Racism Accurately Defined in the Dictionary

Defining institutional support for bigotry matters psychologically.

Posted Jul 20, 2020

Here’s the power of the Black-Lives-Matter movement we are living through in the light of the murder of Mr. George Floyd. Webster’s Dictionary has changed its definition of “racism.”

Yes, in the heat of this moment and through the persistent advocacy of a young black woman name of Kennedy Mitchum, Webster‘s has changed its definition of racism. In the old, their definition made racism a person’s belief or feelings. Now that has been eliminated and changed to be about the “…explicit institutional bias against people because of their race, and, second, a broader implicit bias that can also result in an asymmetrical power structure."

Webster’s has caught up with the truth and with what I have always taught in my classrooms and lectures around the country. Webster’s caught up with what I say in writing in my essays and books, including To Live Woke (1,2,3).

Every semester my students are startled when I declare, Racism Is Never in a Person. Why do I make that declaration? Because prejudice is not bigotry is not racism. Prejudice and bigotry occur at the individual, social-psychological level. Racism is not in the individual.

Prejudice is anti-group feelings.

Bigotry is the behavioral expression of prejudice. Bigotry is an individual engaging in behavior that categorizes, stereotypes, demeans, and/or discriminates against a member or members of a group based on prejudice (pre-judgment).

Racism is a set of institutional or organizational patterns of actions and policies that supports and authorizes that individual bigotry toward one or more racial groups. That is why the murder of Mr. George Floyd was about more than one individual cop’s behavior or bigotry. That is why the focus on systematic racism came to light and is the right focus of our national outrage.

System change is exactly what must happen to stop these kinds of incidents. Although it is easy to put sole blame on the individual cop, the truth is the organization has allowed this kind of bigotry throughout the ranks of that Minneapolis police force. That is the only way to explain that particular cop’s lack of concern about being put on video. He didn't care because he assumed the system would protect him, as, in fact, the system leadership tried to do.

That is racism. Institutional/organizational support for individual racial prejudice and bigotry. Finally, because of Mr. George Floyd, our nation is talking about the problem the right way. Finally, the dictionary is getting it right (4).

With that accurate definition, we can start to understand some important social-psychological dynamics we are seeing in America. Let’s ask, what happens when institutional/organizational support for bigotry is dismantled? What does that do to the social psychology of a person who has bought into the idea of white superiority because systems had supported that belief, but the legitimacy of those systems has been called into question?

A lot of people are wondering why there seem to be suddenly, so many incidents like that in NYC’s Central Park where Amy Cooper had an emotional meltdown in an interaction with a black man. Why are there suddenly so many of these social encounters; so many that there has emerged a social label for these interactions: “Karen Incidents.” Or why Black Lives Matter has become a trigger for too many whites.

I saw this coming. I analyze dynamics like this in To Live Woke. In the chapter, “American Bigotry: Now It’s Personal,” I ask some questions that can help us see what is really going on:

“What happens to an individual’s social psychology in the face of the failure and collapse of the institutional and organizational support for their race-superior sense of group position? What happens, psychologically, when the removal of obvious forms of structural racism, sexism, or heterosexism means that what used to be taken for granted can’t be? I am asking you to think about what happens psychologically when black and Latinx people, now less hindered by the law, show high achievement in all kinds of domains (not just sports)? What happens, psychologically, when standards of female beauty broaden to more realistically include women of color (Miss USA), hijab-wearing Muslim women (cover of Vogue), First Lady Michelle Obama?

"Really, the question I am asking you to ponder is this: What happens when the race-superior sense of group position is no longer supported by institutional and organizational structures of law, policy, or custom? For members of the group who had felt social structures supported their sense of race superiority, the answer is interaction anxiety.”

Imagine living with, and being made to feel safe by a sense of racial superiority, and then suddenly having to deal with real information that made it clear that your beliefs about "them" were false; stereotypes that had nothing to do with real people. Panicked distress; violent emotions; erratic, irrational behavior; all that because of having to interact with a very real member of that group, one of "them" standing up to you demanding respect.

Accurate definitions matter, but especially when it comes to the social psychology of intergroup issues in America. As the dictionary now tells us, racism is “…explicit institutional bias against people because of their race, and, second, a broader implicit bias that can also result in an asymmetrical power structure." 

As America continues to do the work to right itself and dismantle such systems, we can now fully understand why there is such an intensely negative reaction to members of racial and ethnic groups demanding interpersonal respect. We can now understand why there is so much intensely renewed racial anxiety and bigotry moving across our nation.


1. Nacoste, R. W. (2015) Where’s the racism at the University of Oklahoma? Psychology-Today Blog: A quiet revolution, May 12 (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/quiet-revolution/201503/wheres-the-racism-the-university-oklahoma)

2. Nacoste, R. W. (2015). Taking on diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books)

3. Nacoste, R. W. (2020). To Live Woke: Thoughts to carry in our struggle to save the soul of America. (Loyola University Baltimore: Apprentice House Press)

4. Merriam-Webster to redefine "racism" after Missouri woman's plea. CBSNews.com (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/merriam-webster-redefines-racism/?fbclid=IwAR3m3A_1vhPlLwAC6YSjw0ywWoWFKZfs4iWZSeUCAMUyeJpVqX3_jur_Nk4)