The Spelling Bee: America’s Great Racial Freaks-and-Geeks Show

When the public tunes in to see Indian Americans dominate the Scripps competition, is it to cheer for the precocious minority kids—or to gawk at them?
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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

If you are an Indian American obsessed with American sports, occasions for ethnic fandom have been scant at best. After the two Vijays—the tennis player Amritraj and the golfer Singh—who do we really have?

And so it is only with a slight hint of irony that I watch the Scripps National Spelling Bee year after year with great pleasure and anticipation. With the crowning of the co-winners Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe late last month, it makes seven straight years that Indian Americans have won the national bee. From my place of lack, this is nearly as exciting as living in Chicago in the Jordan era, or being a New Yorker when Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, and Mo were young and winning rings.    

Every time a Sameer or an Arvind wins, I get some variation of this text from a friend: “Why are your people so good at spelling? Is it b/c of all the Bengal tiger moms?”

As Indian Americans have been winning the bee, the explanations for the streak are often boiled down to a static notion of culture. Including: memorization as a reflection of Indian learning; the parents of the competitors, featured prominently in ESPN’s coverage of the bee, as tigers in sheep’s clothing; competition, academic rigor, and discipline as values that align with Indian American immigrant life; and the practice the spellers get in regional Indian American bees.

However, figuring out some all-encompassing answer to why these kids are winning ultimately raises thorny questions about the tenuous relationship between cultural characteristics and success in particular fields. It is also not the most interesting thing about this phenomenon.

Rather, what’s interesting is the rising cultural obsession over Indian American spelling stars. Watching the bee, I suspect, allows many Americans to simultaneously celebrate the American Dream and ease their anxieties about the success of one particular race.

During these years when Indian Americans have been dominating the national bee, television viewership has increased as ESPN airs the various rounds across its different television platforms. The run up to and the aftermath of the bee have become fodder across the media landscape. As the comic Hari Kondabolu has joked, the bee has quickly become the “Indian Super Bowl.”  

On television, the bee plays out as pure meritocracy. You spell the word correctly, you move on in the competition. No quibbling about home-field advantage, no refs making questionable calls. In this context, Indian Americans have been perfect winners, affirming the perception of them as model minorities. They are quiet politically, loud academically—characteristics ostensibly emanating from Asian cultural values. They are perceived as geeks, not only in the pejorative sense, but also as studious kids who represent the American ideal. Every time an Indian American wins, one more angel of America gets its wings.

Meritocracy and the existence of “model minorities” are seductive ideas because they suggest race doesn’t matter as much as it once did. Asian American success can be understood as the triumph of cultural values—hard work, family—over structural impediments such as race and class. In the bee especially, cheering for the Asian kid means cheering for a colorblind society.

Last year’s winner, Arvind Mahankali, was a media darling, before and after the bee. Mahankali had three previous top 10 finishes before he finally won. Some of the coverage on Mahankali was notable for not making mention of his race at all. When he appeared on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN, the host, perhaps himself cognizant of how too often particular markers of identity tend to overdetermine other parts of one’s life, stuck mostly to spelling. Similarly, Grantland sent a writer to talk to Mahankali as he was working through the rounds of the bee. In the piece, Shane Ryan goes out of his way to show that the only different thing he notices about Mahankali is his remarkable devotion to words.

But Cooper’s and Ryan’s well-intentioned colorblindness obscures the presence of race and racism rather than simply reflecting its absence. For race is certainly present in the bee.

It is hard to know how many tweets need to go out for there to be a proper sample size. But this year, same as the last, the Indian American victory was met with a bit of predictable complaining about why an American institution like the spelling bee cannot produce an American winner. More than just coupling whiteness and Americanness, the tweets also represent an anxiety about these winners.

Several years ago, a young contestant named Akshay Buddiga was asked to spell the word “alopecoid.” (Fox-like, if you were wondering.) Buddiga listened to the word, and then something happened that remains a bit of a mystery. His eyes seemed to bulge out of their sockets, he swayed a bit, and then fell to his side. Perhaps from the pressure, perhaps from a skipped lunch, Buddiga passed out on live national television. But after being on the ground for just a few seconds, he got up, fixed his glasses, walked up to the mike, spelled the word correctly, and casually walked back to his seat. The applause he received was thunderous. The other children on stage watched him, dumbfounded. The clip became something of a viral hit, before viral hits were really a thing. The whole scene was at once inspiring and disturbing, or alternately alopecoidian on the part of Buddiga, who didn’t win the bee, but is still talked about. 

On one hand, Buddiga seems to prove the cultural argument—that these kids are wildly driven in their desire to succeed, no matter the cost. But there is also something more going on here. The allure in the fall and rise of young Buddiga, as well as the allure of watching these kids perform these unusual feats, is the same allure there is in watching the freakish and exotic. The particular cruelty of the spelling bee has been to take kids in their most awkward preteen years and then air them on national TV for our enjoyment.  The bee is a freak show. And while there are white freaks—see the viral hit that Jacob Williamson became after this year’s competition—they are mostly brown freaks. 

In her excellent book Sideshow U.S.A: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination, Rachel Adams writes that freak shows are a stage for playing out “many of the century’s most charged social and political controversies, such as debates about race and empire, immigration, relations among the sexes, taste and community standards of decency.” 

So what controversy does the spelling bee play out? Behind the scenes of the falling Akshay Buddiga there must have been tiger moms and dads pushing him too far. To see these children as weird and freak-like is to show that there is a price to be paid for the type of success they have. And that price is the loss of normalcy. What these kids are able to do, and the role their parents are perceived to play in their victories, seems to help some in the audience manage its anxieties about Indian American success—which is tied in with a long history of anxiety about immigration, newcomers, and the browning of America. Thus the tweets.

The bee, both great fun to watch and a very complicated spectacle, fulfills an American desire to see Indian Americans as both freaks and geeks. The presence and absence of race operate together, transforming the bee from a historic curiosity to a yearly ritual of must-see TV.  

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Presented by

Sameer Pandya

Sameer Pandya is a lecturer in the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of a forthcoming collection of stories, The Blind Writer.

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