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How Do You Spell S-T-E-R-E-O-T-Y-P-E?

Asian-American spelling bee champions are real Americans.

This article originally appeared in Pacific Standard on April 6, 2015.

By Shalini Shankar

New York City fifth-grader Anil Singh just won a trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee (“metachrosis”). He will be joined by eighth-grader Sai Chandrasekhar, who won her third Daily News Spelling Bee (“oleiculture”). These returning favorites are following in the footsteps of the former regional winner, 2013 National Spelling Bee Champion Arvind Mahankali. Like 13-year-old Vanya Shivashankar, younger sister of 2009 National Spelling Bee champion Kavya, who won her fourth consecutive Kansas Spelling Bee, Anil and Sai delighted audiences, but did not surprise them.

For the past three decades, more than half of the National Spelling Bee winners have been Indian American. Spellers of Indian-American heritage have won every Bee since 2007. Last year featured Indian-American co-champions, an occurrence not seen since 1962. Their victory was met with racially charged responses that only “Americans” should win the National Spelling Bee.

Scrolling through the Facebook page or the Twitter feed of the Scripps National Spelling Bee indicates that the contest remains a diverse competition—at least at the start. In addition to a number of first-time winners who will soon make their debut on a national stage in National Harbor, Maryland, familiar faces of returning competitors reflect a variety of races and ethnicities.

But by the final round in 2014, nearly half of the 13 finalists were Indian American. Do Indian-American kids keep winning because they, like other Asian Americans, are considered a “model minority?”

Originally touting the economic self-reliance and social stability of Chinese and Japanese Americans, the term “model minority” was offered by the New York Times and U.S. News & World Report in 1966 to praise Asian Americans for their economic and social self-sufficiency, largely in contrast with African Americans and others engaged in militant struggles for civil rights. The term has since been used to laud the success of immigrants from South Asia, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia as well.

The emergence of the Asian-American “tiger mother,” who prioritizes educational success above all else, sets the stage for many to understand champion spellers as rote memorizers with overbearing parents. Yet, as other scholars have opined, this type of cultural essentialism does not apply to all Asian Americans, as I illustrated in my book Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class and Success in Silicon Valley. Moreover, the tiger phenomenon posits the success of Asian Americans against the perceived shortcomings of other races that may not achieve comparable levels of success.

Thus, model minority may seem like a positive term, especially compared to unflattering stereotypes of other racial minorities, but many Asian Americans do not fit the stereotype at all. And those who may fit the typecasting can face backlash ranging from quotas set for Asian-American college applicants to statistics about the “bamboo ceiling” as a barrier to advancement into the higher echelons of corporate America. And policy studies confirm that income gaps are increasing within the Asian-American population, complicating the narrative of uniform Asian-American advancement.

For the past three decades, more than half of the National Spelling Bee winners have been Indian American.

Nonetheless, the tiger class certainly exists—but does this alone ensure spelling success for Asian-American kids? It remains difficult to discern why Indian American spellers dominate over Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, and other Asian ethnicities.

The legacy of British colonialism in South Asia, and the English-medium education system where spellers’ parents studied, might play a role in this success. At least one, if not both parents of Indian American spellers tend to be English-speaking professionals who learned the Queen’s English. This seems to have given Indian-American spellers an edge over the other main English-speaking Asian immigrant group—Filipino Americans.

English speaking, professional, and educationally oriented doesn’t just describe some Indian Americans; it describes the majority of upper-middle-class families in the United States.

To understand why Indian Americans continue to dominate spelling bees, we could also consider the multiple spelling bee competitions aimed at children of South Asian parentage.

The North South Foundation is a non-profit that since 1989 has held numerous regional and national educational competitions to edify Indian Americans while also raising funds and awareness about educational experiences in India.

Along with the South Asian Spelling Bee, a promotion sponsored by MetLife as well as other companies since 2007, these contests have created a minor league spelling bee circuit for Indian-American children. In my ethnographic research, spellers and parents I interviewed attested to the value of these additional opportunities in honing their craft for the mother of all spelling bees—the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

What this adds up to is weeks, months, and years of dedicated spelling bee preparation, often at the cost of more popular childhood activities. These spellers, between the ages of six and 14, know that they are missing out on participating more fully in athletics, leisure, and other kinds of socializing. They bond with other spellers at competitions and on social media because they know that they are not like many other kids.

What they also know is that they are American. They may be of Indian parentage but most were born in the U.S., and most attend elementary and middle schools throughout this country.

Certainly there are worse things for a school-age child than being profiled as smart and a good speller. But it is the nature of the name-calling and online bullying along racial lines that is troubling. The assertion is that these keen wordsmiths are not truly American and they do not belong here.

As the National Spelling Bee approaches this May, it is worth remembering that America has more than 100 million minorities—a third of its overall population. A white speller may not win the spelling bee, but an American certainly will.

Shalini Shankar is an associate professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at Northwestern University

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