In 2020, Kennedy Mitchum, then a graduate of Drake University in Iowa wrote an influential letter to Merriam-Webster, asking that they include language around systemic racism and oppression — this when defining the word ‘racism’.
In her words, “I was just speaking on my social media about racism and just about how the things I was experiencing in my own school and my own college,” she said. “There were a lot of things that were racist but it wasn’t as blatant.” She went on to note that people were copy-and-pasting the definition of racism to her, this in an attempt to prove racism could only exist if you believe your race to be superior to another.
It was these experiences and others that led Ms. Mitchum to write to Merriam-Webster. A few months later, the definition of racism was updated. If you look it up today, there is an added meaning that reads: the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.
This means that there are now two definitions of racism, this first of which still reads: a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. This goes beyond Merriam-Webster and into dictionary.com and Oxford dictionary — both of which have recently included definitions that speak to systemic racism.
This is important for a few reasons.
- First of all, and to Ms. Mitchum’s experiences, it is easy and common for people to cite definitions in support of why they see things as they do. These updates make that more difficult.
- Second to this, it is critical to acknowledge that definitions — much like standards — must be seen through the lenses of the times in which they were written, and the people who wrote them. In other words, times change, people evolve, and so should our understanding. These definitional updates are an important acknowledgment of this very fact.
- Most importantly, racism as an outcome is real, has always been real, and must be treated and responded to as real. Seeing this reality in things as universally sourced as dictionaries is an important step in being able to get real about racism.