” indisputably “means” what dictionaries say is simply sloppy.

The Atlantic

About the author: John McWhorter is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He teaches linguistics at Columbia University, hosts the podcast Lexicon Valley, and is the author of the upcoming Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter Then, Now and Always.

Editors at Merriam-Webster are working on a revision of the definition of racism. So the Great Awokening is even going so far as to change the dictionary? Not quite—sociopolitics drew the usage of the word racism beyond the dictionary definition long ago, and it is high time our dictionaries got the message.

Like others, the Merriam-Webster dictionary has, up to now, given us what we might consider the 1.0 definition of racism, the one we would cite for the curious child. That is, what used to be referred to as prejudiced: “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.”

Since the 1960s, however, racism has often been used in terms such as societal racism and institutional racism, referring to structures of society that disadvantage people of subordinated races because of the collective effect of bigoted attitudes. For example, one might say that societal racism is to blame for neighborhoods with decaying infrastructure, because white flight lowered tax revenues.

These terms have naturally often been shortened to just racism, such that the word has acquired a 2.0 definition. Merriam-Webster captures this as well, noting that racism can mean “a political or social system founded on racism.”

However, Kennedy Mitchum, 22 and just out of college, wrote a message to the editors at Merriam-Webster asking them to expand the definition to account for usage that has morphed even beyond the 2.0 definition to refer to “social and institutional power.” Mitchum noted that racism “is a system of advantage based on skin color.”

Here, the focus of the definition is less on attitudes than results: The societal disparities between white people and others are themselves referred to as racism, as a kind of shorthand for the attitudinal racism creating the disparities. This 3.0 definition of the word is now quite influential, such that the best-selling author and Atlantic contributor Ibram X. Kendi calls all race-based societal disparities racism that ought to be battled. It is a usage of racism that one often acquires in college classes in the social sciences, and that is fundamental to modern discussions of race and racism. For example, many people would say that the fact that, on average, black students do not perform as highly on standardized tests as white students means that the tests are racist, in that they disadvantage black students.

Mitchum was frustrated by people telling her, in debates about racism, that her 3.0 definition was erroneous given that it wasn’t “what’s in the dictionary.” Her frustration was justified. She wasn’t creating her own definition of the word—it is shared by legions of people, especially educated ones, across our nation.

Dictionaries can lag behind societal developments, and the idea that a “word” indisputably “means” what dictionaries say is simply sloppy. Words’ meanings change inevitably and constantly, and not just in terms of slang. Anyone who doubts that might take a listen to how people use the word fantastic in old episodes of The Twilight Zone or old movies, when they meant not “Great!” but what we would now express as “fantastical.” The change was gradual. But here, in the real, non-fantastical world, people tend to think that the cold print of dictionaries implies some kind of unchanging truth. As such, it won’t do for definitions of words as crucial as racism to sit frozen somewhere around the era of Watergate and fondue. We’ve come a long way, baby.

No doubt, though—the spread of meanings that racism now covers can be confounding. I already anticipate careful conversations with my children when one of them comes home in a few years curious about usages of the word beyond those meaning “prejudiced.”

To extend a word’s definition from a personal quality to a society is, in itself, hardly unusual. The progression of racism 1.0 to racism 2.0 follows a line of metaphorical reasoning common as far back as the Greek philosophers treating societies as individuals in macrocosm. The conceptual step between a healthy person and a healthy society is a short one, as is that between a racist person and a racist society.

But the step is only short when the idea is still that discrimination, standing at the gate, is the essence of racism. The progression from racism 2.0 to racism 3.0 is less typical as language change goes. The 3.0 usage implies that calling racial disparities “racism” is natural because it is indisputable that racial disparities stem from bias-infused barriers. For example, many argue that black people lag behind white people in health indexes because of inadequate access to health care and supermarkets. The term racism is often applied to a case like this, even if white bias is not, or is no longer, the cause of the disparities. This is a tenet of much social science, but its pathway toward society-wide consensus would seem paved with thorns. It is especially challenging to that consensus that some of the barriers in question, even if founded in racism 1.0 and 2.0, were in the past rather than the present, such as redlining policies that restricted black people to cramped, decaying neighborhoods. Hardly uncommon will be those who resist a definition of racism that encompasses the actions and attitudes of people now long gone.

The linguist does not prescribe how language is supposed to go. Like Chauncey Gardner, we like to watch. However, we linguists are each of us human beings, and I have my preferences. For one, I don’t like mess.

If I had it my way—which I won’t—we would allow that racism now refers to a societal state, and revive prejudice to refer to attitudinal bias. Prejudiced was once, after all, the word of choice for racist bias. Racist only took over starting in about 1970, with a major uptick after 1980. Here is Sammy Davis Jr. taunting Archie Bunker on All in the Family in 1972. Note that his usage of prejudiced is now antique; the word would be racist today:

If you were prejudiced, you’d go around saying you were better than anyone else in the world, but I can honestly say, after spending these marvelous moments with you, you ain’t better than anybody!

Sexist replaced chauvinist around the same time racist did prejudiced, and for the same reason—potent terms need refreshment, especially when heavily used. This is why, more and more, white supremacy is easing out racism. It was only a matter of time, and dictionaries should be on notice.

I’m not aware of successful attempts to revive antique words for colloquial usage, but goodness, prejudiced would be handy these days. It carries a clear implication of a person and their judgment—a person who bears a prejudice. It would not feel quite right to start referring to a society as “prejudiced”—you keep thinking of that single person, the bigot grumbling on her porch.

Racist was, initially, potentially applicable to alternate interpretations. Is the racist someone who is of a certain race? Or a supporter of people of other races? Or someone calling attention to the existence of different races? Or is racist something that refers to a policy? That latter direction is where things went. But in my idealized English, people would be prejudiced while a society would exhibit racism.

But perfect language has never existed. History, like people, is just messy. Literally can mean its own opposite, as can fast (“run fast” versus “stuck fast”). We say “I am happy” but not “Amn’t I happy?” (Or if we do, as in some places in Great Britain, we are classified as rustic and quaint.) And what exactly does date, in the romantic sense, mean? It refers to everything from Archie Andrews to whatever Archie Bunker did to the subject of Masters and Johnson.

In any case, if dictionaries are to reflect how language is actually used, they must tabulate such things. So we must celebrate lexicography getting woke on racism.