Americans tuned in this week to watch kids struggle, and sometimes succeed, in spelling words like "bouquetiere" and "nunatak" during the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee. And, when they did, most viewers probably noticed that a significant share of the kids who advanced to the final round had brown skin and South Asian names -- just like last year's co-champions Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe and this year's dual winners Gokul Venkatachalam and Vanya Shivashankar.
This despite that fact that Americans of South Asian heritage -- mostly Indian Americans -- comprise about 1 percent of the population in the United States.
And there is nothing at all wrong with noting that -- even if lots of Americans do subscribe to the misguided notion that the work of not being a racist begins and ends with claims that they do not notice color, race or ethnicity. But what's begun to take shape in the hours since Gokul and Vanya correctly spelled some seriously championship-worthy words are not a series of stories or conversations about how many hours a day Gokal spends on his spelling skills or Vanya's personal memory aids. With few exceptions, talk about the 2015 spelling bee final eventually turns to questions, or outright assumptions, about the alleged connection between these kids' heritage and their spelling-bee dominance.
Before we go there, though, lets take a brief trip into the socio-political weeds. It's necessary to understand the politics of praise and blame that are inherent in the thinking and writing that's everywhere today about the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
First, there are the stories which seem to imply some sort of clear connection between "Indian American" culture and spelling-bee performance. Maybe there's even a genetic propensity for the perseverance and focus required, or something that happens only in South Asian American homes. All that amounts to a line of thought that says Asian -- and in particular Indian American and Bangladeshi American -- homes and bodies are the keepers of a set of phonetic secrets, passed from generation to generation. But that is really a modern and deceptively flattering take on persistent notions about Asian secrecy, mysticism and world dominance. It's also what sociologists call a "positive stereotype" -- notions that while not inherently derogatory but prevent us from knowing or understanding others as individual human beings.
Colorlines, a news outlet with connections to the racial justice organization Race Forward, has published a searing analysis of the cultural and political questions raised by America's now-annual reaction to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It's worth reading and adding to your list of things to think about. It even calls out The Washington Post (ouch!) for our contribution to the what's-Indian-Americans'-secret question.
But the problem boils down to this: In looking for cultural and genetic explanations for the number of South Asian American kids who perform well in the spelling bee, we rob individual kids of the glory they deserve for their hard work and ignore a pressing public-policy matter that their victories illuminate. We provide ourselves, the American taxpayer, with ready cover for a public school system in which the children of the well-educated and the wealthy have access to the best schools, private alternatives and additional education resources, if needed. Meanwhile, poor children -- most of whom are black or Latino -- simply do not.
Indian immigrants, along with Nigerian migrants, rank among the most-educated and highly paid in the United States. Their Indian American progeny generally experience similar life outcomes. And yes, that's because many of them work quite hard and almost all of them attend the nation's best schools.
With no doubt millions of Americans watching last night and some undoubtedly gearing up for much nastier and clearly racist online tirades, the effects of both individual effort and structural inequality were on display. But, one has to wonder if anyone noticed the latter at all.