Merriam-Webster to revise definition of racism after request from law graduate

‘I know what racism is, I’ve experienced it,’ says Kennedy Mitchum, who sent her request by email

Sabrina Barr
Wednesday 10 June 2020 09:55 BST
Merriam Webster agrees to revise definition of racism after request from recent graduate

Merriam-Webster dictionary has agreed to revise its definition of racism following a request made by a recent graduate.

The current definition of racism in the Merriam-Webster states that it is “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”.

Kennedy Mitchum, from Florissant, St Louis, Missouri, who recently graduated from Drake University with a degree in law, politics and society, found that people would use the definition of racism in the dictionary as the basis for arguments.

However, as the 22-year-old explained to St Louis television station KMOV, the definition as it stands omits mention of “systematic oppression”.

“I know what racism is, I’ve experienced it, so I emailed them,” she said.

“I basically told them that they need to include that there’s a systematic oppression upon a group of people. It’s not just, ‘Oh, I don’t like someone.”

After sending an email expressing her concerns, Ms Mitchum engaged in a back and forth conversation with Merriam-Webster, before being informed that the entry would be revised.

Dr Charlene Jones a professor of political science at Harris Stowe State University, explained to KMOV why the dictionary entry needed to be edited.

“The reason the definition of racism in the dictionary is inadequate is because it suggests that racism is just a passive kind of concept, whereas racism in actuality is a passive belief, but it also causes horrendous actions towards people who don’t look like you,” the professor stated.

Drake University, where Ms Mitchum studied, shared a screenshot of the email response she received from the dictionary.

“While our focus will always be on faithfully reflecting the real-world usage of a word, not on promoting any particular viewpoint, we have concluded that omitting any mention of the systemic aspects of racism promotes a certain viewpoint in itself,” the email reportedly said.

“It also does a disservice to readers of all races. Because people often turn to the dictionary to gain a more nuanced view of the way a word is being used in a particular context, and because the use of the word racism to specifically describe racial prejudice combined with systemic oppression is now so common, ignoring this meaning of the word may leave our readers confused or misled.”

Merriam-Webster said that a revision to the entry for racism is currently being drafted, in addition to other entries for words relating to racism or with racial connotations.

“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 apologise for the harm and offence we have caused in failing to address this issue sooner,” the email said.

Speaking about the impact individuals can have amid the Black Lives Matter protests, Ms Mitchum said that she thinks “everyone really needs to realise what their strengths are and how they can contribute to the movement”.

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