Dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster will update its definition of the word “racism” following a complaint from a Missouri woman.
KMOV reported Kennedy Mitchum, a recent college graduate with a degree in law, politics and society, recently wrote an email to Merriam-Webster after arguing with others about issues related to racism.
When the dictionary’s definition did not back up her interpretation of the word, she wrote an email to the dictionary publisher to demand a change.
“With everything going on, I think it’s important everyone is on the same page,” she told KMOV.
“A couple weeks ago, I was like OK this is the last argument I’m going to have about this, I know what racism is. I’ve experienced it time and time and time again in a lot of different ways, so enough is enough. So, I emailed them about how I felt about it. Saying this needs to change,” she said.
In her May 28 email, Mitchum wrote that racism is “both prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color,” according to the BBC.
“I basically told them they need to include that there is systematic oppression upon a group of people,” Mitchum said in her email, according to KMOV. “It’s not just, it’s not just, ‘Oh, I don’t like someone,’ it’s a system of oppression for a certain group of people.”
Currently, Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the word “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.”
But that will soon change.
Alex Chambers, the editor of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, responded to Mitchum and confirmed the company will update its definition of the word.
“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 to Mitchum.
The company confirmed that it will revise the meaning of the word “racism.”
Chambers also apologized to Mitchum, who is black, for not addressing the “issue” of the definition of racism sooner.
“This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem,” Chambers wrote.
“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,” Chambers added.
Chambers did not give an exact date for the revision, but KMOV reported it will be in the coming months.
Merriam-Webster’s editorial manager Peter Sokolowski told the BBC the second definition of racism would also be “even more clear in our next release.”
Currently, that definition states that racism is “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.”
According to Sokolowski, the people who will update the definition will be “consulting the work of experts in black studies.”
“It could be expanded … to include the term systemic and it will certainly have one or two example sentences, at least,” he said, adding that the update could be finished by August.
On the Merriam-Webster website, the company’s page dedicated to the word “racism” includes a history of the word as well as a disclaimer warning that dictionaries should not be used to settle arguments.
“Dictionaries are often treated as the final arbiter in arguments over a word’s meaning, but they are not always well suited for settling disputes,” the website explains.
It is unclear when that exact message was published by the company, but the page as a whole was last updated on April 27.
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