The Definition of Racism On ‘Waiting On Reparations’

Waiting On Reparations is a podcast hosted by rapper and visual artist Dope Knife and rapper and politician Linqua Franqa, discussing how public policy affects hip-hop culture and what hip-hop culture tells us about political realities. On this episode, they sit down with Kennedy Mitchum, the 22-year-old woman who got Merriam-Webster to change the definition of racism to include the reality of power structures. Dope reads the definition of racism from several dictionaries – these existing definitions are incomplete, he says, because they make racism out to be “strictly a moral failing,” a doctrine or belief system that’s limited to individuals. But racism is so much more than that – because it is intrinsic in our political and educational institutions, it has a greater effect on Black lives than just an individual person’s belief system. And because in politics, “definitions matter so much for how resources get allocated, what services are funded,” Linqua points out, it’s extra important to get this one right.

Kennedy grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, where she experienced very overt racism – name-calling and so on. But when she got to Drake University, she noticed that the racism was more covert – people wouldn’t meet her eye in the hallway; classmates discounted or ignored her contributions in group projects, only to be enthusiastic about the same ideas when they were presented by white classmates; her professors called her “a different black girl’s name every day.” And when she would have conversations on her social media about these experiences, white friends and colleagues would tell her they “didn’t count as racist” by copying and pasting the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of racism. So Kennedy thought she should contact the dictionary and try to take that weapon away from white apologists “to allow for more productive conversations.” She emailed Merriam-Webster, saying “Racism is not only prejudice….it is both prejudice combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color.” The next day, she had a response: Merriam-Webster agreed with her. The definition was updated

After talking with Kennedy, Dope and Linqua dissect hip-hop songs that directly reference racism in various ways: Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s “Accidental Racist” (“Get all the way the f**k out of here with that,” Dope laughs), Common and Stevie Wonder’s “Black America Again,” Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “The Jack Back” (“Basically a ‘90s gangsta rap song, but the antagonist isn’t another Black man, it’s racists you’re doing drive-bys on,” Dope tells us), and Marlon Craft’s “Gang S**t,” among others. Listen to the episode for hip-hop history, nice rhymes, and a profound conversation about how racism infiltrates every part of Black people’s lives, on Waiting On Reparations

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