How This Missouri Activist Got Merriam-Webster To Update Its Definition of Racism

Supermajority Education Fund

July 15, 2020

Activist and recent college graduate Kennedy Mitchum says she decided to write to the editors of the Merriam-Webster dictionary about its entry for the word “racism” for a very simple reason: She realized that many of her classmates in high school and college her did not fully understand what the word meant.

“I kept talking to them about what racism is and what it means to be pro-Black and how that does not mean you’re anti-white,” Mitchum told Supermajority News. “It was these same conversations about racism all the time.”

A major part of those frustrating conversations involved the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s official definition of the word, which stated that racism was “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.”

While correct, Mitchum noted in her letter to the dictionary that this brief entry left a lot out, particularly when it came to the role that racism plays in creating oppressive systems and systemic inequality. 

“Racism is not only prejudice against a certain race due to the color of a person’s skin, as it states in your dictionary,” Mitchum wrote to the editors. “It is both prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color.”

An editor at Merriam-Webster emailed her back the next day, and the two began a discussion that ended in the dictionary’s editorial team agreeing that the entry should be updated.

Supermajority News reached out to Mitchum to talk about why she felt that now was the time for a new definition and how her experiences are influencing her activism today.

When did you realize that the current definition of racism wasn’t sufficient?

I went to a predominantly white institution Drake University in Iowa — for college, and I also went to a predominantly white school for high school and a primarily Black school for grade school. Even though my experiences were wildly different at each place, there was this huge disconnect in each category when it came to the definition of racism. 

I’m from Missouri, which is a lot more diverse than Iowa, so here it was a lot more overt. Once a girl wrote on me with a black sharpie when I was in high school and said, ‘oh yeah, it still shows up.’ But those instances wouldn’t happen every day, so I thought it was just a few bad apples and that I would just run into a few instances. That was the mindset that I had in high school.

My hometown of Florissant, MO, is just 15 minutes from Ferguson. So going through the Mike Brown protests and going through the death of Trayvon Martin before that, I began to wonder, ‘Well, is it just a few bad apples or is the whole system unjust?’

Did you begin thinking about these ideas more in college?

When I got to college, I found myself dealing with day-to-day microaggressions and racism, but it was never acknowledged by those around me. No one was held accountable, and the school’s solution was always to offer anti-bias training.

Anti-bias training is a really big thing for colleges because people take this really individualistic approach to racism where they ask students to ‘check your privilege.’ But while that privilege is one facet of what racism is, those trainings aren’t going to fix the problem until we talk about how these systems were built on the oppression of people of color.

Racism was those day-to-day interactions where they saw me but didn’t acknowledge me. Racism was when I was working in a group project, but no one took what I had to say seriously, but listened to a white counterpart who said the same thing five minutes later. That would happen on a daily basis.

But when I would talk about these moments, there was never any punishment for the people who did those things. Then when I would post something like ‘These racist incidents are happening’ on social media, people would write back and say things like  ‘as long as they aren’t calling you the n-word it isn’t racism’ and things like that. It felt like gaslighting.

Commenters would also continually use the dictionary definition to justify their points. They would literally copy and paste from the Merriam-Webster dictionary and say, ‘this is what racism is.’ I would try to say, ‘that’s one part of it, but there is also a covert system that was built to keep people of color at the bottom of the barrel’ but people would still insert this dictionary definition into the conversation in order to negate my real-life experiences as a Black woman.

What happened after you emailed the editors of the dictionary?

At first, they essentially said ‘we’re not doing that’ and then they wrote back again and said that [the researchers] look at how the majority of literature use the word when they write the definitions. 

That was when I wrote this paragraph in which I said, ‘I don’t know what kind of literature you are reading, but if you want to understand what racism is, you should probably look at work by minority writers to see how they perceive the word. Racism is not just this passive thing in our society. If you guys need reading recommendations, I can send you some.’

The editor eventually wrote back and said that after our conversation, they had a board meeting and decided it would be best to update the definition. They also apologized for any harm the lack of a definition may have caused, and they noted my persistence. 

How did it feel to get that apology?

It felt really important. A lot of the situations I experienced were from people who didn’t want to acknowledge that moments they thought of as small things really hurt me as a Black woman. I wrote back and said, ‘thanks for actually listening because a lot of people don’t want to listen.’

How did you first become interested in activism?

I originally wasn’t interested in politics or activism at all when I got to college. But Drake is a big school in Iowa, which means that in 2016 I got to see a lot of politicians come to the school and talk about what they wanted to do for the country. I started to recognize the power law and politics have in our societyand that’s something I learned from all of these presidential candidates.

That was just a big turning point in my life especially because I’ve seen how people in my own community often are distrustful of the system, and I completely understand that. But it is so important to advocate for what you can do in the system and to let your voice be heard.