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Spelling Race

Sai Vishudhi Chandrasekhar of New York, New York, during the 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee semifinals on May 28, 2015 in Washington, DC. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

It’s the week of the 88th Scripps National Spelling Bee, in which 285 Americans under 15 are vying to become national speller-in-chief. But amidst the fanfare that surrounds the Scripps competition, airing in part today on ESPN, is the prevalence of two problematic race-based narratives that arise without fail each year.

The first is related to the need to justify why Indian-Americans have won the spelling bee for the last seven years in a row. Rather than focusing on the hard work and dedication of each of the Indian-American champions or the conditions that may have helped them to achieve—including economic resources or “South Asian community spelling bees” that provide the opportunity for spellers to practice—we seem determined to attach a cultural significance to the trend.  This narrative goes something like this: Indians have a cultural gene that leads them to be successful. This notion of cultural exceptionalism contends that Indian-Americans possess special, innate cultural characteristics that propel them to thrive more than other non-white groups. Even the Washington Post explored the spelling bee trend in a story this week that quotes the Scripps bee’s director, past winners and scholars on their thoughts about the “domination” of Indian-Americans in the competition.

But the narrative of cultural exceptionalism is misleading and harmful. It’s safe to say that all families place an emphasis on education and want their children to succeed. However, not all families have access to resources and institutions that enable their children to do well. When we rely on culture as the reason for success, we ignore the structural realities that prevent many children of color or poor children from reaching their goals. We also end up placing the onus on families to ensure academic achievement, rather than compelling the public and private sectors to also provide valuable services and benefits that can help all children succeed.

Holding onto cultural exceptionalism as a justification for success also creates chasms between communities of color, and renders invisible the experiences of many people who do not fit into this framework. It reinforces a cultural and racial hierarchy that unnecessarily divides us through false assumptions about one another. These wedges end up undergirding struggles around other issues, such as affirmative action in which communities of color—especially Indian- and Chinese-Americans—are often pitted against black and Latino communities.

Please read the full article at Colorlines

Deepa I

By Deepa I

Deepa Iyer's book, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future, will be in bookstores in November 2015. Follow her @dviyer on Twitter.

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