Student Leads Campaign to Change the Definition of “Nude” That Excluded People of Color

Source: DoSomething.org
Source: DoSomething.org

Up until recently, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defined the word "nude" as relating to nakedness or "having the color of a white person's skin." That is, up until a few weeks ago when Luis, a sophomore at Ithaca College, successfully campaigned the editors of the dictionary's online version to replace this racist definition with a more suitable, and accurate, one.

On National Nude Day, July 14, Luis launched a DoSomething.org campaign called "Nude Awakening." Prompted by the campaign, 820 individuals bombarded the Merriam-Webster website asking the dictionary to update their problematic definition. 

"'Nude' is a state of being — NOT a skin color," one commenter, Danielle Rifenberg, wrote. "Defining 'nude' as white perpetuates the idea that white skin is the norm or even more 'beautiful.' Please remove the racist definition and make 'nude' inclusive!

"Nude isn't just the color of a white persons skin," another tweeted to Merriam-Webster. "It's a state of being, & comes in different shades."

Source: DoSomething.org

Luis first began thinking about the complexities of the term "nude" after coming across an Audre Lorde essay that described how "nude" bandages being "skin-colored" is a microaggression toward people of color. 

"This is something small that most white people, myself included, take for granted," he told Mic. "I started doing research around Band-Aids, which led to nude fashion, which led to me discovering the Merriam-Webster definition of nude. It blew my mind that an academic source was perpetuating this same racism."

What's the harm? In the grand scheme of things, some might say, a dictionary excluding people of color from the definition of bare skin may pale in comparison to the many horrifying racist acts regularly committed against people of color. Luis disagrees. 

Source: DoSomething.org

"People often do not realize the smaller acts of racism lead to internalized hate and racism within communities of color and within white communities," he said. "Looking up the definition of 'nude' and seeing that even academic sources perpetuate the idea that white skin is more relevant ... or just simply important, is detrimental to the psyche of people of color. Language is how we all communicate, and when words are designed and defined to be exclusive, it can be hurtful and harmful."

Merriam-Webster has since replaced the original color-based definition with, "(1): having a color (as pale beige or tan) that matches the wearer's skin tones" and "(2): giving the appearance of nudity."

Ultimately, Luis said, he hopes this campaign will encourage people to question every persistent form of racism, including microaggressions and other culturally ingrained discriminations.

"People are quick to overlook small things that can actually harm a community," he said. "We can become dismissive and defensive of very real issues because we don't see their importance. This is why if you don't understand why something is offensive but an entire community says it is, you need to listen. As a society we are quick to jump to conclusions without hearing each other out. You may see a small battle that you might not think is important, but no fire has ever been started without a spark."

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Julie Zeilinger

Julie Zeilinger is a staff writer at Mic as well as the founder and editor of The FBomb (thefbomb.org), a feminist blog partnered with the Women’s Media Center. She is also the author of "A Little F’d Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word" and "College 101: A Girl’s Guide to Freshman Year."

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