The conversation usually goes something like…
Fragile white person: “White people aren’t the only ones who can be racist, ya know! Black people are racist against whites all the time!”
Progressive black person: “Nope! Black people can’t be racist because racism requires systemic power. Black people simply don’t possess the social capital to be racist.”
FWP: “WRONG! Wrong, Sir. Anybody can be racist. Just look the word up in the dictionary and you’ll see!”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary has defined 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.” Even that definition somewhat disqualifies black people from being racist since our fight tends to be for equality, not “superiority.” Still, we have often argued that the current definition is far too vague to accurately describe the impact of the only type of racism that really matters—systemic racism.
Fortunately, one black woman has taken the initiative and emailed Merriam-Webster requesting the official definition of the word be amended to reflect the reality of how racism works and, now, it looks like changes are underway.
According to CNN, 22-year-old Kennedy Mitchum—a Drake University graduate living in Florissant, Mo.—emailed the dictionary’s publishers about making the change last month and was surprised that they responded and agreed to update the entry.
“I kept having to tell them that definition is not representative of what is actually happening in the world,” Mitchum told CNN. “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.”
Mitchum said she sent her email on a Thursday night and got a reply from editor Alex Chambers the next morning.
After a few emails, Chambers agreed that the entry should be updated and said a new definition is being drafted.
“This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem,” Chambers said in the email, which was provided 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.”
Mitchum said she was “super happy because I really felt like that was a step in a good direction for a lot of positive change for a lot of different positive conversations that can really help change the world and helps change how people view things.”
Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski pointed out to CNN that they also define 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,” but he agreed that “we can express this more clearly to bring the idea of an asymmetrical power structure into the language of this definition.”
Sokolowski noted that updates are made to dictionary entries two or three times a year and, while definitions used to be kept short so they could fit in printed editions, that’s no longer the case now that so many people use online dictionaries.
“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.