Kennedy Mitchum, a 22-year-old black woman from Florissant, Missouri, sent an email to the editors at Merriam-Webster last month to ask that their definition of racism be updated and include a mention of systemic oppression, CNN reports. While Mitchum didn't know how likely it was that she would receive a response, the recent Drake University graduate felt compelled to just try after conversations she had with people who would reference back to the dictionary's definition to dismiss her concerns about the broader issues concerning racial injustice.
Merriam-Webster editor Alex Chambers replied the next morning, and after a few email exchanges, they agreed to update the entry. "This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem," Chambers said in the email, given 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."
"I kept having to tell them that definition is not representative of what is actually happening in the world," Mitchum said. "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."
Merriam-Webster currently 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." As it is currently defined, Merriam-Webster only recognizes that someone is racist through their actions which are rooted in the belief that a particular race is superior to another. The definition ignores the reality that whole institutions reflect this same frame of mind, such as the issue at the forefront of discussions over racism, how one race is being policed over another.
Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, said that even though their entry does make mention of systemic racism and oppression 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," he concedes that these elements could be more clearly expressed.
The dictionary is typically updated two or three times a year. The next update will reflect the revisions that have been made to the definition of racism.