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Melissa Sim
Wednesday, Jun 11, 2014

World

Spelling bee win sparks debate over Indians in America

The Straits Times | Melissa Sim | Wednesday, Jun 11, 2014

The Scripps National Spelling Bee win by Ansun Sujoe and Sriram Hathwar marked the seventh consecutive year the prestigious American contest was won by a person of Indian descent.

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.

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