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Racism stings Bee again as Indian-Americans triumph

world Updated: May 30, 2015 09:02 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times
National Spelling bee

This year, they didn’t even wait till the end. “Only one white kid left in the spelling bee, let’s go buddy make America proud,” went a tweet posted late Thursday evening.

There were just three finalists left on the stage then — Vanya Shivashankar, Gokul Venkatachalam and Cole Shafer-Ray. Shafer-Ray was who the tweeter was referring to. One tweeter declared Cole “the great white hope”.

Shivashankar and Venkatachalam went on to win, cementing the hold Indian-Americans have gained over the Scripps Spelling Bee, which has triggered an ugly racial backlash. It started last year shortly after Sriram Hathaway and Ansum Sujoe were declared joint winners, only for the second time in competitions history going back to 1925, when it started. “No American sounding names who won the spelling B. #sad#fail”, went a post on Twitter.


And it was only one of the many, most were rabidly bigoted and racist. Indian-Americans have been winning the tournament for eight years running now starting in 2008, and 14 times over all with Balu Natrajan winning in 1985. And they to tend to dominate the finals.

Seven of the 10 finalists who took the stage Thursday evening were Indian-Americans, and then four of the five, and two of the last three. Most of backlash played out on the social media — through posts on Twitter and Facebook, which forced the Bee organisers to try and dress the issue through interviews and statements.

But they have quite a fight on their hands. Bee director Paige Kimble, a Bee winner herself, told The Washington Post on Thursday that just hours before the finals, she was asked whether any “Americans” made it to the finals.

“‘Yes, they’re all Americans,’ I told them,” Kimble said, adding, “We obviously still have a long way to go.” Jeff Chu, author and editor at large at Fast Company, who monitored the traffic last year, said the volume of offensive tweets was less in 2015. But they were there.

“When was the last time a true American won the spelling bee? 1815? Not meant to be racist, but come on…?” asked one tweeter who spent the rest of the night defending himself.