Trust me, this will be a Grammar Guy article about words, but it’s also going to be about current events. Allow me for a minute to delve into the conversation America is having on race and racism and its intersection with the world of us word nerds.
My son is six. He has a great dimpled smile that reveals the teeth he’s recently lost. Miles just finished kindergarten over a Zoom call during the COVID-19 pandemic. He is incredibly smart, handsome and brave. Also, he’s black.
My wife Carrie and I adopted Miles from Ghana five years ago. One of the things that crossed our minds about adopting a child with brown skin is the fact that we don’t know what it’s like to be black in America. We live in Indiana, which has a long history of KKK influence. It’s not uncommon to see Confederate flags hung proudly outside houses or on bumper stickers of trucks on the road. It’s terrifying as his parents to think about Miles growing up and becoming a young black man in this cultural context.
As the events have unfolded over the past several weeks, we’ve seen senseless and unjust killings of unarmed black people, some at the hands (and knees) of police officers. During this heartbreakingly tragic time, Missourian and recent Drake University graduate Kennedy Mitchum emailed the team at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, letting them know that she thought their definition of the word “racism” was incomplete.
Merriam Webster’s previous definition of “racism” was “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.” In an interview with CNN, Mitchum explained that racism, as it plays out in real life, is more than that. It includes systemic, baked-in policies that have led to and still create unfair advantages for white people. After continual urging from Mitchum, Merriam-Webster has decided to update their definition of the word “racism.” This is the right thing to do.
In case you’re unfamiliar with examples of systemic racism in the U.S., consider a few statistics. African American men are two-and-a-half times more likely than white men to be killed by police. A black person is three-and-a-half times more likely than a white person to be arrested for possession of marijuana. In school, black students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended for similar infractions. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
As I’ve previously written, dictionaries report the news; they reflect how words are being used. Sometimes those definitions evolve into slightly different meanings. Perhaps as a country we can evolve as well — to create laws, systems and personal beliefs that reflect the humanity, dignity and equality of people of color. Maybe in the future we can be defined not by our hatred, but by our compassion. It’s up to you.