Merriam-Webster Dictionary Boss Agrees To Update Its Definition Of Racism

by : Lucy Connolly on : 11 Jun 2020 11:05

The American dictionary Merriam-Webster has agreed to change its definition of the word racism following a request to do so by a black woman.

Kennedy Mitchum, a recent graduate of Drake University in Iowa, sent an email to the company suggesting its definition needed to include a reference to the fact that systematic oppression exists.


Although Kennedy said she wasn’t expecting a response to her email, adding she just knew she had to make an effort, an editor responded the next day and later agreed to update the current definition.

Protest Against Racism And Police Brutality - AmsterdamPA Images

Kennedy made the decision to get in touch with the company as a direct result of her past experiences; on more than one occasion, she had encountered people pointing to the dictionary as evidence that they were not racist.

People were sending the definition to her in an attempt to prove racism could only exist within the confines of that very definition, with Kennedy telling BBC News: ‘Some troll was messaging me trying to say, “You don’t understand what racism truly is”.’


The dictionary 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’.

Merriam-Webster agrees to change definition of racismKMOV

Kennedy said the definition was too simple and too surface level, and it ignored the broader issues of racial inequality in society. ‘I think it’s very important for people to be on the same page,’ she explained.

So on May 28, she emailed Merriam-Webster to point out racism is ‘both prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin colour’.


She got a response the next day and, after some back-and-forth, Merriam-Webster said a revision would be made. Editor Alex Chambers thanked Kennedy for her ‘persistence’ in contacting the company about the ‘problem’, saying the revision would not have been made without her input.

He continued, as per KMOV:

We sincerely thank you for repeatedly writing in and apologise for the harm and offence we have caused in failing to address the issue sooner. I will see to it that the entry for racism is given the attention it sorely needs.

Volunteers Clean Makeshift Memorial Where George Floyd Was Killed As Reflection SpotPA Images

Merriam-Webster’s editorial manager, Peter Sokolowski, said the wording of the second definition will be ‘even more clear in our next release’, adding: ‘It could be expanded… to include the term systemic and it will certainly have one or two example sentences, at least.’

Those working on the new definition will be consulting the work of experts in black studies, he said, adding the revision could be done by August at the earliest.

The decision comes amid worldwide protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, with hundreds of thousands of people trying to address racial injustice after yet another killing of an unarmed, defenceless black man.

FloydPA Images

Hopefully the definition will be changed as soon as possible to represent the racism experienced by millions of people each and every day.

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, contact Stop Hate UK by visiting their website www.stophateuk.org/talk

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Lucy Connolly

A Broadcast Journalism Masters graduate who went on to achieve an NCTJ level 3 Diploma in Journalism, Lucy has done stints at ITV, BBC Inside Out and Key 103. While working as a journalist for UNILAD, Lucy has reported on breaking news stories while also writing features about mental health, cervical screening awareness, and Little Mix (who she is unapologetically obsessed with).

Topics: News, America, George Floyd, Now, Racism, Systemic Racism, US


BBC and 2 others
  1. BBC

    Racism definition: Merriam-Webster to make update after request

  2. Merriam-Webster


  3. KMOV

    Florissant woman helps change Merriam Webster's definition of racism