Spelling Race

By Deepa Iyer May 28, 2015

Update, May 29, 2015 at 2.26 p.m. ET:

-Gokul Venkatachalam, 14, of Chesterfield, Missouri; and Vanya Shivashankar, 13, of Olathe, Kansas, won the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee in a tie.

-Here’s a Storify of this year’s racist and xenophobic tweets from user Jeff Chu.


It’s the week of the 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee, in which 285 Americans under 15 are vying to become national speller-in-chief. But amidst the fanfare that surrounds the Scripps competition, airing in part today on ESPN, is the prevalence of two problematic race-based narratives that arise without fail each year.

The first is related to the need to justify why Indian-Americans have won the spelling bee for the last seven years in a row. Rather than focusing on the hard work and dedication of each of the Indian-American champions or the conditions that may have helped them to achieve—including economic resources or “South Asian community spelling bees” that provide the opportunity for spellers to practice—we seem determined to attach a cultural significance to the trend.  This narrative goes something like this: Indians have a cultural gene that leads them to be successful. This notion of cultural exceptionalism contends that Indian-Americans possess special, innate cultural characteristics that propel them to thrive more than other non-white groups. Even the Washington Post explored the spelling bee trend in a story this week that quotes the Scripps bee’s director, past winners and scholars on their thoughts about the “domination” of Indian-Americans in the competition. 

But the narrative of cultural exceptionalism is misleading and harmful. It’s safe to say that all families place an emphasis on education and want their children to succeed. However, not all families have access to resources and institutions that enable their children to do well. When we rely on culture as the reason for success, we ignore the structural realities that prevent many children of color or poor children from reaching their goals. We also end up placing the onus on families to ensure academic achievement, rather than compelling the public and private sectors to also provide valuable services and benefits that can help all children succeed.
Holding onto cultural exceptionalism as a justification for success also creates chasms between communities of color, and renders invisible the experiences of many people who do not fit into this framework. It reinforces a cultural and racial hierarchy that unnecessarily divides us through false assumptions about one another. These wedges end up undergirding struggles around other issues, such as affirmative action in which communities of color—especially Indian- and Chinese-Americans—are often pitted against black and Latino communities.
Even within the Indian-American community, the notion of cultural exceptionalism is damaging for its monolithic characterization of community experiences. When South Asians are touted as cultural success stories across the board, the community’s experiences become homogeneous. The realities of those who fall outside the framework are often not addressed, much less acknowledged. Take for example the fact that 22 percent of the Indian-American population in the United States has either limited or no proficiency in English, or that about 20 percent of Indian-Americans does not have a two- or four-year college degree. While the achievements of South Asians who are Silicon Valley CEOs, spelling bee champions and science whizzes should be celebrated and lauded at every turn, they should not be presented as the only or prevailing narrative about the experiences of SouthAsian communities. We must challenge the inaccurate representations that imply all South Asians have the same privileges and opportunities so that we can fully attend to the needs and challenges facing our communities. 

The Scripps spelling bee shouldn’t be a justification for cultural or racial superiority. But it is most definitely an apt benchmark to assess our national appetite for diversity and inclusion. In recent years, for example, the public response to Indian-American national spelling bee champions has been nothing short of racist and xenophobic. An article in The Times of India recounts the various reactions: 

Another reader said, "How is it that foreigners who are new to America are able to win the spelling bee like this?" while another reader posted, "First they took our beauty queen title then they take our bee. Whats [sic] next they take away our jobs…"

Another said, "The kids in the spelling bee should only be AMERICAN". 

Another tweet said "Shocking that neither of the Spelling bee champs have names that sound American #Sriram #Ansun." 

These remarks give us a sense of the racial anxiety that is pervasive in America, a trend that is becoming more visible and pernicious as the country’s demographics dramatically change. With a population of nearly 4 million, South Asians are the fastest-growing race group in the United States. As South Asians become more visible in sectors perceived as “American”—the Scripps National Spelling Bee or the Miss America pageant (won by Nina Davuluri in 2014)—the backlash rears its head, with portrayals of South Asians as un-American, as undesirable immigrants who seek to corrupt the nation.  These perceptions are not new. The notions that South Asians are forever foreigners, worthy of suspicion, or job-stealers are ones that community members have contended with for over 100 years in the United States. Even today, despite accepting South Asian success in some arenas—cab drivers, domestic workers, computer programmers, and even CEOs of startups—there are others that are reserved for “real” Americans (read: white, Christian, citizen).  Being a hardworking child of immigrants, even with the title of spelling bee champion, does not automatically mean that one belongs to this country.  For South Asians in particular, the struggle for racial justice must include the dismantlement of the cultural exceptionalism myth.

Instead of placing Indian-American spelling champions in a special category or demeaning them as un-American, we should be able to find a place in the middle by pushing back against the misleading race-based narratives that surround the Scripps National Spelling Bee. We can applaud the commitment of all the students who are participating in the competition without resorting to divisive cultural tropes. And we can treat those who win—of whatever background—with respect and dignity.

For a humorous take on the Scripps spelling bee and the Indian-American angle, check out the video below of Hari Kondabolu on the W. Kamau Bell show, "Totally Biased," in 2013.


Deepa Iyer is the Activist-in-Residence at the University of Maryland’s Asian American Studies program and the former director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). She is the author of the book, "We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future" forthcoming from the New Press in November 2015. Iyer serves on the board of Colorlines’ publisher, Race Forward.