We’ve all heard the phrase, “You can’t fight City Hall.” But as those unwilling to accept that adage have proved, it’s just not true. Greta Thunberg showed the world at the tender age of 15, anyone who cares enough and persists in stating their concerns can have a dramatic impact. We are seeing it today. People from all backgrounds and beliefs coming together in the streets of our country to make it clear- the time has come to honor the basic tenets this country has professed since its inception. Freedom and liberty for all.
Another young woman made her own mark this month when she changed the definition of racism. Kennedy Mitchum was tired of people pointing to the dictionary to prove they’re not racist. Especially as the world reacts to the murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks by police officers. The 22-year-old recent graduate from Drake University lives in Florissant, Missouri, just a few miles away from Ferguson, where protests over the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown helped solidify the Black Lives Matter movement. She kept having to tell people the dictionary definition is not representative of what is actually happening in the world. The way that racism occurs in real life is not just prejudice, it’s a more insidious systemic racism that has permeated our society since slaves were brought to America.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of racism is: “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.” Mitchum said many people dismissed her concerns about racism and the broader issues of racial inequality because they don’t personally feel that way about people of color. As a result she sent emails requesting the dictionary change their definition. She was shocked when she received a response:
“This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem. 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.”
Peter Sokolowski, an editor at Merriam-Webster, stated their entry also defines 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,” which would cover systematic racism and oppression. But admitted it needed a clearer definition to bring this significant social issue into focus. Since they update the dictionary two or three times a year the new language, bought about by Ms Kennedy, will probably be ready for the next update.
Systemic racism. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as racist. I certainly do not. But then we aren’t the ones subjected to it. For us, seeing everything through white eyes doesn’t reflect the reality around us because it reflects who we are and what we see and feel. For example: each of us has our own perception of what policing in early America represented. For many it’s the county sheriff enforcing a debt between neighbors, a constable serving an arrest warrant on horseback, or a lone night watchman carrying a lantern through a sleeping town. These organized practices were adapted to the colonies from England and formed the foundations of American law enforcement. Unfortunately, there is another, far more sinister and significant origin of American policing that we cannot forget- slave patrols.
The American South relied almost exclusively on slave labor and white Southerners lived in near constant fear of slave rebellions disrupting this economic status quo. As a result, these patrols were one of the earliest and most prolific forms of early policing in the South. Their responsibility? It was straightforward- to control the movements and behaviors of enslaved populations. Two very different realities depending on the color of your skin. Not exactly the kind, local county sheriff like Andy Taylor from “Mayberry RFD”
Aunt Jemima pancake batter and syrup or Uncle Ben’s rice that proudly depicts a stereotypical black man and woman on the cover screams racism. Both a part of our society for decades, both are now getting a facelift. Why, if they were never demeaning or racist to begin with? A leader from Black Lives Matter recently said, “It’s not enough to say, I’m not a racist, you have to be actively anti-racist.” We all need to look at the world through the eyes of those impacted. For the first time we are seeing and feeling a small piece of what they have seen and felt for centuries.
How horrifying it took watching the incredibly visceral and heartbreaking murder of George Floyd over an unimaginable 8 minutes and 46 seconds to open our eyes to the struggles people have been fighting so long. May that gut wrenching feeling never pass. And if we dare to forget, be replayed over and over again until each of us is in the street demanding the equality for all this country has professed but never truly given. We don’t have to be actively racist to gain benefit from racism anymore than we need to be in motion on a train to gain its speed.
Kennedy Mitchum spoke up. Because of her actions the dictionary will change. She helped them to understand omitting any reference to systemic racism that actively suppresses a group of people is wrong. People claim that because they don’t do anything racist they aren’t a racist. But sitting idly by or benefiting from systemic racism is just as wrong. This is not an attack against individuals, but rather a statement of the facts.
We can’t move forward if we don’t all agree on what’s really happening. There’s no time for ignorance. Otherwise George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks won’t be the last to suffer inexcusable consequences.