What's In A Definition - A Feel Good Story

Charlottesville, Virginia

June 16, 2020

I found the following news story rather inspiring. I applaud this young woman for reaching out and expressing her point of view. By doing so, she changed other's points of view. Good on ya', Kennedy Mitchum!


Kennedy Mitchum has taken a different approach to making change as thousands continue marching to raise awareness about racial injustice and the need for police reform.

Mitchum said she noticed that the definition of the word racism didn't tell the whole picture.

"With everything going on, I think it's really important that everyone is on the same page," she told KMOV-TV.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary 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."

Mitchum decided to email the staff at Merriam-Webster to offer her suggestion.

She told them that their definition did not include that racism also means that there's a systematic oppression upon a group of people. She said. "It's not just, 'Oh, I don't like someone.'"

Mitchum said the definition of racism should say it is a system designed, especially in America, to oppress black and brown people.

“They were basically like, ‘Yeah, we’re not gonna change it because (…) we focus on literature. The dictionary definitions have to come from literature, and they focus on the majority and the way they write and see racism,’” she said. “And so I was just like, ‘It doesn’t make sense because the majority aren’t the people who are experiencing racism.’”

She later received another response saying Merriam-Webster’s board of editors agreed that not including systemic oppression in the definition is a problem and they are working to make a change.

Drake University shared the dictionary's response. The statement said, in part, "A revision to the entry for racism is now being drafted to be added to the dictionary soon, and we are also planning to revise the entries of other words that are related to racism or have racial connotations."

Merriam-Webster went on to say, "This revision would not have been made" without your persistence.

Peter Sokolowski, an editor at large at Merriam-Webster, said 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.

"I think everyone really needs to realize what their strengths are and how they can contribute to the movement," Mitchum said. "And once they do that, I think we're really going to be able to get some places."

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