The Merriam-Webster dictionary pledged to change the definition of racism after a young woman suggested the current definition didn’t capture the full picture.
In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests erupting across the country and the world following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, Kennedy Mitchum, a recent graduate of Drake University, emailed the editors of the 200 year old dictionary asking to expand the definition of racism.
According to the BBC, Mitchum “suggested that the definition should include a reference to systemic oppression,” to which an editor agreed.
“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 colour,” the BBC added. “She felt the definition needed to reflect broader issues of racial inequality in society.”
Mitchum told the BBC her motivation to pursue an addition to the definition came after frustration with internet debates, “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.”
Others would send her screenshots of the definition of racism, pulled from dictionaries like Webster, and claim her views on racism were faulty. “Some troll was messaging me trying to say ‘You don’t understand what racism truly is,'” she said.
‘Trolls’ told her racism could only exist when someone believes their race is superior.
“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 colour of my skin and the systems that are in place.”
Mitchum, in her email to the editors, said, “racism is not only prejudice against a certain race due to the color of a person’s skin, as it states in your dictionary,. It is both prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color.”
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 definition had not been updated in decades, according to the editors. It was time for a chance. The definition below does venture into the realm of systemic racism by defining the term 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.”
Definition of racism
1: 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
2a: 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
3: racial prejudice or discriminationCurrent Definition of Racism in Merriam Webster
Peter Sokolowski, an editor at large at Merriam-Webster, told CNN that the current definition already touches on the issue of systemic racism, but added “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.” He believes in the next dictionary issue they can do a better job at emphasizing the systemic aspects of racism.
The change is crucial, says Mitchum, because “it’s very important for people to be on the same page.”
Categories: U.S. News