What’s in a word? The answer is a whole lot when it comes to words such as “race” and “racism.” And contemporary definitions of these terms can vary widely — both in dictionaries and in hearts and minds.
Florissant resident Kennedy Mitchum recently grappled with this in an unusual way, and with striking results. After noticing some of her day-to-day associates citing Merriam-Webster’s definition of racism as a kind of dismissive proof text in conversation with her, the Nerinx Hall High School and Drake University alumna reached out to the dictionary’s editors, asking them to update the entry to better reflect the historical context of systemic oppression.
Many emails later, the editors came around, ultimately telling Mitchum that changes to the entries on “racism” as well as related terms are now in the works.
“This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem,” one editor wrote. “I will see to it that the entry for racism is given the attention it sorely needs.”
Especially in a country like the U.S., where conversations about race are often uncomfortable, definitions matter — “much more than we think they do,” Washington University’s Dr. Joshua Swamidass told St. Louis on the Air. “Debates and our perceptions can shift dramatically based on how authoritative sources define contested terms.”
As part of his research into human origins for a recent book, Swamidass, an associate professor of laboratory and genomic medicine, has looked closely at how race has been defined in recent centuries.
“If you go back about 150 years ago in science, and 500 years ago in theology, people have been wondering about this idea of polygenesis,” a long-dominant theory of disparate human origins, Swamidass explained. “Many scientists believed that — and that there’s a hierarchy [of races], with Europeans at the top.”
Genetic science since the 1960s and ’70s has strongly disproved such ideas, and yet this has led to what Swamidass calls “a hangover of misunderstanding” surrounding terms like “race” and “racism.”
On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske first talked with Mitchum about what it took to change the dictionary as the Black Lives Matter movement takes off around the globe. Then she connected with Swamidass to delve deeper into why understanding the ways in which humans thought about race, and were influenced by racism, in the past is perhaps more timely than ever.
Mitchum noted that what fueled her back and forth with Merriam-Webster was seeing so many people wanting to view racism as something that only happens very obviously or overtly.
“Nowadays we have social consequences for people who are overtly racist, especially in the age of social media,” she explained. “But that still doesn’t cover the ways that racism works covertly, the way that systemic oppression is just in every system we see. And that should really be included in the definition to recognize the public policies, the institutional practices and the cultural representation that really reinforced that [racial] inequity all over the word.”
In the conversation with Swamidass, Fenske started by including remarks from Wash U's Alan Templeton, the Charles Rebstock professor emeritus of biology and statistical genomics, whose work Swamidass credits as a key foundation for his own.
Templeton is one of the major scholars to show that race in humans is a social, not biological, concept. He’s done work on human evolution as well as conservation biology, and he explained what it was that first convinced him of the need to think about race in different ways scientifically.
“One of the things you notice right away working both with nonhumans and humans is [that] all the criteria that have traditionally been used were very different for humans than for everything else on this planet,” he said. “And so I thought, ‘That’s not really scientifically justifiable, particularly because genetics now gives us the tools to do the exact same kinds of studies on any species.’
“So we can use the same criteria in humans that we would use in lizards, that we would use in elephants, that we would use in chimpanzees. And so that’s how I really got into this, and also some experiences in Brazil where I lived for a while and worked, where the definitions of race are very different than in the United States. And it really kind of shook me up to realize that how I classified people was very much culturally learned and not inherently biological.”
Both Templeton and Swamidass emphasized that the idea of race as applied to human beings is actually a relatively recent phenomenon — one that was used for a long time to oppress fellow people who didn’t look like those with power.
“When you look at that history and why the concept of race arose, you don’t really have races, but you have groups of people who were racialized,” Templeton said. “And they were racialized because basically other people wanted to exploit them and they used this as a justification. So we still have these racialized groups and racism. Those are real, even though race itself is not real. And so that’s what I think we’re dealing with. We have to deal with this in our country and many other countries.”
Swamidass went on to discuss the racist aspects of the now-debunked theory of polygenesis, which for centuries was popular in Western theological and scientific circles.
“Even the word ‘Caucasian’ has a theological origin, because people thought, when that term was coined, that Noah’s Ark was actually landed in the [Caucasus] mountains, and so all Europeans and white people, they thought, descended from Noah, but other people didn’t,” Swamidass said. “And so that [theory of] origin ends up supposed to be something that now explains differences we see today, just the natural order, and that gives a very strong justification for treating people differently.”
He noted that even among some abolitionists and desegregationists in the 19th and 20th centuries the theory of polygenesis influenced white people’s views of others, and said it still influences the ways in which systemic racism plagues contemporary life today.
“There’s this idea that there was really essential biological differences between different races — and differences in intelligence, even differences in levels of humanness and worth and dignity,” Swamidass said. “That was just taken for granted as true. And that understanding of race had a huge impact in how we set up society, and it just turns out not to be true.”
He added that modern science “does have a voice that could be helpful here [in the current cultural moment] … really trying to understand and get a better understanding of really what it is that the evidence shows about who we are on a biological level.”
“And we don’t have to be afraid of it either,” Swamidass said, “because it turns out that this actually really is deflationary in the best sense of the word. It means that a lot of the ways we’ve seen differences rooted in our essential nature maybe aren’t. And that means maybe some of the ways the world is can be changed.”
For further reading on some of these topics, Dr. Joshua Swamidass recommends several books: “Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins” by Steve Olson; “Rethinking Race: The Case for Deflationary Realism” by Michael Hardimon; “What Is Race? Four Philosophical Views” by Joshua Glasgow, Sally Haslanger, Chike Jeffers and Quayshawn Spencer; “How To Argue With A Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality” by Adam Rutherford;“Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past” by David Reich.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.