Webster’s agrees to change definition of racism after email from Missouri woman

Kennedy Mitchum emailed Merriam-Webster last month to say she thought the definition of the word racism should be changed to clarify its systemic prevalence in America.

To her surprise, the publisher of the world's most trusted reference book on the English language wrote back the next day to say it agreed and would update the entry, CNN reported.

Mitchum, a 22-year-old recent college graduate from Missouri, said she was prompted to reach out to the company after conversations with people who seemed to twist the dictionary’s definition to defend potentially racist attitudes.

Credit: Christian Gooden

Credit: Christian Gooden

She says her everyday conversations with people are turning more intense in the days since the death of George Floyd, who died on Memorial Day after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Protests against police brutality and racism have erupted around the world and have now lasted for two weeks.

Webster’s 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.”

But for Mitchum, the definition didn’t go far enough because it didn’t clearly distinguish personal racist beliefs from systemic racist inequalities.

"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."

Mitchum told CNN she sent the email on a Thursday night and got a reply from editor Alex Chambers the next morning. The two exchanged a few more messages before Chambers decided a new definition should be 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, the chief editor at the company, pointed out that Merriam-Webster’s entry for racism includes variant definitions that connect it to the principles of systemic racism.

“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.