Kennedy Mitchum wasn’t expecting much when she emailed Merriam-Webster last month, but she wanted to let the dictionary publisher know that she thought its definition of the word racism was inadequate.
So she was surprised when an editor responded and even more surprised that the company agreed to update the entry.
Mitchum has gotten into a lot conversations about racism and injustice where people have pointed to the dictionary to prove that they’re not racist. It’s happened a lot more lately as the world reacts to the death of George Floyd while in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers.
The 22-year-old Mitchum recently graduated from Drake University and lives in Florissant, Missouri, just a few miles away from Ferguson, where protests over the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown helped solidify the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I kept having to tell them that definition is not representative of what is actually happening in the world,” she told CNN. “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.”
Merriam-Webster’s first 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.”
Mitchum said many people she’s talked to use that to dismiss her concerns about racism and overlook broader issues of racial inequality because they don’t personally feel that way about people of color.
Mitchum said she sent her email on a Thursday night and got a reply from editor Alex Chambers the next morning.
After a few emails, Chambers agreed that the entry should be updated and said a new definition is being drafted.
“This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem,” Chambers said in the email, which was provided to CNN. “We sincerely thank you for repeatedly writing in and apologize for the harm and offense we have caused in failing to address this issue sooner.”
Peter Sokolowski, an editor at large at Merriam-Webster, told CNN that their entry also defines racism 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 said.
He said that dictionary definitions have traditionally been short, because they had to fit so many words into their print editions. That’s no longer the case since so many people use the dictionary online.
Sokolowski said they update the dictionary two or three times a year to keep it as up-to-date as possible. He said the new language will probably be ready for the next update.
“The mission for [Noah] Webster himself, you know, back in his first dictionary in 1806, was to essentially present the current active vocabulary of American English and that’s still our mission today,” Sokolowski said.
Mitchum said she hopes the vocabulary change helps people have more productive conversations about race. She said she appreciated them taking her concerns seriously and talking through the issue.
“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.