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!