While studying at Drake University in Iowa, Kennedy Mitchum would often experience microaggressions as a Black student at a predominately white institution. In some instances, those aggressions would reek of subtle racism. One of Mitchum’s professors, for example, would call her a different Black girl’s name every time.
“She did that four times,” Mitchum told In The Know. “At this point, I’m just fed up, and it makes me not even want to participate in class if you can’t get my name right. So I [was like,] ‘It makes me really uncomfortable and it’s … quite frankly pretty racist that every time I raise my hand and you call me out on my name, you call me by a different Black girl’s name.”
In other cases, Mitchum would propose an idea while working on group projects but get immediately turned down by her non-Black peers, even though the professor in charge would later suggest the same idea.
“It turned into, honestly, a mental warfare,” the now 22-year-old college graduate admitted. “It was just gaslighting at its finest because you’re seeing stuff but not a lot of other people are understanding that that’s racist.”
When Mitchum would call her peers and professors out for being racist, she said they would promptly deny the accusation and direct her 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 traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Merriam-Webster also interprets 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.”
“[My peers] would copy and paste the definition of racism in the comments,” Mitchum recalled. “They’d be like, ‘Yeah, that doesn’t fit in.’ So I was like, ‘Oh, enough is enough.'”
In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, the college graduate, who currently lives miles away from Ferguson, Mo., (where protests over the 2014 death of Michael Brown amplified the Black Lives Matter movement), decided to take matters into her own hands. She reached out to Merriam-Webster and asked the editors to update the definition to more accurately describe the systemic oppression of marginalized groups over a long period of time.
“What I sent to them was just like, ‘At this point, you guys are misinforming people and you guys are, you know, really sharing that information … You really have to update this because, at this point, it’s hurting people,'” Mitchum said. “We can’t move forward.”
In her email to the editors, Mitchum cited the disproportionate rate at which Black women are dying of childbirth compared to their white counterparts as an example of a broken, racist system that has hurt the Black community. She also pointed to inequities in the prison system and the healthcare field to prove her point that the current definition of racism was outdated.
The next morning, Alex Chambers, an editor, replied — but not without giving some pushback. According to Mitchum, Chambers explained that the editors had extensively gone through literature to come to the current definition. But the college graduate would not give in and took Merriam-Webster to task, questioning whether the editors had referenced a diverse set of literature.
“I think a lot of people of color understand racism,” Mitchum told In The Know. “We’ve read a lot of literature from, you know, a lot of diverse backgrounds, and they use it in the same exact way that I’m saying. I’m just really speaking what a lot of people already know about.”
Following multiple back-and-forths with Chambers, Mitchum received an email from the editor, who agreed that the definition of the term needed to be updated.
“After your last e-mail, I realized that this issue needed to be addressed sooner than later, and accordingly raised the topic with Merriam-Webster’s editorial staff,” Chambers reportedly wrote. “While our focus will always be on faithfully reflecting the real-word usage of a word, not on promoting any particular viewpoint, we have concluded that omitting any of the systemic aspects of racism promotes a certain viewpoint in itself.”
The editor then explained that the editorial staff is drafting a new definition, noting that it would probably take a few months. He also thanked Mitchum for her determination in getting the definition revised.
“This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem,” Chambers wrote. “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. I will see to it that the entry for racism is given the attention it sorely needs.”
For Mitchum, who shared the email on her Facebook, Merriam-Webster’s final response on the matter was a significant win not only for her but also for members of marginalized communities.
“This current fight we are in is evidence of that, lives are at stake because of the systems of oppression that go hand-in-hand with racism,” the college graduate posted on her page. “After a week of back and forth with the editors of Merriam dictionary I was finally able to get the definition changed. Any victory feels great right now.”
It also directly tackles a longstanding issue that many people who are not of color have had with understanding systemic discrimination based on race — especially those who refuse to recognize their privilege.
“I think people really just want to stay stagnant,” Mitchum told In The Know. “I mean it’s comfortable for them because they’re the ones who are benefitting off of this narrative. They’re the ones who are benefitting off of us staying the same way we are and not really breaking down a lot of these systems that have been in place for 400 years now.”
The response to Mitchum’s efforts has since been overwhelming. The graduate’s alma mater even shared the news, congratulating her for successfully convincing Merriam-Webster to update its definition. Still, Mitchum acknowledged she has also gotten blowback from some who have accused her of trying to rewrite the definition of racism to “fit her narrative.” The college graduate, however, maintains that she, like many others, is simply pointing out the facts.
“People think that racism is an opinion,” Mitchum said. “They think that it’s a narrative. I’m like, ‘It’s not.’ Racism was created by powerful people years and years ago. It’s been in systems for years and years. I didn’t create anything. This has been around since before I was born, so what do you mean?”
Amid continued protests against police brutality and systemic racism toward the Black community, the college graduate said she has noticed something different about racial injustice conversations since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012: more people are tuning in.
“These conversations are going to have to be had for years and years and years after this,” Mitchum said. “We can’t just, for a couple of months, talk about it. We have to keep pushing ’cause, at the end of the day, a couple of months of change is not going to change the entire world … It’s not going to break down those systems if we’re just talking for a few months about it.”
If you would like to learn more about systemic racism, consider reading these books that will educate you on anti-racism.
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