Defining moment: Missouri woman persuades Merriam-Webster to update ‘racism’ entry

Defining moment: Missouri woman persuades Merriam-Webster to update ‘racism’ definition

FLORISSANT, Mo. — A Missouri woman found a different way to fight racism.

Call it a defining moment. Kennedy Mitchum, 22, of Florissant, emailed the editors at Merriam-Webster, asking them to update the dictionary’s definition of racism, KMOV reported. The recent Drake University graduate believed the dictionary’s definition was too simplistic and warranted a more precise wording.

After some back and forth emails, the editors agreed and said they will update their entry, CNN reported.

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“With everything going on, I think it’s important everyone is on the same page," Mitchum told KMOV.

The Merriam-Webster 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 said she believed the definition of racism should note it is a system designed, to oppress people.

“They were basically like, ‘Yeah, we’re not gonna change it because (…) we focus on literature. The dictionary definitions have to come from literature, and they focus on the majority and the way they (the authors) write and see racism,’” Mitchum told KCCI. “And so I was just like, ‘It doesn’t make sense because the majority aren’t the people who are experiencing racism.’”

Mitchum figured she had lost the argument but was surprised when she received an email from Alexa Chambers, editor of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Chambers wrote that “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.”

Chambers said a revision to the entry for “racism” is now being drafted.

Peter Sokolowski, an editor at large at Merriam-Webster, told CNN that the company’s for racism also defines it 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,” which would cover systematic racism and oppression.

“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,” Sokolowski told CNN.

Mitchum said she was pleased the editors agreed to update the entry.

“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,” Mitchum told CNN.

It is not clear when the change will be made, KCCI reported. Sokolowski told CNN the dictionary is updated two to three times a year, adding that the new language will probably be ready for the next update.

A Missouri woman convinced the editors at Merriam-Webster to update its definition of racism.
A Missouri woman convinced the editors at Merriam-Webster to update its definition of racism. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)