The spelling bee and racism

As has been the custom for many years, Asian-Americans (and especially those whose ethnicity traces to the southern states of India) have dominated this contest. All others get steadily weeded out as the final rounds approach and this year was no exception with two Indian-Americans being declared joint winners.

Sriram Hathwar, 14, of Painted Post, N.Y., and Ansun Sujoe, 13, of Fort Worth, Tex., shared the win after almost exhausting the 25 designated words in the final round.

Both boys are Indian American. In fact, the past eight winners and 13 of the past 17 have been of Indian descent, a run that began in 1999, the Associated Press reported.

Last year’s winner, Arvind Mahankali, was the sixth Indian American in a row to win the bee. And of this year’s 281 spellers, almost a quarter had names pointing to South Asian origins, Reuters reported. But past bee champs are of a variety of origins.

In this year’s contest leading up to the final four, the elimination of the final non-Asian prompted an outburst on Twitter along the lines of “Where are the American kids? Why aren’t they winning?” Seemingly lost on the people making these comments were that these students were born and raised in the US and thus were ‘American’ is every sense of the word. It recalls the hostility expressed when an Indian American won the Miss America contest in 2013.

There has been some concern expressed that such comments reveal a latent racism that sees people of Asian origin as not ‘real’ Americans. I don’t see all of these comments as consciously racist. I think for many they are more a reflection of the unease with all the talk of white people losing their majority status and being consistently outcompeted by Asian Americans in intellectual endeavors, even low-level intellectual pursuits such as spelling. These resentments against Asian Americans play out against a backdrop in which Asian-Americans are perceived to be the only ones living the mythical ‘American Dream’. But instead of phrasing their concerns that way, they unfortunately posed it as being between ‘Americans’ and ‘foreigners’.

It is interesting to speculate as to what might have been the reaction if the bee had been won by black students. I suspect that many of these same people (except for the hard-core racists) would not have been so disturbed. There wasn’t, as I recall, similar hostility expressed when Tiger Woods became a golf champion. But when Vanessa Williams became the first black Miss America in 1983, she did receive a barrage of vitriol so the verdict is mixed.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    these students were born and raised in the US and thus were ‘American’ is every sense of the word

    That was obvious when one of the boys started to try to pronounce ‘feuilleton’, and gave up with a classic US teen ‘whatever’. Dubya would’ve been proud.

  2. says

    “I don’t see all of these comments as consciously racist.”

    Only inasmuch as the commenters are too stupid to even know that they are racists, and indeed, because they are also probably too stupid to know that they are stupid.

    I am utterly fed up with people dismissing racists as being basically good people who are ignorant – that dog doesn’t hunt in 2014. They are not good people and they are stupid.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    Racism is just the low-hanging fruit for these people. I’m sure if a chess championship or a science fair had been in the news, even if it had been won by a person with the “right” ethnicity they would have dismissed it as being full of ‘elites’ and ‘eggheads’.
    Far too many Americans seem to think that a high-school education is sufficient to function in today’s world, and if a concept is beyond that level it should be dismissed.

  4. Jockaira says

    Surely the South Asian-Americans have disproportionate representation among successful spelling-bee competitions, and as such it suggests that a closer look at the reasons might reveal shortcomings in the American educational system and possible solutions. The actual reasons for these high numbers might be that many of these children are bi-lingual (or near so), or that there may be unusual relationships between the native languages (as opposed to English) or cultures of their parents.

    Of course it may be something simple such as the kids getting much more familial support for their educational efforts than is usual. In any case, it seems a subject worthy of deeper investigation.

  5. hyphenman says

    Good evening Mano,

    This has fascinated me and I wonder if you’ve been able to ferret out any connections.

    For instance, is there a finer distinction here than “Southern Asian” in play? (One of my ancestors made sure that his American tombstone read “North Wales” and not just Wales or, gawd forbid, England, as his place of birth.)

    Is there a particular subset of Southern Asians living in the United States such a large city. area or region?

    Are the winners first, second, third or even later generation citizens?

    Was there some concerted effort to identify a particular American contest and then flood the competition with well-trained participants? (this latter is way in left field, I know, but based on the Jewish experience, not out of the part.)

    The numbers just seem to be too overwhelming to allow for random chance.

    Do all you can to make today a better day,


  6. Mano Singham says


    It is definitely not random chance. There is clearly a push within the community to have their children take part in these contests and an entire minor league system that grooms them. There is something called the North South Foundation that serves as a kind of training ground for these kinds of contests, starting at a very young age, and South Indians seem to enroll in them in disproportionate numbers.

    Why is that so? I don’t really know, except that these kinds of things likely spread by word of mouth. Immigrant groups tend to talk to one another and maybe word has got around in the Indian-American communities that their children have a better chance of winning these kinds of academic contests than athletic ones. These things are ‘safe’.

    I don’t really know for sure because I was not in that information loop.

  7. San says

    Most people seems to get it wrong.It is the the children who can trace their origin to ” South Indian States” that are winning and not “South Asian” Americans.Read Mr.Mano Singham carefully.The South Indian states are Kerala,Tamil Nadu,Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

  8. Dextrous says

    The South Indian states are Kerala,Tamil Nadu,Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh

    I was brought up in that culture and have a pretty good idea why kids from a South Indian Brahmin background are so good at memorizing. We have to memorize reams and reams of prayers as kids. They are long long long poems that you are assigned. These are usually not in your native tongue or the vernacular, but in Sanskrit or literary Tamil, Telugu or Malayalam. There were many famous poets in these languages over the centuries who left a large body of work. These works have very repetitive structures, rhythms and chanted tunes, and very complicated polysyllabic words. In the more modern era, families have these prayers playing almost constantly as a background sound in their homes. Just as with anything you hear or say repeatedly, the prayers soak in and you learn them cold. Even without understanding the meaning of what you were chanting, the prayers become a part of your daily routine.

    When your memory muscle is that well practiced, and you also have the cultural practice of reading a lot and at very young ages (and often British kids’ books that are written in a higher grade of English), familiarity with words comes easily. Then it is a small step to being a great speller in normal life, and another small step to deciding to compete in spelling.

  9. Mano Singham says


    Thanks for that background. It does sound like a plausible reason. Although my family background is Tamil, our family was never into all this stuff. I had to memorize some of the verses from the classics as part of school Tamil but that was it.

  10. A Jones says

    Interesting post. I think one thing that might help is if the kids had “American-sounding” names. 🙂 For instance, I once had a co-worker who was from India but whose name was “Antony Joseph.” If these kids had similar-sounding names, I think there would be less outcry–Americans don’t relate too well to funky-sounding first names. I had an Egyptian roommate once who was an American citizen by birth (though he grew up in Egypt), but he had a foreign-sounding name and also a somewhat British accent, so most people didn’t believe he was actually a citizen. And remember Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin from the 2008 Olympics? Both are American, but Johnson got more endorsements, even though Liukin won the prestigious all-around title. Furthermore, in the ’92 Winter Olympics, Kristi Yamaguchi got the gold. but Nancy Kerrigan, who only won the bronze (with a very sloppy skate), ended up getting more endorsements. In general, I think the longer your ancestors have lived in the U.S., the more “American” you will tend to be perceived. 🙂 Of course, Michelle Kwan might be an exception–I think just about everyone would consider her fully American.

  11. A Jones says

    Oh, I meant to include this interesting comment as well, which someone wrote a while back. It may sound a bit racist, but I think the explanation of cultural differences is accurate:

    A friend and I were debating this and my theory is that these foreign kids are pushed their entire life to do this stuff (spelling bees). When an American kid gets home from school, he goes to soccer, football, baseball practice or hangs out with his friends. The foreign kid is forced to go home and study the dictionary until bedtime.


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