One woman literally changed the definition of “racism” after writing to Merriam-Webster
Last month, after the tragic killing of George Floyd at the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Kennedy Mitchum, a recent graduate from Drake University, wrote a call-to-action for the Merriam-Webster dictionary. As reported by CNN and a Drake Instagram post, Mitchum was propelled to contact the dictionary’s publisher after participating in many recent conversations regarding racism, in which white peers would point to the strict dictionary definition to “prove” they weren’t racist. So, Mitchum decided to push for a change at the root of that source.
“I kept having to tell them that definition is not representative of what is actually happening in the world,” Mitchum told CNN on June 9th. “The way that racism occurs in real life is not just prejudice, it’s the systemic racism that is happening for a lot of Black Americans.”
She wrote to the dictionary’s publisher, and it approved her request to amend the definition of the term “racism” the next day.
Here’s Merriam-Webster’s current definition of racism: “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,” which leaves out racism in the overall power structure. The dictionary does also define racism as “a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles,” and “a political or social system founded on racism.” But still, even Merriam-Webster admitted that it wasn’t enough.
Peter Sokolowski, an editor at large at Merriam-Webster told CNN, “I think we can express this more clearly to bring the idea of an asymmetrical power structure into the language of this definition, but it’s there.” In Merriam-Webster’s reply to Mitchum’s request, the editors stated that they realize “omitting any mention of the systemic aspects of racism…does a disservice to readers of all races.”
“A revision to the entry for racism is now being drafted to be added to the dictionary soon,” the email reply continued, according to an Instagram post from Drake University. “This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem.”
Mitchum told CNN, “I was super happy because I really felt like that was a step in a good direction for a lot of positive change for a lot of different positive conversations that can really help change the world and helps change how people view things.”
Sokolowski says the dictionary is revised and updated two or three times per year, so the updated definition of racism will most likely be included in an upcoming revision.