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Month: May 2015

What Does Race Have to Do with the Spelling Bee?

What Does Race Have to Do with the Spelling Bee?

It’s #NationalSpellingBee time! Tonight, two winners prevailed over the 285 contestants who sought to become national speller-in-chief. Congratulations to Vanya Shivashankar, 13, of Olathe, Kansas, and Gokul Venkatachalam, 14, of Chesterfield, Missouri, who are dual champions in the 88th annual National Scripps Spelling Bee.

So what does race have to do with the National Spelling Bee?

Inevitably, everytime the Spelling Bee comes around, there are two misleading and damaging race-based narratives that swirl around it. I explore them – the myth of cultural exceptionalism, and the reality of xenophobic responses to winners – over at Colorlines. Below is an excerpt, with the full piece here:

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.

Read the rest of the piece over at Colorlines, and leave your feedback in the comments!

Remembering Judge Heyburn

Remembering Judge Heyburn

Today, at his funeral in Louisville, Judge John G. Heyburn II, the Senior District Judge for the Western District of Kentucky, will be fondly remembered by so many of the people who worked with him or interacted with him – lawyers, clerks, and administrative staff. Judge Heyburn had a lasting impact on my own life and career as well.

Judge Heyburn actually gave me my first legal job – as a summer volunteer clerk in his office after my first year of law school, one that had left me demoralized. I didn’t think that I had the chops to really be a lawyer, but that summer in Judge Heyburn’s office at the Gene Snyder federal courthouse in Louisville transformed me. Judge Heyburn and his two full-time law clerks gave me substantive work that improved my analysis and writing, and, perhaps more importantly, my confidence. I remember how Judge Heyburn took the time to sit down with me and ask me, in his gentle manner, to back up my legal analyses about the cases that came before his court. I realize now that he was giving me the space to practice articulating my opinions, unformed and amorphous as they were. As I went onto other legal internships and jobs, I understood even more how significant it was that someone of Judge Heyburn’s stature would take the time to engage me directly in this way, while I was barely getting started on my own legal path.

I also learned from Judge Heyburn that beyond the facts and precedent of the law are real people’s lives, and that legal decision-makers must keep that in mind, front and center. That is why Judge Heyburn’s opinions on two cases last year, related to same-sex marriage in Kentucky, came as no surprise to me. Judge Heyburn invalidated Kentucky’s constitutional amendment that barred same-sex marriage and the recognition of same-sex marriages performed legally in other states. He ruled that Kentucky’s constitutional amendment violated the equal protection clause by treating LGBTQ communities “differently in a way that demeans them.” Judge Heyburn’s decisions were reversed on appeal and are now pending review before the United States Supreme Court.

At a debate with an anti-gay marriage activist last year, Judge Heyburn stated his views on the importance of abandoning traditional legal frameworks, especially when they deny rights to certain groups of people. “History is littered with traditions that we have later decided weren’t very good ones,” he said. “Without judges, who knows how long would it have taken for the state of Connecticut to decide it couldn’t deny contraceptives to women? How long would South Carolina have waited before it did away with segregated schools?” As someone who works on issues of justice and equity today, these words are deeply meaningful to me.

A lasting memory I will always treasure is a small but significant gesture on Judge Heyburn’s part in 1996 when my parents and I became naturalized citizens. When he realized that our naturalization ceremony would take place at the federal courthouse in Louisville, Judge Heyburn ensured that he presided over it. Having the oath of citizenship be administered to us by Judge Heyburn made the naturalization moment even more special for my family.

I will miss you, Judge. I am proud to be part of your family of law clerks. Your legacy lives on not only in the opinions you offered to shape legal jurisprudence in Kentucky – but in the lives you touched, including mine.




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