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Merriam-Webster revising definition of ‘racism’ after request from college graduate

As cultural perceptions around race relations in the U.S. continue to shift, Merriam-Webster has responded by updating its definition of the word “racism” after a recent email from a college graduate urged editors to make a change. 

Kennedy Mitchum, who graduated from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa told KMOV she was frustrated with arguments she was having with people who she felt misrepresented the word because of how the Merriam-Webster dictionary defined it. 

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Merriam-Webster defined 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,” 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.” The definition also refers to “racial prejudice or discrimination.”

According to Mitchum, the definitions didn’t do enough to highlight that racism is a systemic issue.

As protests erupted across the U.S. against police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd during an encounter with Minneapolis officers in May, Mitchum decided to write to Merriam-Webster requesting that editors look into updating the word’s definition to reflect her experience as a person of color. 

“I basically told them [Merriam-Webster] they need to include that there is systematic oppression on people. It's not just 'I don't like someone,' it's a system of oppression for a certain group of people," Mitchum told KMOV.

Mitchum said she wasn’t expecting a response, but got one from Merriam-Webster Dictionary editor Alex Chambers, who informed her that a revision to the entry is being drafted. 

"This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem. 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," wrote Chambers. 

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Chambers added that changes in how the dictionary defines words occur “when we see large-scale changes happening in the language.”

In an interview with the New York Times, Peter Sokolowski, an editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, said “This entry has not been revised in decades,” affirming that the change is “an improvement of the wording.”

“We will make the idea of systemic or institutional racism even more explicit in the wording of the definition,” Sokolowski said, adding that the revision would include specific examples such as the system of apartheid in South Africa.

Dictionary editors could not give an exact date, but said the revision should be expected in the coming months. 

This story was reported from Los Angeles.