Skip

The Big Game.
June 2, 2014 6:58 PM   Subscribe

These Spelling Bee Champions Can Teach Us an Important Lesson About Race in America "In the past few years, the 89-year-old competition has seen a striking pattern in which Indian-American contestants have lifted the winner's trophy eight consecutive times and in 13 of the past 17 outings. Their streak feeds into years of conversation around race, achievement and immigrant success — all tied to problematic notions of what it means to be "American."
posted by sweetkid (70 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Did I really see #TiredOfIndians ?

Ugh.

#YouTooCanWinIfYouTaughtYourChildToMoveUpwardThroughEducation
posted by hal_c_on at 7:09 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]


You can simply read comments on many web sites to know what gets said about race in America and it is not pretty
posted by Postroad at 7:10 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]


The article actually says a lot more than "people are racist." I think it actually says some interesting things about how Indian Americans fit within American and minority culture.

I thought this article was much better than reading comments on websites and that's why I posted it.
posted by sweetkid at 7:12 PM on June 2 [10 favorites]


The link to the article about the North South Foundation in the main article is a good read too.

I had never really thought about the minor leagues of spelling bees.
posted by sio42 at 7:16 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]


Thanks for posting. I have read a number of essays about being East Asian in the US, but not very many about being South Asian, I'd like to read more.

Perceptions of who is "American" is such an interesting and fraught topic. It seems to me to be a mix of race, ethnicity, country of origin, accent when speaking English, and I'm sure many other factors.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:18 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


#YouTooCanWinIfYouTaughtYourChildToMoveUpwardThroughEducation

Now don't go throwing around positive stereotypes about Asians and education. The biggest surprise for me wasn't so much the reactions but that there were actually that many people watching a spelling bee. #'Murica
posted by MikeMc at 7:25 PM on June 2


I have heard that spelling bees are something that children from immigrants' families always were encouraged to do, since it's a notable achievement to master the grotesque byways of English spelling, and it's a public feat of assimilation and academic success.
posted by thelonius at 7:30 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the fact that Americans on the whole get psyched about the National Spelling Bee, but then we all also have this double-consciousness of it as an Asian-American thing or nerd thing or "Other" thing, says so much about the US and what we think of ourselves.

Like, nobody disrespects the spelling bee. Even people who'll get all "hurf durf why is this on ESPN" totally watch it. But at the same time, it's sort of held at arms' length from mainstream culture.
posted by Sara C. at 7:32 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]



The link to the article about the North South Foundation in the main article is a good read too.

I had never really thought about the minor leagues of spelling bees.


There are a lot of really good links in the article, if people get past the gross tweets.
posted by sweetkid at 7:32 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


I have heard that spelling bees are something that children from immigrants' families always were encouraged to do, since it's a notable achievement to master the grotesque byways of English spelling, and it's a public feat of assimilation and academic success.

Well, that, and also, before TV and radio, it was the perfect community-based indoor event. There's a great passage in one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books about the whole town going spelling bee crazy over the course of several weeks one winter.
posted by Sara C. at 7:33 PM on June 2 [4 favorites]


I'm not up on this discussion or subculture, but isn't the very notion of a spelling bee implicitly a mine-field for racism?

There are a lot of dialects out there, and spelling (particularly from rote memory) isn't necessarily a useful skill in this day and age.

I guess I'm just more or less continually perplexed by the American educational meme of turning anachronistic things into competitions for seemingly no reason.
posted by schmod at 7:33 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]


isn't the very notion of a spelling bee implicitly a mine-field for racism?

No?
posted by sweetkid at 7:34 PM on June 2 [18 favorites]


That was a good article and I'd really be interested to see a further exploration of a few subjects broached in it--first, the elevation of Asian minority status above that of many other groups (based primarily, I guess on the stereotypical traits highlighted in the article--hard work, family, etc.); second, more of an explanation for why it is, actually, that Indian Americans have so dominated this competition in recent memory. The article only sort of hints at it, suggesting that participation in the North South Foundation is the critical component, yet there has to be some cultural element at play here, right?

Also, I could have done without the article being introduced by those despicable tweets. Ugh.
posted by MoonOrb at 7:36 PM on June 2


Funny how few of the racist tweeters had stereotypically native american names.
posted by jenkinsEar at 7:37 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]


Asian minority status above that of many other groups (based primarily, I guess on the stereotypical traits highlighted in the article--hard work, family, etc.);

The article also talks about Indian Americans being "better educated, more likely to have strong English language skills and arrive on employment-based visas, and ... less likely to live below the federal poverty line than the overall foreign-born population."

My Indian immigrant parents and their cohort all had professional degrees before coming to the U.S., men and women.
posted by sweetkid at 7:39 PM on June 2 [6 favorites]


And according to a 2009 Department of Justice student survey, these same students — namely those of East Asian, South Asian and South Pacific heritage — are "the most likely of all racial groups to report verbal abuse relating to their race, ethnicity or religion."
I really wish I could go back and implant this into the #CancelColbert discussion from a few months ago, on the subject of "Asian-American is the last racial group it's considered publicly acceptable to make fun of."
posted by Sara C. at 7:39 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]


That anyone with a Spanish, Italian, or Slavic last name would complain about no one with "American sounding names" in the finals? Well, just how stupid can you get, anyway? And maybe that's the lesson - you don't get to be a "real" American until people look at you and suspect that you might just as dumb as everyone else.
posted by 1adam12 at 7:45 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


The article also talks about Indian Americans being "better educated, more likely to have strong English language skills and arrive on employment-based visas, and ... less likely to live below the federal poverty line than the overall foreign-born population."

I thought that was a salient point in the article and it would be fascinating to read more about this as the perception that Asian success is attributable to primarily hard work and strong family connections is a pretty pernicious one in America, I feel like. I wonder if the same is true for East Asian immigrants as well as South Asian immigrants? Like, if you were to closely analyze successful immigrants from East Asia would you find that they also had strong English language skills/advanced degrees/arrived on work visas?

When I think about my in laws and their cohort, they immigrated generally without these things, although one thing going in favor of my in laws at least was the support and encouragement of a sponsor family.
posted by MoonOrb at 7:45 PM on June 2


I dunno, it means so much more to win a spelling bee if people look at you and think you don't speak English. I know plenty of white parents who really push their kids in education but wouldn't think of a spelling bee as interesting or desirable to participate in.
posted by miyabo at 7:47 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


I thought that was a salient point in the article and it would be fascinating to read more about this as the perception that Asian success is attributable to primarily hard work and strong family connections is a pretty pernicious one in America, I feel like. I wonder if the same is true for East Asian immigrants as well as South Asian immigrants? Like, if you were to closely analyze successful immigrants from East Asia would you find that they also had strong English language skills/advanced degrees/arrived on work visas?

I don't know that much about the makeup of East Asian immigrants, but since India and Pakistan were British colonies for a long time, English is pretty strong there, especially for the middle class &higher. English is one of the two national languages of India (other being Hindi).

Also, yeah, the hard work and strong family connections is a thing, but when your parents have professional degrees you're not like slogging your way up as much. People are starting on a higher level.
posted by sweetkid at 7:50 PM on June 2 [5 favorites]


I'll also say, on the subject of the South Asian Spelling Be Thing, that one of my best friends from high school had a younger brother who went on to be one of the finalists in the National Spelling Bee.

Yes, their family is Indian-American. I'm not sure whether it was via the North South Foundation.

On the one hand, their family didn't strike me as the type to enter their kids into all kinds of weird academic competitions; they seemed pretty well-adjusted as a family of professors with over-achieving genius kids goes. And I didn't get the sense that M was doing the Bee out of some "Indian Kid" thing -- I ran in gifted kid circles, and there were kids of all races doing smarty pants over-achiever things. I mean, my family didn't seem like "the type to enter their kids into all kinds of weird academic competitions", and yet I was a finalist in the state Geography Bee and won the state Social Studies Olympics (or whatever the fuck it was called).

At the end of the day, I think it's just the American Gifted Kid Industrial Complex, in general. Which includes a lot of Indian-Americans, but also a lot of people who aren't Indian-American.
posted by Sara C. at 7:52 PM on June 2 [4 favorites]


I was really good at spelling bees but didn't get past my regional level. I was a national award winning writer (Scholastic etc) from the age of ten on though, and sometimes people would still ask me when I came to this country.
posted by sweetkid at 7:58 PM on June 2




A more whimsical take: Hari Kondabolu's KondaBulletin: Spelling Bee Edition

Ooh he's wearing a Jawbone Up in that clip! I have that same one! South Asian Americans - winnin bees, makin jokes, trackin steps.
posted by sweetkid at 8:13 PM on June 2 [4 favorites]


I guess I'm just more or less continually perplexed by the American educational meme of turning anachronistic things into competitions for seemingly no reason.

This seems like the definition of education, "turning anachronistic things into competitions." I wouldn't be surprised if the first school for scribes to ever exist after the invention of writing held calligraphy competitions, or maybe even the school itself arose out of a calligraphy competition.
posted by XMLicious at 8:18 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]


The most important factor in the history of Indian immigration in the last half-century is the Immigration Act of 1965, which repealed racial quotas. Before that, Indians were barred from immigration from 1917 to 1946; in 1946, 100 Indians per year were granted status. Though India gained independence in 1947 and became the world's largest democracy, it was still only an infinitesimal number who were allowed into the country for two decades. Competition for those places was, as you might imagine, quite high. So even after 1965, the pattern of high achievement as necessary for immigration was quite set.

Then, also, legal immigration is really expensive, especially to a country which did not for many years offer the same pre-existing social net found in England, for example. Those who wanted to immigrate had to leave whole families and social structures behind. Indian families are fairly close-knit entities, so the people who wanted to come here had to really, really want it. Then they had to be able to afford it. Then they had to be well-educated enough to pass merit tests and earn skilled employment visas.

The U.S. has never fought a war in India or with India. So there is no tradition of American servicemen taking Indian brides or having Indian-American children abroad, which immigration conditions would have been governed by the War Bride's Act and the Fiance's Act post-WWII. Which also means that there is no tradition or stereotype of mixed families of service members, which traditions have been factors in the assimilation of Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, and Japanese immigrants. Further, those conditions presume a sort of paternalism, where the white serviceman "saves" a lower-status Asian and brings them to "civilization".

Indians had to come here largely on their own, largely recently, and largely by way of demonstrated merits. Then, as sweetkid points out, those who fit those criteria would already almost certainly be fluent in the dominant American language. So they showed up in communities which had no prior experience with them, equipped for high-status employment and with a heritage of class privilege, and they didn't need anyone's help to start speaking.

This isn't the model of Asian immigration that Americans are used to, or that preserves the ingrained notion of white supremacy. Indians in the U.S. are, for the most part, racially close to Caucasian, culturally high-achieving, and fiscally high-status. Aside from brown skin, a majority of them are born into a great deal of privilege. This makes a lot of white Americans very uncomfortable. Hence, despicable tweets and the odd terrorist joke, with a smattering of "no, where are you really from?"
posted by Errant at 8:19 PM on June 2 [57 favorites]



racially close to Caucasian

See also United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, for a ridiculous argument about who gets to call themselves Caucasian.
posted by sweetkid at 8:25 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]


Also from that article, In 1965–1970, 27,859 Indian immigrants entered the United States. Immigration from India in 1965–1993 was 558,980.

The 1965-1993 wave produced a ton of American born people of Indian origin who are adults now and getting into media and culture and Metafilter and it's sort of an amazing thing that means the culture is just getting to be talked about now.
posted by sweetkid at 8:27 PM on June 2 [5 favorites]


Also jeez Errant you make some great comments.
posted by sweetkid at 8:30 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


Indian families are fairly close-knit entities, so the people who wanted to come here had to really, really want it.

People always talk about opportunity but I swear my father came here to get away from his family. My mom is close to hers but I guess she loved the guy. She closed her medical practice to come to the US at 31, before I was born. She recently told me she told some of the people in her practice she'd come back if the whole marriage/America thing didn't work out (!!!)
posted by sweetkid at 8:33 PM on June 2


but when your parents have professional degrees you're not like slogging your way up as much. People are starting on a higher level.

We used to joke about the "double doctor families" (like Mom and Dad are both docs) in underserved areas like Bourbonnais, IL, and how lots of other Indian kids end up in South Carolina or West Virginia or Alabama because they need a doc and can't find a doc that's non-Indian willing to live there. Thus, we get guys like Aziz Ansari coming up in South Carolina rather than a better area that has more Indians because Dad's an Indian-educated gastroenterologist.
posted by discopolo at 8:35 PM on June 2 [2 favorites]


Aziz Ansari coming up in South Carolina rather than a better area that has more Indians

Better area? Better how?
posted by sweetkid at 8:40 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


Yeah, U.S. v Thind was the case I was thinking of when I wrote that near-Caucasian thing. And we're just now in the third- or fourth-generation of Indian-Americans, which is usually right around when true assimilation starts to happen whether or not the culture is ready for it. Hence also Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, Kal Penn, Bobby Jindal, Deval Patrick, and so on.

People always talk about opportunity but I swear my father came here to get away from his family. 

Sure, to be clear, I was speaking specifically of that very first 1965 wave and what it would generally take (which your family may have been part of, of course; mine came ten years later, after the explosion and with extended friends/family already in New York where they landed).

Also jeez Errant

Aw, shucks.
posted by Errant at 8:40 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


how lots of other Indian kids end up in South Carolina or West Virginia or Alabama because...

I was actually wondering how much of the Spelling Bee culture might have to do with that very thing. Both because of the English speaking and the tendency to come on educational visas or high-demand work visas, it's my impression that South Asians tend to be more spread out within the US and are less likely to live in ethnic enclaves. So you've got this whole first generation of kids growing up in random bumfuck America doing random bumfuck America activities like Spelling Bees.

I mean didn't the story used to be about how Mormons and homeschoolers dominated the Bee every year?
posted by Sara C. at 8:41 PM on June 2 [4 favorites]


Like, if you were to closely analyze successful immigrants from East Asia would you find that they also had strong English language skills/advanced degrees/arrived on work visas?

Yes, exactly. For a long time essentially the only East Asian immigrants allowed were scientists, doctors, engineers, etc--these were overwhelmingly Chinese and Japanese immigrants. If you look at specific East Asian populations allowed in for other reasons, like asylum, you get a more typical "poverty begets poverty" pattern. The Hmong are an excellent example.

---------------

I remember when I first went to college and met significant numbers of South and East Asians I was shocked to find they were as racist against Blacks and Latinos than whites from similar economic backgrounds. I was the kind of only-knew-white-people naive Midwestern liberal who believed in some kind of "minority solidarity", where an Indian-American child born to a successful cardiologist who grew up in private schools would totally immediately sympathize with the experience of a Black kid who grew up in Chicago's South Side. DUR. Many of these kids were second generation and figured if their parents could make it big within one generation in the USA than those other minorities shouldn't be having any trouble, and racism couldn't be that big a deal.

Anyway something that I think about when we start talking about racism involving varied minority groups.

Also, I look at the bullying statistics and wonder: how much of that is because US schools are more likely to be majority Black or majority White, but very rarely (if ever) majority East or South Asian? That is, does the lone South Asian kid in a majority Black school get bullied as much as the lone White kid? Would the lone East Asian kid in a majority White school get bullied as much as the lone Black kid? Etc.
posted by schroedinger at 8:43 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]


And I see Errant made essentially the same point about racial quotas.
posted by schroedinger at 8:45 PM on June 2



Also, I look at the bullying statistics and wonder: how much of that is because US schools are more likely to be majority Black or majority White, but very rarely (if ever) majority East or South Asian? That is, does the lone South Asian kid in a majority Black school get bullied as much as the lone White kid? Would the lone East Asian kid in a majority White school get bullied as much as the lone Black kid? Etc.


I grew up in very white Northern Virginia in the 80s/90s (it is much more diverse now, MUCH) and I didn't get bullied so much for being Indian American as much for being "ugly." I have curly hair, so black kids would call me Oreo cookie (??), and white kids would just call me ugly. I just didn't look like anyone else. There were a couple other Indian kids in my school but not many. My brother didn't get bullied because he was really good at sports and was a popular kid.

I do feel like it had something to do with racism because the minute I went to college in Boston no one ever called me ugly any more.

I don't know, my story probably has nothing to do with those statistics.
posted by sweetkid at 8:48 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]


how much of that is because US schools are more likely to be majority Black or majority White, but very rarely (if ever) majority East or South Asian?

One thing that shocked me about that stat is that it's for students in the New York Public School System. Which is incredibly diverse. And, yes, there lots of schools that have sizable Asian-American populations. Some schools (especially at the elementary and middle school level) probably are predominantly Asian-American. It wouldn't be the case in NYC that most schools would only have one or two Asian kids who'd be obvious targets of bullying.
posted by Sara C. at 8:49 PM on June 2


I didn't notice that, that IS weird Sara C. Really weird.
posted by sweetkid at 8:49 PM on June 2


I don't know that it's "weird". I think it's just racism, and not easily attributed to said bullied kids just being total outlier oddballs who would be obvious targets. It's just OK to be openly racist towards Asians, in American culture, and these statistics bear it out.
posted by Sara C. at 8:51 PM on June 2


true. I dunno, I guess in my case I felt like it was because I was "different" but yeah, it definitely seems like it's OK to be racist towards Asians.
posted by sweetkid at 8:53 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


There was a recent PNAS paper (... here: "Explaining Asian Americans’ academic advantage over whites." Amy Hsina and Yu Xieb,c,1 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1406402111) suggesting that expectations at home (parents) and their facilitation (time spent helping with homework, money spent for tutors, &c.) of academic achievement is the primary cause for "Asians are better students."

The authors speculate, and I agree, that the perception that academic success increases the odds of economic success is the main driver of this phenomenon.

The academic success gap decreases linearly with the number of generations in country (ie., non-recent immigrants).

Personally, I totally recognize that while growing up in the 80's/90's my folks sacrificed a lot for my education (for sports, not so much). Too bad I ended up with a PhD in the molecular life sciences and proved the academic/economic success thing was bogus.=S
posted by porpoise at 8:55 PM on June 2


I guess in my case I felt like it was because I was "different" but yeah

Well, yeah, that too of course. I also think that the sort of nebulous "racism" idea manifests in a lot of ways, so you probably have examples where some kids are really like the only non-Christian in town and get bullied about that, and sometimes it does manifest as being about looks or "you smell weird" or other Mean Girl stuff, and other times it's straight up capital r Racism.

I think that in looking at a city with a large Asian population, it becomes clear that it's not just "well Asian kids are outlier oddities who are just more likely to be bullied just because and like it's just human nature and stuff".
posted by Sara C. at 8:58 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]



People always talk about opportunity but I swear my father came here to get away from his family.

Sure, to be clear, I was speaking specifically of that very first 1965 wave and what it would generally take (which your family may have been part of, of course; mine came ten years later, after the explosion and with extended friends/family already in New York where they landed).


No, I wasn't contradicting you, just thinking about my parents' story because I think it's funny that it's the age old "get the hell away from my crazy family" in my father's case, less "land of opportunity."

No my parents came ten years later too (well, dad in 72, mom in 74).
posted by sweetkid at 8:58 PM on June 2


That's sort of what I was trying to get at. Because the visible Indian-American population is, again speaking very generally, soaked with privilege, because their characteristics are at once familiar and alien, there is, I think, a racist uncanny valley effect which takes refuge in the notion that discrimination against Indian-Americans is a kind of punching up. If they're doing so well, you can't be racist at them, goes my interpretation of the theory.
posted by Errant at 8:59 PM on June 2


And hey, "get away from my crazy family" is what sent me to New Orleans and then Seattle, so I can get down with what your family was selling.
posted by Errant at 9:00 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


Indian-Americans is a kind of punching up. If they're doing so well, you can't be racist at them, goes my interpretation of the theory.

MY BROTHER THINKS THIS. It is so annoying. He thinks racism is only if you are denied housing or a job because of your skin color, and reverse racism, and a bunch of other crap.

The economic advantages can provide a cushion against feeling racism personally for a lot of Indian American people.
posted by sweetkid at 9:02 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, most of the racist comments I hear from my racist family, on the subject of Asian-Americans, are about how they're all coming to America and taking over everything and getting into all the good schools and building big houses and such. It's like some bizarro world equivalent of "stealing all our jobs" where "all our jobs" equals "jobs nobody in our community is actually qualified to do because we don't value education". Like people are super mad at Asians for having the nerve to be rich and successful. So fucking weird.
posted by Sara C. at 9:05 PM on June 2 [6 favorites]



Indian-Americans is a kind of punching up. If they're doing so well, you can't be racist at them, goes my interpretation of the theory.

MY BROTHER THINKS THIS. It is so annoying. He thinks racism is only if you are denied housing or a job because of your skin color, and reverse racism, and a bunch of other crap.

The economic advantages can provide a cushion against feeling racism personally for a lot of Indian American people.



I mean, as we can see from the conservative Indian American politicians (shut up Bobby Jindal).
posted by sweetkid at 9:05 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


Spelling bees were a big deal when I was a kid. I went to a lot of elementary schools (27), and I can't think of any offhand where that wasn't a typical project. I usually placed well. But, hell, this isn't about how well a bunch of kids can spell words they'll never use, is it?

My mother and her generation used to talk about how the Japanese kids...she meant Nisei kids...all were smart and went to college...yadayada. The generalization in those days was that they wanted to grow up to be doctors and lawyers and such, not farmers like their parents--the Issei--who came here from Japan in the 30's and 40's. Maybe there's fodder for racists there. I know that I've heard plenty about how Asians are inherently good at math. One myth was that this was caused by countless generations having to use an abacus. This was at a time when folks of Japanese ancestry were forbidden to own land in certain sections of Fresno County.

A more reasonable idea is that these folks understood the value of an education to an American, and worked hard to see that their kids got one.

I once read something (can't cite it, don't remember) to the effect that the California Indians were relieved to see the glut of Chinese labor arrive during the Gold Rush in California, because, it seems, that the Chinese were deemed to be even lower in the social pecking order than the Native Americans. There is irony. But the machine was in motion even then: immigrants are shit, and need to be reviled by us actual Americans.

Now that we've discovered that Americans of Chinese and Japanese ancestry are not inherently better at math than the rest of us, I guess we can look forward to the day when they, too, grow complacent, and become as ignorant as we are.

I won't hold my breath, though. I don't think we'll run out of immigrants until we stop creating refugees, and we don't seem to be approaching that notion with any enthusiasm.
posted by mule98J at 9:09 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


[Heya, sweetkid, once you've made a big plurality of the comments in your own post it's probably time to sort of step away from the thread and let it be other people discussing the link.]
posted by cortex at 9:49 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


One thing that shocked me about that stat is that it's for students in the New York Public School System. Which is incredibly diverse. And, yes, there lots of schools that have sizable Asian-American populations. Some schools (especially at the elementary and middle school level) probably are predominantly Asian-American. It wouldn't be the case in NYC that most schools would only have one or two Asian kids who'd be obvious targets of bullying.

Ohhhh, I did not catch that at all. You're right, that changes the "oddball kid out" aspect of it.
posted by schroedinger at 10:05 PM on June 2


My experience as one of three Indian-Americans in an affluent, predominantly white school system is that I was pretty much just ignored by the majority of people. I didn't feel especially connected to the system, but I didn't feel especially ostracized either. I was just kind of there, and no one really talked about it much.
posted by Errant at 10:18 PM on June 2


Exhibit A: At this point, it's almost a foregone conclusion that xenophobic vitriol would engulf Twitter after Sunjoe and Hathwar's win.

I've been watching the bee for years, almost decades now. And my favorite the kid who fainted, arose, and spelled the word correctly.

Um, isn't hate and anonymous outrage the sine qua non of twtter? And a bit of Tumblr too. And blogs in general?

I think that it's worth a look at how people have come to relate to each other given the internet.

Sueypark recently started shopping for a husband via twitter - which to me indicates that the internet has become the primary avenue of relating to people for some.

I met and lived for five years with a woman and her children that I met on AOL.
posted by vapidave at 11:27 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


Better area? Better how?

A place that is less likely to be overtly racist, or at least a state that doesn't think creationism should be taught alongside evolution, and has more opportunities for a young non-white person to interact with people of lots of different cultural backgrounds.
posted by discopolo at 11:37 PM on June 2


Ah, "spelling bees", the first thing I didn't get when I read a translation of a Xanth novel (soon followed by "why does anybody like that?").

Europe doesn't seem to be very interested in that. Looking at Wikipedia, it's a North American/Asian thing. Really wonder why, it's not like the rest of the world doesn't like education or competition. Maybe memorizing things is getting out of vogue in the educational world? My parents had to learn a lot more poems in school than I died, and from what I've heard that trend is increasing (And good riddance. I fail to see a big value in learning all nine thousand stanzas of "Die Glocke")
posted by pseudocode at 12:07 AM on June 3


Think about the U.S. as an immigrant nation, and the educational / indoctrinational value of teaching children English via rote memorization and, at higher levels, the interplay of roots, prefixes, and suffixes, and spelling bees have an enormous value in communicating the tropes and mores of contemporary English.

Which, I think, is what makes Twitter so mad, when "foreign" kids already have all that shit and are better at it than "Americans".
posted by Errant at 12:26 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]


Three reasons come to mind:

1. English spelling is weird and hard. Obviously this wouldn't prevent Britain from having spelling bees as well, but it probably excludes France*, Germany, Poland, Hungary, etc.

2. The tradition started in the 19th century, which was a time where American culture was spreading across the continent, and white people were settling in remote areas. There wasn't a ton of culture or stuff to do in these new settlements, but all you needed was a dictionary to throw a spelling bee.

3. The 19th century was also a period of democratization of the educational system in the US, and there were a few other accessibly academic cultural trends going on around the same time. Like the Chatauqua movement.

*Ironic, since it's all their damn fault our words are spelled so weird. Dumb Normans.
posted by Sara C. at 12:29 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


I live in a part of Northern Virginia that has a significant Asian (mostly South Asian) population. This is largely tied to the IT sector here. My kids' school is 56% white, 30% Asian; the other elementary schools in the immediate area are 53% white, 32% Asian; 38% white, 46% Asian; and 21% white, 63% Asian. The middle school they feed to is 42% white and 38% Asian, and the new high school opening this fall to serve this area may well end up being majority Asian.

We have Indian cultural organizations here that run spelling bees and other contests (like MastiSpell.com), and they are open to anyone. This year's National Geographic bee winner, Akhil Rekulapelli, is a student at our middle school.

There are some white people in our neighborhood who think our being rezoned to this new high school is "too much" and are moving because they are afraid their kids will struggle to compete academically; on the other hand, some white people are excited because they think their kids will have a chance to get on sports teams because Indians don't play football. (Sigh.) In general, though, there isn't some sort of White Panic, because the South Asian population here isn't a monolith. There are Indians and Pakistanis; Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs; Hindi, Gujarati, Telugu, Bengali, Punjabi; first-generation, second-generation, third-generation. Also, this is a well-educated and expensive area; the color that matters here is green.
posted by candyland at 4:42 AM on June 3


Not to take away from the good discussion going on here, but a post structured around "look at these awful things a dozen people said on Twitter" is just inexcusably hacky journalism for the social media age. When you allow tens of millions of people to opt-in to nuance-free discussions, you're going to get some shitty people saying shitty things.

And if you cherry pick the worst among them, of course you'll have some juicy anacdotes. Why are media types so enthralled by this? Why aren't there Serious Articles about YouTube comments, Yahoo! Answers, and other cesspools instead?

(Hint, it's because Twitter makes it easier to search and embed what people write, so it's a fast source for lazy hackery.)
posted by graphnerd at 5:10 AM on June 3 [3 favorites]


I remember when I first went to college and met significant numbers of South and East Asians I was shocked to find they were as racist against Blacks and Latinos than whites from similar economic backgrounds.

If you look into international adoption, one of the things you'll run into is a strongly worded ban by India on choosing children based on skin color. Apparently this has been an issue amongst Indian adoptive families and has been extended to foreigners. Whether this color issue is the result of British influence or something inherent in Indian society, I don't know.

I also was involved in sponsoring a refugee family of a Laotian hill tribe into the US, a few years after the war in Vietnam ended. Shortly after they arrived, it became clear they had some prejudices against American blacks, though whether it was a result of culture differences of behavior, exposure to American soldiers' racism, or simply a result of their having looked around at our society and seen who was succeeding and who was not, was never clear to us. Oddly their ethnic group was looked down upon a bit by other Asians, who sort of treated them like ignorant country bumpkins.
posted by etaoin at 5:24 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


I probably have a unique perspective on this issue, because I won the National Spelling Bee in 1986 and my immediate predecessor, Balu Natarajan, was the first Indian-American to win the National Spelling Bee in 1985. I was briefly pen pals with Balu, and we each traded a copy of the list of words we had to spell in order to win the bee. Balu later became Dr. Balu Natarajan, a specialist in sports medicine in the Chicago area, and I got to see him appear in the documentary Spellbound. I eventually got to see the producer of Spellbound at a screening of the documentary, and I believe they included Balu in the film for the simple reason that the relative uniqueness of his name (at least in an American context) made him easy for the makers of the film to track down. I wouldn't be surprised if Balu's participation in Spellbound as an older speller encouraged an increase in Indian-American interest in the bee.

Indian-Americans were already a force as competitors in the National Spelling Bee when I was a contestant in 1986, but they didn't dominate the bee as much as they do today, and I suspect that the farm team system of spelling bees developed by the Indian-American North-South Foundation is the reason why. When I was a competitor in the bee, the kids with a reputation for winning the bee were not Indian-American, but kids from Colorado (although the two groups are not necessarily mutually exclusive). The reason is that, in order to win the right to represent the Rocky Mountain News at the National Spelling Bee, a kid had to beat everybody in the state of Colorado in addition to everybody in the state of Wyoming.

Indian-American domination of the spelling bee can be explained in a similar fashion. As a result of the North-South Foundation encouraging Indian-American participation in the National Spelling Bee, there are some local bees where you have two or more extremely good spellers battling it out apocalyptically just to a win a basic regional championship. For this reason, the harder the competition you have before you get into the National Spelling Bee, the better you are likely to be when you actually compete in the National Spelling Bee. It's just like baseball. The players who do the best in "the big show" are those who had to work the hardest in the minor leagues.
posted by jonp72 at 6:44 AM on June 3 [12 favorites]


The notion of a tie is what is idiotic about this whole thing. Did they run out of English words? The spelling be finals should be pursued with a "Thunderdome" mentality: Two nerds enter. One nerd leaves.
posted by Renoroc at 7:20 AM on June 3


I have only one issue with the spelling bee winner...there was no winner. Seriously how can the organizers of an ever more competitive contest not be prepared for an extended finals? After 24 words they declared a tie? The number of words in the English language is: 1,025,109. Even after eliminating Twerking you still have 1,025,108.
posted by Gungho at 7:58 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Not to take away from the good discussion going on here, but a post structured around "look at these awful things a dozen people said on Twitter" is just inexcusably hacky journalism for the social media age.

Maybe these Tweets are not representative of most Americans' attitudes, or at least maybe less so than in the past, but it's still a pretty pervasive attitude that Asians are immigrants or visitors, who can't or won't be assimilated. There was an article in the Stranger recently about some Asian Americans who were asked "So, is this your first time in the United States?" by a waiter at a restaurant in Seattle, which has a pretty big Asian American population, and is a city most would consider liberal and cosmopolitan. The author described it as a "microaggression," though I'm not sure of the level of willful aggression on the waiter's part. It was more of a slip made because of a general view of Asians as not quite American. People point to Asian "success," either economically or financially, as evidence to the contrary, but even Asians successful in this way are not seen as American in the sense that they are individuals. They're more like a faceless mass of hardworking automatons who are willing to deal with an inhuman level of drudgery. Creativity, pluck, character, etc. are not usually associated with Asian Americans, and these are things that are essential to being American. There's a spectrum of this attitude from the outright foreigner view seen in those Tweets about the Spelling Bee champs to the milder kind like seen in that interaction with the waiter.
posted by ChuckRamone at 7:59 AM on June 3 [7 favorites]


Jeez, the short article is about South and East Asians; will white people ever stop relishing telling us how much even non-whites hate black people?
posted by deathmaven at 8:10 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Jeez, the short article is about South and East Asians; will white people ever stop relishing telling us how much even non-whites hate black people?

I think it's kinda strange that South and East Asians get lumped together like that. South Asians are arguably more "Western" than people of East Asia.
posted by ChuckRamone at 8:16 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]


Maybe these Tweets are not representative of most Americans' attitudes, or at least maybe less so than in the past, but it's still a pretty pervasive attitude that Asians are immigrants or visitors, who can't or won't be assimilated

Yeah, I can absolutely see that, and didn't mean to dismiss the obvious concerns. And I'm glad there's MetaFilter to facilitate the real discussion on the topic.

But the article itself was just not good.
posted by graphnerd at 11:17 AM on June 3


ChuckRamone, thanks for that link. As I read the rest of your comment, specifically the part about how Asian Americans aren't often seen as creative types, I actually thought "Yeah! Everyone needs to read Don Lee's The Collective!" and then I clicked the link and saw that he'd written the article. Synchronicity! He's great and I'm glad to have happened upon the article.
posted by sunset in snow country at 12:36 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]


Agreed, great comment ChuckRamone, and interesting article from the Stranger. (Don't read the comments, I did ugh).
posted by sweetkid at 12:38 PM on June 3


« Older Can't Say I Don't Sympathize   |   all that is gold does not glitter Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post