Merriam-Webster agreed to change its dictionary’s definition of “racism” after a 22-year-old black woman from Florissant, Missouri, sent an email to the publishing company’s editors last week requesting the change.
Kennedy Mitchum, a recent graduate of Drake University, said that arguments with people about the definition of racism made her realize that she disagreed with the way the word “racism” was defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, according to KMOV.
Mitchum mentioned the “current fight we are in,” referring to the demonstrations taking place across the US in response to the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis resident who died in police custody. Many of the demonstrations have descended into violence, with cases of rioting and looting becoming common in major American cities.
The first definition of the word in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines racism as “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.”
Mitchum argued that this was too simple and surface level. “It’s not just ‘I don’t like someone,’ it’s a system of oppression for a certain group of people,” she said. (RELATED: CBS Contributor Says White People Need To ‘Stop Denying Their Racism’)
Mitchum emailed the company’s editors and after a few back and forth emails, Merriam-Webster editor Alex Chambers agreed and said a revision to the entry for “racism” is now being drafted. Mitchum posted a screenshot of the email in a Facebook post June 4, adding that “any victory feels great right now.”
In the company’s response, Chambers said that the issue was raised with Merriam-Webster’s editorial staff and he thanked Mitchum for her repeated attempts to get the definition changed. “We sincerely thank you for repeatedly writing in and apologize for the harm and offense we have caused in failing to address the issue sooner. I will see to it that the entry for racism is given the attention it sorely needs,” he wrote in the email.
Editor at large Peter Sokolowski told CNN that the dictionary’s secondary definition of “racism” as “a doctrine or political program” implies systematic oppression. However, he added that the definition was not clear enough. “I think we can express this more clearly to bring the idea of an asymmetrical power structure into the language of this definition,” he said.