Merriam-Webster To Revise The Definition Of Racism After Receiving Recent Graduate's Letter

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Kennedy Mitchum suggested that the definition should include a reference to systemic oppression. (Courtesy)
Kennedy Mitchum suggested that the definition should include a reference to systemic oppression. (Courtesy)

This story was rebroadcast on Dec. 28, 2020. Click here for the segment.

The definition of racism will get an update in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

The move comes after recent college graduate Kennedy Mitchum emailed the editors of Merriam-Webster to express her frustration over its definition of racism: “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.”

This definition is inaccurate because it ignores the systemic elements of racism, Mitchum says.

“It's not just disliking someone because of the color of their skin,” she says. “There are systems in place in health care, in the justice system that are automatically formed to put people of color at the bottom and keep them at the bottom of the barrel.”

Mitchum says the current definition also fails to acknowledge microaggressions, which is when someone questions your ability due to your race. She recently shared a Facebook post arguing that microaggressions are a form of racism, and some of her friends disagreed.

“They were basically just saying, like, ‘Do you understand the definition of racism? Because that's actually not racism,’ ” Mitchum says. “That's not OK. It may not be as blatant as you want it to be. It may not be, you know, a note with the N-word, but it still hurts.”

During her time at Drake University, Mitchum says she grew “accustomed to” microaggressions because she was surrounded by so many white people who didn’t acknowledge her presence or questioned her ability. She thought this was something the dictionary definition should reflect as well.

So Mitchum reached out to Merriam-Webster to express her concerns, and she says an editor got back to her quickly. After some conversation, she says Merriam-Webster agreed to update the definition.

“They said that they focus on the majority and how they use the word in literature and different things,” she says. “But I kept questioning that because the minority, they're the ones who experience this on a day-to-day basis.”

But not everyone is happy with the change.

“A lot of people have been saying like, ‘You can't change the dictionary to fit your narrative,’ but I think that the problem is that it's not a narrative,” Mitchum says. People of color “don’t just experience the overt racism. For years now, we've been experiencing all different types.”

Those who are upset about the change “aren’t understanding the history behind this,” she says. “I thought maybe the dictionary changing would give them a little kick in the butt to try to change or understand as well.”

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on June 12, 2020.


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Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



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