Reading & Literacy

Merriam-Webster is Rewriting Its Definition of Racism. Should Teachers Change Theirs, Too?

By Sarah Schwartz — June 12, 2020 4 min read
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Words carry a lot of power, says 2nd grade teacher Noelle Mapes.

Every year, Mapes talks with her students at P.S. 142 in New York City about identity, race, and racism. They create shared definitions for the concepts students learn, revising them when their understandings change.

This year, for example, students first described racism as being “unkind to black and brown people,” Mapes said. But the class edited this definition as her students learned more about structural and institutional racism. “We’re always crossing stuff out and going back,” said Mapes.

This process—of changing definitions to reflect deeper understanding—plays out every day in classrooms. This week, it’s also happening in one of the nation’s oldest dictionaries.

Merriam-Webster announced that it plans to update its definition of the word racism, after Kennedy Mitchum, a woman from Florissant, Mo., contacted the company to say that the current definition didn’t do enough to explain that racism is systemic, embedded in the country’s institutions, laws, and power structures.

The current primary definition in Merriam-Webster focuses more on an individual’s bias, explaining racism as “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.”

During the weeks of ongoing protests after the police killing of George Floyd, Mitchum had many conversations with people who used the dictionary definition to argue that they weren’t racist, she told CNN.

“The way that racism occurs in real life is not just prejudice,” Mitchum, who is black, said to CNN. “It’s the systemic racism that is happening for a lot of black Americans.”

The upcoming change holds significance for classroom teachers, said Keisha Rembert, an assistant professor of education at National Louis University in Chicago, and a member of the National Council of Teachers of English’s Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English.

“Especially for students who don’t have a lived experience with racism, [a revised] expression of the definition provides a more clear context and a more global application,” Rembert said. “This idea of power and the systemic nature of racism is important when students are understanding a concept unfamiliar to them.”

Still, Rembert cautioned, a definition is “a starting place but not a finishing place.” Humanities teachers, she said, should always seek to create a “three-dimensional” understanding of how race functions in U.S. society.

Moving Beyond a Dictionary Definition

“Being an African American teacher, I like to bring lived experience into the classroom, whether that was my own experience, or a text we were reading,” Rembert said.

When she was in the classroom, teaching 8th grade English and history, her students studied the poem “Take a Knee,” by Kwame Alexander. They discussed what the poem conveyed about racism in this country. “It wasn’t necessarily a dictionary definition. It was a decision based on what we saw in that text,” she said.

In this moment, it’s important to scrutinize how curricula have erased voices that challenge or complicate the “dominant narrative of the powerful elite,” Rembert said. “How do we center all people, instead of the powerful few?”

Even though English teachers shouldn’t stop at the dictionary definition, it could be a useful teaching tool in itself, said Leah Michaels, the English department chair at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md.

“We could deconstruct, how did this definition come to be in the first place? Who has the power to create definitions?” she said. As protestors and activists push institutions to rexamine how they might contribute to racial inequities, “everything needs to be interrogated, even the words in the dictionary,” Michaels said.

Mapes, the New York City teacher, doesn’t use the dictionary much in class, instead opting to create kid-friendly definitions with her young students. But she’s still excited to share the news with them that Merriam-Webster is rewriting their racism entry. It mirrors the growth that children go through in her classroom, she said, and it’s proof that people can call for change, and see it happen.

“To see an institution like the dictionary evolving with people evolving, that’s pretty cool,” she said.

As Merriam-Webster finally centers systems and structures in its definition of racism, it’s past time for schools to do the same, said Rembert.

Over the past few years, many schools have focused on anti-bias training, which asks educators to understand their implicit prejudices and work to change their behavior. (A recent study confirmed that teachers are just as likely to have implicit and explicit racial biases as other American adults.)

But racism in schools goes deeper than individual teachers’ or administrators’ actions, Rembert said. It’s baked into policies, from dress codes written in ways that penalize black students to teacher-preparation standards that don’t mention culturally responsive pedagogy.

Schools, too, need to acknowledge that racism goes beyond individual prejudice, she said. “Bias and racism aren’t the same,” said Rembert.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.