As It Happens

This woman convinced Merriam-Webster to revise its definition of racism

When Kennedy Mitchum wrote an email to Merriam-Webster about the dictionary's definition of racism, she never expected to make a difference.

'I was definitely shocked, but I was excited,' says Kennedy Mitchum of the dictionary's change

In this Sunday, June 7, 2020, photo, Kennedy Mitchum protests outside the Florissant Police Department with other protesters in front of the Florissant Police Station, in Florissant, Mo. (Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/The Associated Press)

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When Kennedy Mitchum wrote an email to Merriam-Webster about the dictionary's definition of racism, she never expected to make a difference.

The St. Louis, Mo., woman said the definition focused on individual beliefs while ignoring the systemic or institutional racism that, among other things, perpetuates police violence and over-incarceration in Black and other racialized communities. 

"I was expecting maybe a spam reply of, 'OK, I'll get back to you soon.' So I was definitely very shocked that they actually were there to hear out my opinions and actually researched themselves and came to the conclusion that there does need to be a definition change," Mitchum told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"I was definitely shocked, but I was excited. It was a good shock moment."

Definition used as a shield 

Merriam-Webster currently 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."

It's a definition that Mitchum says has been repeatedly thrown in her face when she's attempted to call out racist behaviours and systems.

"I would post something about my experiences, whether that's just microaggression, and they would be like, 'Well, that's not racist,'" said Mitchum, who recently graduated from Drake University with a degree in law and society.

"And then boom, right on cue, dictionary definition. They kept using it to justify ignorant claims and just to stay stagnant and not understand the different systems that really go into play when it comes to racism and how really deep rooted it is in our society."

Instead, she says people should focus on "the systemic ways that people of colour are oppressed."

What is systemic racism?

Systemic racism is a term that's been widely debated in the news over the last few weeks as high-profile incidents of police killings and police brutality dominate the headlines. 

In a string of recent media interviews, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki denied that systemic racism exists within Canada's national police force. 

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki says she doesn't believe there is systemic racism n Canada's national police force. (CBC)

"In the last couple of days I have honestly heard about 15 or 20 definitions of systemic racism," she told CBC's Rosemary Barton. 

"If it refers to an unconscious bias that exists ... we definitely have that in the RCMP and we are not immune to it at all. There are times when our members don't act in accordance with our core values, which includes racism, and it's those times that we have to make sure that that doesn't happen."

Lucki's comments have been widely rebuked, including by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

Mitchum defines systemic racism as "a deeply rooted prejudice, combined with institutional power and systemic oppression of certain groups of people."

Sen. Murray Sinclair, who chaired Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told the Globe and Mail: "Systemic racism is when the system itself is based upon and founded upon racist beliefs and philosophies and thinking and has put in place policies and practices that literally force even the non-racists to act in a racist way."

Sen. Murray Sinclair says racism is about systems, not individuals. (The Canadian Press)

Mitchum says she agrees with that assessment, and finds it baffling that any police chief could deny the existence of systemic racism within law enforcement.

"They think that the ... scary, sad rates of people of colour being incarcerated, it's just why, because of the stereotypes? They're playing more into the racist system themselves by ignoring the problem," she said.

A recent CBC News investigation into deadly interactions with police found that Black people made up 36.5 per cent of fatalities involving Toronto police, despite accounting for just 8.3 per cent of the city's population, between 2000 to 2017.

In Winnipeg, Indigenous people represent on average 10.6 per cent of the population, but account for nearly two-thirds of victims.

In recent weeks, police in Canada have come under scrutiny for the police shooting of an Indigenous woman in New Brunswick during a wellness check, the alleged police assault against a First Nations chief in Alberta, a video showing an RCMP officer hitting an Inuk man with a truck door, and the death of a Black-Indigenous woman in Toronto who fell from a balcony during a police encounter.

At the same time, thousands of people in the U.S. and around the world have been marching in the streets to protest police brutality and anti-Black racism since the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The white police officer who knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes has been charged with second-degree murder

"It's going to keep happening. There's going to be more rioting. There's going to be more protests if people don't acknowledge the problem," Mitchum said. 

Protesters hold placards during a rally in Ottawa on June 5. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Merriam-Webster addresses systemic racism briefly in the second part of its second definition, which defines racism as: "a political or social system founded on racism." 

"This second definition covers the sense that Ms. Mitchum was seeking, and we will make its wording even more clear in our next release," Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press.

"This is the kind of continuous revision that is part of the work of keeping the dictionary up to date, based on rigorous criteria and research we employ in order to describe the language as it is actually used."

The dictionary plans to consult with experts and community members before releasing a revised definition in a couple of months. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Kennedy Mitchum produced by Tayo Bero. 

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