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.