The American dictionary Merriam-Webster is to change its definition of the word racism after receiving an email from a young black woman. Her name is Kennedy Mitchum.
Kennedy, 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 who died after a white police officer held a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Kennedy Mitchum felt the definition of racism needed to reflect broader issues of racial inequality in society and she had encountered people pointing to the dictionary to prove that they were not racist because of the way they felt towards people of colour.
Currently, Merriam Webster’s definition of racism reads;
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
“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 told the BBC that she first became aware of the shortcomings of the current definition around four years ago.
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 colour 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.
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