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?
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.

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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