22-year-old Kennedy Mitchum took it upon herself to reach out to the publishers of the Merriam-Webster dictionary in an effort to urge the institution to update its definition of racism in order to more accurately describe its impact as a systemic force.
Amid ongoing conversations about race that are now reaching a long-awaited fever pitch in the fight for change, Mitchum has noticed that white people often use the dictionary definition to defend themselves against accusations of racism.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary has defined racism 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.”
As the definition stands, white people are able to counter-accuse Black people of racism toward white people. This is because the definition does not account for the implications of systemic racism wherein racism becomes a force of devastation that is observable.
Within the confines of systemic racism, Black people do not hold the social capital required to enact racism, and thus, cannot “be racist.”
Fed up with the vague definition so oft leaned upon by fragile white people, Mitchum, a young Black woman and Drake University graduate living in Florissant, Missouri, emailed Merriam-Webster last Thursday night.
“I kept having to tell them that definition is not representative of what is actually happening in the world,” Mitchum told CNN. “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.”
Editor Alex Chambers responded to Mitchum’s email the very next morning.
Mitchum and Chambers emailed back forth until, after a few exchanges, Chambers was convinced and said a new definition would be drafted.
According to CNN, Chambers’ ultimate response via email read, “This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem.”
“We sincerely thank you for repeatedly writing in and apologize for the harm and offense we have caused in failing to address this issue sooner.”
Alumna Kennedy Mitchum knew there was more to racism than what appeared in @MerriamWebster's dictionary.— Drake University (@DrakeUniversity) June 9, 2020
“It’s not just disliking someone because of their race,” she said.
Read the dictionary’s full response below. pic.twitter.com/0Yen4TrvuJ
Peter Sokolowski, an editor at large at Merriam-Webster, told CNN that their entry does include a second definition of the word 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 he admitted, “This entry has not been revised in decades,” and said, “I think we can express this more clearly to bring the idea of an asymmetrical power structure into the language of this definition.”
Mitchum hopes the definition’s added context will serve people as they continue to have vital and increasingly nuanced conversations about race.
She is grateful to Merriam-Webster for respecting her request and being open to discussion.
“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,” she said.