What Merriam-Webster Can't Tell Us

We all have that iconic college moments checklist in our heads even before we step through the doors of the classroom first quarter. For me, that included hearing the song “Wonderwall” by Oasis strummed on some guy’s guitar (check), eating poorly-microwaved ramen noodles in place of a nutritious meal (check), and a long, pseudo-intellectual conversation about politics, most likely on the floor of somebody’s dorm (big check). But this last one, though not absent of the cheesy, right-out-of-a-movie one-liners, did reveal something notable about myself and my classmates.


Growing up in the little liberal bubble of Olympia, Washington, I was used to political conversations sounding more like echoes in a tunnel than a lively debate. Coming to college in the fall, I was met with new perspectives from all different backgrounds that varied from big city to rural farm town. Even in a city like Seattle–which is notoriously politically homogeneous--college did provide a wider range of opinion that I hadn’t considered. The most notable in my experience came from one of these late night not-quite-debates with a group of friends.


Though I knew my political perspective was far from a perfect mirror of my peers, I was surprised when one friend challenged me on something I had always held as undeniably true: you cannot be racist toward white people. From my perspective, racism has always been defined as prejudice plus power--meaning that the racial biases of the people in power (white people in this case) are backed by institutional and historical systems. In a town of well-intentioned but fairly sheltered white liberals, this was something we all agreed on in Olympia. Of course, I’d heard people of color offhandedly say, “I hate white people,” but in a country with Charlottesville still present in the rearview mirror, it simply doesn’t carry the same venom that the reverse does.


Not only did many of my friends disagree with me (pretty profusely at that), most of them had never even heard the argument that racism couldn’t be directed toward a white person. I accounted most of the difference of opinion to the varying backgrounds we grew up in--again, stereotypical college moment, kids from around the country reaching across the aisle to talk politics. This aside, a large amount of disagreement came from our very different definitions of racism.


My friends were eager to point out that the dictionary definition of racism (at least the top result on google) was defined here 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”. I agree that, yes, by this definition, you could be racist to a white person. Any person according to the all-knowing dictionary website could be racist to anyone else.


This argument, I feel though, represents another true (but possibly less glamorous) part of the college experience: the worship of academia over all else. This idea appears all over campus–-not just Seattle but all across the US–-that the scholar’s word is final and factual, with little regard for much else. Though we know, for example, textbooks are often told from an antiquated, Eurocentric perspective, we still regard them as the holder of knowledge in the classroom.


Furthermore, when discussing the idea of racism, we cannot ignore the cultural context this word carries when we use it. America was born from the most violent forms of racism–-genocide, and slavery–-and we cannot wash away this bloody past. Though certainly, all people are capable of holding prejudice in their hearts, the word racism is backed by generations of systematic oppression that still carries residual impacts in contemporary times.


Even Merriam-Webster prefaces their definition with the following:

“Dictionaries are often treated as the final arbiter in arguments over a word’s meaning, but they are not always well suited for settling disputes. The lexicographer’s role is to explain how words are (or have been) actually used, not how some may feel that they should be used, and they say nothing about the intrinsic nature of the thing named by a word, much less the significance it may have for individuals. When discussing concepts like racism, therefore, it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing.”


As a proud English major, I must defend to my peers that words we speak have immense power. If we reduce words to simple definitions, they will lay flat on the page; it’s up to us to breathe meaning into them. Though dictionary definitions will give you a technical understanding of a term, they provide little context for how they fit into the complex inner workings of our society.


As a college student, I will continue to check off boxes on my college to-do list. I will spend all night studying for midterms and listen to niche indie bands. But I will also continue to observe and break down the equally present systems of inequality on campus. I will not accept academia as a method to simplify such a complex subject and continue to fight for a more well-rounded understanding of words that are integral to conversations about justice. However cheesy it might be, I will commit to continuing the ongoing conversation about the complexity of language and race–-especially if that conversation is held over cold pizza in a dorm room.