Spelling bee win sparks debate over Indians in America

When the confetti fell on Sriram Hathwar, 14, and Ansun Sujoe, 13, at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, it did not just mark the first time in half a century that two students tied for first place - it also marked the seventh consecutive year the prestigious American contest was won by a person of Indian descent.

Yet, the clear dominance of Indians - even if those students were born in the United States and speak with American accents - sparked a racist and xenophobic backlash from a section of US netizens.

In the immediate aftermath of the historic win on May 29, social media was filled with comments such as "We need an American to win this spelling bee #tiredofindians" and "The kids in the spelling bee should only be American".

But while the attacks likely came from a small group, the racist tweets shine a light on the not entirely comfortable relations between Americans and a growing population of new immigrants, particularly Indians and other Asians.

The US Census Bureau says the number of Asians increased 43 per cent in 10 years, hitting 14.5 million in 2010.

During the same period, the largest minority, the Hispanics, also grew by 43 per cent to reach 50.5 million, while white Americans grew by just 1 per cent to hit 196.8 million, or 64 per cent of the population, down from 69 per cent in 2000.

Author Tim Wise who writes on the topic of racism says events like the spelling bee are "uniquely American institutions", and racism or xenophobia becomes particularly blatant when some Americans perceive their institution is being threatened by someone not accepted as "fully American".

History and Asian American studies professor Vinay Lal of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), agrees that "among large sectors of the white Protestant population, the feeling persists that they are the true inheritors of the meaning of America and the genuine representatives of the American ethos".

Many will also recall how last year, Ms Nina Davuluri - the first Indian American to be crowned Miss America - was called a "terrorist" and "Miss Muslim" (even though she is a practising Hindu).

"Just as with the spelling bee, it was perceived by many that a 'foreigner' had won this American contest," says Mr Wise.

In that sense, the problem holds parallels to the complaint heard frequently in Singapore - that globalisation and the influx of foreigners is providing stiff competition in every facet of life from school to the workplace.

Some Americans have become increasingly anxious about having to share resources with the growing immigrant population, say academics.

They will have to compete for access to elite schools, good jobs and even the label of "American", says Mr Wise. Universities in the state of California, for instance, have in recent years seen various attempts to lower the proportion of Asian American students.

After schools were banned from having race-based admissions policies in 1996, Asian American enrolments soared and they represent around 40 per cent of the student population in many Californian colleges.

In response, some have tweaked admissions policies to place less weight on written exams that Asians excel at while also pushing for a reinstatement of affirmative action. State legislators are now trying to introduce an affirmative action measure, up for a public vote in the November congressional elections.

And it is not surprising that Indian Americans feel increasing hostility as they are a "highly successful ethnic group", says Prof Vinay Lal.

For example, in 2012, the US Census Bureau said Indian American households had a median income of US$96,782 (S$121,000), nearly double that of the median household income across the US which was US$51,371.

"I think Indian Americans are regarded as successful in a variety of occupations, as people who are materially comfortable and as role models in terms of educational achievements," says Dr Masum Momaya, curator of Beyond Bollywood, an exhibition on the contributions of Indian Americans in the US at the National Museum of Natural History.

But in spite of how well they are regarded, "they are also perceived by some in society as outsiders, as not American", she says.

Yet, not all can agree on what all this says about the overall state of race relations in the US.

Some like UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who teaches free speech law, believe a few hundred people expressing racist sentiments do not indicate much about general hostility at large.

In fact, he raises the point that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and North Carolina Governor Nikki Haley are Indian American and represent a fraction of population far larger than the population of Indian Americans in the US. "That's not a sign, I think, of a country that is broadly 'unhappy' about Indian American success," he argues.

Dr Momaya agrees that many people embrace the Indian American spelling bee winners as Americans and respect their efforts in preparing for the competition.

While she hopes that racist comments are the sentiment of the minority, she is quick to add: "The fact that these racist beliefs exist and are amplified by social media illustrates that we still have work to do as a nation in addressing racism."


This article was first published on June 9, 2014.
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