She was tired of her peers lecturing her about racism, so she reached out to Merriam-Webster to update its definition
While studying at Drake University in Iowa, Kennedy Mitchum often experienced micro-aggression as a black student in a predominantly white institution. In some cases, these aggressions stank of subtle racism. For example, one of Mitchum's professors always used a different black maiden name.
"She did it four times," Mitchum told In The Know. "At this point, I'm just sick of it and don't even want to go to class if you don't understand my name properly. So I said," It really makes me uncomfortable and it's ... quite frankly, racist that you give me everything Whenever I raise my hand and you call me by my name, call another black girl's name. "
In other cases, Mitchum suggested an idea while working on group projects, but was immediately rejected by her non-black colleagues, although the responsible professor would later suggest the same idea.
"It was honestly a mental war," admitted the 22-year-old college graduate. "It was only the finest gas light because you see things, but not many other people understand that it's racist."
When Mitchum called her colleagues and professors racist, she said they would immediately reject the allegation and point them to Merriam-Webster's definition of the term. According to the dictionary, racism is defined as "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human characteristics and skills, and that race differences create an inherent superiority of a particular race". Merriam-Webster also interprets racism as "a doctrine or political program based on the acceptance of racism and designed to implement its principles" and "a political or social system based on racism".
"[My colleagues] would copy the definition of racism and paste it into the comments," Mitchum recalls. "They would read:" Yes, that doesn't fit. "So I said," Oh, enough is enough. "
Photo credit: Kennedy Mitchum
After the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, the college graduate who currently lives miles from Ferguson, Missouri (where protests against Michael Brown's death in 2014 reinforced the Black Lives Matter movement) decided Take matters into your own hands. She contacted Merriam-Webster and asked the editors to update the definition to further describe the systemic suppression of marginalized groups over a long period of time.
"What I sent them was like this: 'At this point you are wrongly sharing people and you are really sharing this information ... You really need to update it because at this point it hurts people. Mitchum said. "We cannot go forward."
In her email to the editors, Mitchum cited the disproportionate rate at which black women die at birth compared to their white counterparts, as an example of a broken, racist system that has violated the black community. She also pointed to inequalities in the prison system and in healthcare to prove that the current definition of racism is out of date.
The next morning, Alex Chambers, an editor, replied - but not without giving a pushback. According to Mitchum, Chambers said that the editors had gone through the literature extensively to get the current definition. But the college graduate did not give in and took Merriam-Webster to the test, asking if the publishers had referred to a variety of literature.
"I think a lot of colored people understand racism," Mitchum told In The Know. "We have read a lot of literature with different backgrounds and they use it exactly as I say it. I only really speak about what a lot of people already know."
After several floats with Chambers, Mitchum received an email from the editor, who agreed that the definition of the term needed to be updated.
"After your last email, it became clear to me that this problem had to be resolved sooner than later, and I raised the issue with the Merriam-Webster editorial team," wrote Chambers. "While our focus will always be on faithfully reproducing the use of a word in real words and not on a particular point of view, we have come to the conclusion that omitting one of the systemic aspects of racism promotes a certain point of view in itself."
The editor then explained that the editorial team was drafting a new definition, noting that this would likely take a few months. He also thanked Mitchum for her determination to revise the definition.
"This revision would not have been made without you persistently contacting us about the problem," wrote Chambers. “We sincerely thank you for your repeated writing, and we apologize for the harm and insult we caused when we did not resolve this issue earlier. I will ensure that the entry for racism receives the attention it urgently needs. "
For Mitchum, who shared the email on her Facebook, Merriam-Webster's final answer on this matter was a significant gain not only for them, but also for members of marginalized communities.
"This current struggle we are in is evidence that life is at stake due to the oppression systems associated with racism," the college graduate wrote on her side. “After a week of back and forth with the editors of the Merriam dictionary, I was finally able to change the definition. Every win feels great now. "
It also directly addresses a longstanding problem that many people who are not colored have had to understand systemic discrimination based on race - especially those who refuse to recognize their privilege.
"I think people really just want to stagnate," Mitchum told In The Know. "I mean, it's pleasant for them because they benefit from this story. They are the ones who benefit from us staying the way we are and not really breaking many of these systems that have existed for 400 years."
The response to Mitchum's efforts has been overwhelming since then. The graduate's alma mater even shared the news and congratulated her on successfully convincing Merriam-Webster to update her definition. Nevertheless, Mitchum admitted that she also had a setback from some who accused her of trying to rewrite the definition of racism to "fit her narrative." However, the university graduate claims that, like many others, she only points out the facts.
"People think racism is an opinion," Mitchum said. "They think it's a narrative. I think," It is not. "Racism was created by powerful people years ago. It has been in systems for years. I didn't create anything. It was there before I was born. What do you mean? you with it? "
Amid protests against police brutality and systemic racism against the Black Community, the college graduate said that since Trayvon Martin's death in 2012, she has noticed something else about conversations about racial injustices: more and more people are getting involved.
"These talks will have to continue for years and years and years after," Mitchum said. "We can't just talk about it for a few months. We have to keep applying pressure because at the end of the day a few months of change won't change the whole world ... It won't break these systems if we only have a few months talk about . "
If you want to learn more about systemic racism, read these books that tell you about anti-racism.
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The Contribution She was fed up with her colleagues teaching her about racism, and she turned to Merriam-Webster to update the definition. She first appeared in In The Know.
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