Graduate's email prompts official change to the dictionary definition of racism

A woman’s persistence was the driving force behind a dictionary’s decision to update their definition of racism.

Kennedy Mitchum from the US state of Missouri, with a degree in law, politics and society, said people would argue with her about what the definition of racism was. She believed the definition provided by Merriam-Webster was too simple.

“I know what racism is, I've experienced it time and time and time again in a lot of different ways, so enough is enough,” the 22-year-old told KMOV.

Merriam Webster’s definition of racism 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”.

Ms Mitchum emailed the dictionary and said the definition needed to include the “systematic oppression on people”.

“It's not just 'I don't like someone,' it's a system of oppression for a certain group of people,” Ms Mitchum told KMOV.

Kennedy Mitchum's correspondence with Merriam-Webster has resulted in the dictionary revising its definition of 'racism'. Source: Facebook/Nerinx Hall

According to the Associated Press, Ms Mitchum elaborated on the importance of changing the dictionary’s definition in a Facebook post.

“This current fight we are in is evidence of that, lives are at stake because of the systems of oppression that go hand-in-hand with racism,” she wrote.

When speaking to CNN, Ms Mitchum said when she would talk to people about racism, her concerns would be dismissed and broader issues of racial inequality would be overlooked.

“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,” the recent Drake University graduate told CNN.

Ms Mitchum engaged in a week-long conversation with the editor of Merriam Webster Dictionary about updating the definition.

Kennedy Mitchum emailed Merriam-Webster after people would argue with her what racism meant. Source: HLN/KMOV

In a final reply, the editor acknowledged changes needed to be made and after reading Ms Mitchum’s email, decided the changes needed to be made sooner rather than later.

“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 addressed to Ms Mitchum says.

“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 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.”

The entry for racism is to be updated and is being drafted, according to the email, and while company policy prohibits giving a date on when the definition will be amended, the update can be expected in the coming months.

Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press that the dictionary’s second definition is “divided to express, first, explicit institutional bias against people because of their race, and, second, a broader implicit bias that can also result in an asymmetrical power structure.

“This second definition covers the sense that Ms Mitchum was seeking, and we will make its wording even more clear in our next release,” he said.

“This is the kind of continuous revision that is part of the work of keeping the dictionary up to date, based on rigorous criteria and research we employ in order to describe the language as it is actually used.”

Merriam-Webster's definition of racism will be revised and updated in the coming months. Source: Merriam-Webster

The editor also acknowledged the revision would not have been made without Ms Mitchum persisting and contacting Merriam-Webster.

“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 says.

Online, people were praising Ms Mitchum for speaking up and being the catalyst for the change.

“Thank you Kennedy Mitchum,” one person tweeted.

“Keep leading. The world needs your type of leadership.”

Ms Mitchum was also content with the promise of updating the definition.

"I was super happy because 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 told CNN.

with Associated Press

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