Why Do Asian Americans Win So Many Spelling Bees?

When Snigdha Nandipati became the fifth consecutive Indian American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee last month, the 14-year-old did it by successfully spelling out “guetapens,’’ a French-derived word that means trap or snare.

In fact, Nandipati is the 10th Indian American to nab the title in the last 14 years. What a model minority, right?

Ah, don’t fall into the guetapens.

The myth of the “model minority,” typically applied to Asian Americans (including Indian Americans), is a fiction that reinforces a single stereotype of an extraordinarily diverse community.  This myth falsely suggests that Asian Americans have overcome the same challenges other communities of color have failed to surmount and ignores the history of selective immigration and the significant number of Asian Americans who are struggling to make ends meet.

In “The Karma of Brown Folk,” Professor Vijay Prashad credited the disproportionate success of certain Asian American communities to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, passed by Congress to actively recruit more scientists to the United States. For instance, between 1966 and 1977, 83% of the Indian immigrants to the U.S. were professionals such as engineers and medical doctors.

More recently, the information technology boom has created a new wave of Indian American professional immigrants, including the parents of the past five Spelling Bee champs (all IT professionals or professors). Further explaining Indian American success in the Bee, an entity called “North South Foundation” acts as a sort of minor-league circuit for aspiring Indian American spelling champions, training thousands of children every year, including the past five winners.

These hand-selected, highly educated immigrants ensured that their children would get the best educational opportunities and the resources to take advantage of them.

If the Slave Trade had centered on Thailand instead of West Africa, if China happened to border the United States to the South, or if Columbus had actually colonized (Asian) Indians, Asian Americans would likely have a very different reputation today.

Prashad theorized that the American (white) establishment created the “model minority” concept to blame traditionally disenfranchised communities of color for their economic plight: “These non-white people are successful, why aren’t you?” This tactic diverts attention and culpability from actual factors that perpetuate poverty in these communities: past government injustices, such as land theft and slavery, and more recent discriminatory actions, such as redlining and predatory lending.

Despite the relative success of some Asian Americans, others are struggling to get by. 2010 American Community Survey data estimate that 16.4% of Asian Americans live in relative poverty and 18% of Asian Americans live without healthcare. According to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, Asian Americans suffer from the highest rates of long-term unemployment when compared to whites, African Americans, and Latinos. The widespread and false notion that all Asian Americans are successful, however, allows policymakers to ignore this segment of the community when crafting policies to help Americans get by.

Furthermore, Asian Americans, having origins in markedly dissimilar regions and countries and immigrating to America under widely different circumstances, are too diverse to lump into one demographic category. For instance, Cambodian American and Bangladeshi American families often have more difficult challenges than Japanese American and Indian American families. Disaggregated data for each community, such as those provided by the American Community Survey (currently under attack by Congressional Republicans), would yield a truer picture of Asian American success.

Lifting the veil of the “model minority” myth should not detract from Asian American successes, typically achieved through discipline, hard work and in spite of obstacles such as language barriers, coerced assimilation, and racial bias. And Nandipati’s laudable achievement, which fittingly came on the last day of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, should be unconditionally celebrated. But all Americans, including Asian Americans who have bought into this fiction, should act as “mythbusters” and start talking about the real reasons why some communities of color are not doing as well as others.

Anand Subramanian is the Program Manager of the Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. He is an attorney and a graduate of the Northwestern University School of Law, due in no small part to advantages and sacrifices his Indian American professional parents provided.

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