By: Sneeha Ganesh Kumar
Last year, there were octo-champs at the Scripps National Spelling Bee: 4 times the greatest amount of champions Scripps has ever had. 7 of them were Asian-American.
A question that’s very commonly asked is: why do Asians always “dominate” academic competitions, whether that’s the spelling bee, or science fairs? Being a South Asian who’s competed in multiple academic competitions, I’ve even been asked why Asians don’t “let” competitors of other ethnicities “make it big.”
My answer: in no way is any academic competition stratified by race. Asian Americans are not provided any extra resources, or any special powers during the spelling bee. Just like any other kid, we study. We all go to the microphone, and get a word, not knowing what it’ll be.
That being said, it is statistically obvious that ranging from champions to participants, Asian-Americans outnumber people of any other ethnicity. Why?
At the center of the stereotype that if you’re Asian-American, you’re smart, motivated, and have your life planned out, is the contrast between eastern and western patterns of thought. Since most GenZ Asian-Americans have immigrant parents, the prevalence of collectivism (the idea of valuing your membership in a group over your personal identity, having shared goals, and a sense of belonging) in Asia has a significant impact on family dynamics.
Some concepts that are firmly ingrained in many A-A families: parents having a very active role in their child’s life, parents tying their status to their child’s accomplishments, and in some cases, family tying their youth’s self-worth to their academic achievements. While this definitely isn’t the case in all A-A families (my parents, for example, are very cognizant of my mental health, and accepting of my missteps), it is the prevailing culture. It is the mindset with which children are discussed at the classic Asian family friend’s party.
And this results in many of our parents pushing us to an early start. And one of the very few academic endeavors you can seek in elementary school is the spelling bee. When you grow up doing the spelling bee, you’re extremely committed. You’re driven. You value the spelling bee over many, many other things, because you’ve been doing it for most of your life. But many families who have adapted to the American mindset over many generations, let their child find their own space, on their own time. And those children who stray into the world of spelling, often do it later than A-A children, and therefore have less study experience as well as less attachment to the bee.
The Asian-Americans “dominating” academic competitions phenomenon is nothing but a quite harmless consequence of socioeconomic factors, eastern mentality, and the timing of the 1965 Immigration Act. That is no reason, and no excuse to differentiate Asian-American spellers from spellers of another ethnicity. Because the dictionary doesn’t differentiate. And on stage, we are all spellers, competing against the dictionary.
Snehaa Ganesh loves to compete, read, dance, and help others. She’s the runner-up of the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee, Champion of the Literature category in the National Academic Pentathlon, and has competed in the National Brain Bee and the National Astrophysics Olympiad. She’s also an advocate for increasing female participation in traditionally male-dominated career fields! She’s been hosting spelling workshops for over a year around Sacramento, but was looking for a way to combine both of her passions when she founded the Queen Bee Project, a nonprofit with a dual mission!
QUEEN BEE PROJECT: queenbeeproject.org