The American dictionary Merriam-Webster is to change its definition of the word racism after receiving an email from a young black woman.
June 10, 2020
Photo: Kennedy Mitchum made the suggestion
Kennedy Mitchum, a recent graduate of Drake University in Iowa, suggested that the definition should include a reference to systemic oppression.
An editor then responded, later agreeing to update their definition.
The decision comes amid international anti-racism protests after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Floyd died after a white police officer held a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Ms. Mitchum had encountered people pointing to the dictionary to prove that they were not racist because of the way they felt towards people of color. She felt the definition needed to reflect broader issues of racial inequality in society.
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
- a) a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles, b) a political or social system founded on racism
- racial prejudice or discrimination
Ms Mitchum told the BBC that she first became aware of the shortcomings of the current definition around four years ago.
“I was just speaking on my social media about racism and just about how the things I was experiencing in my own school and my own college,” she said. “There were a lot of things that were racist but it wasn’t as blatant.”
Ms. Mitchum says the dictionary definition was being used by people attempting to tell her she was wrong.
“Some troll was messaging me trying to say ‘You don’t understand what racism truly is,'” she said.
People were copy-and-pasting the definition to her in an attempt to prove racism could only exist if you believe your race to be superior to another.
“They were saying: ‘You’re in school [university], so what do you mean? You have privileges as well’. I said it’s not about that, it’s about the hurdles that I had to jump over because of the color of my skin and the systems that are in place.”
On 28 May, Ms Mitchum emailed Merriam-Webster to point out that racism is “both prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin colour”.
To her surprise, she got a response the next day. After some back-and-forth, Merriam-Webster said the “issue needed to be addressed sooner rather than later” and that a revision would be made.
Merriam-Webster’s editorial manager Peter Sokolowski told the BBC that the wording of the second definition of racism will be “even more clear in our next release”.
“It could be expanded … to include the term systemic and it will certainly have one or two example sentences, at least,” he said.
The people working on the new definition will be consulting the work of experts in black studies, he said, adding that the revision could be done by August.
Ms. Mitchum said the issue of definition is vital.
“I think it’s very important for people to be on the same page,” she said.