How to Spell and Dispel Racism

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Spelling Bee Champion Ananya Vinay faced casual racism during an interview with CNN. While the news anchor’s racist comment was not mean-spirited, it did point out an inherent problem with stereotypes.

After interviewing Miss Vinay (of Fresno, California), and learning that she prepared by studying for two hours a day for the past year, CNN anchor Alysin Camerota (appearing with Chris Cuomo) asks Ananya to spell “covfefe.” After Ananya attempted to spell the word, Camerota explains that “It is a nonsense word but we’re not sure that its root is in Sanskrit which is probably what you’re used to using.”

I’ll admit, compared to the headline of the article “CNN Anchor Mocks Indian-American Spelling Bee Champ and Thinks Sanskrit Is Still Widely Spoken In India” I expected something more…well, overt. More hateful. This incident seemed relatively benign. Almost refreshing in its banality. Call me cynical, but this is, honestly, what I would expect. No, actually, I expected some statement earlier about just how many Indians win the Scripps spelling bee, questions about how being Indian has made her into a better speller, something like that. But no, it was refreshing to hear questions focused on how she’s the first solo winner after three years of co-champions. And the question, “What did your parents do right in terms of making you such an avid studier?” was expressed as admiration rather than with any sort of negative connotation in any other sense. Indeed, I came in poised to hear something worse. And after three and a half minutes, I had relaxed. They had established a rapport. Camerota, in talking about how the winning word was “easy,” managed to misspell it. It was adorable. The anchors admired Ananya and were celebrating her accomplishments.

But then I thought more about it.

Honestly, what bothered me more about the interview than Camerota’s comment was the choice to quiz her on the word “covfefe.” If you’re upset because the racist comment took away from Ananya Vinay’s glory, then you’re missing the bigger picture; the problem is not just Camerota’s ignorant reference to Sanskrit.

Alysin Camerota brought up current events and specifically the late-night tweeting of the president. First of all, it’s old news, and so relatively benign compared to some of the other things going on in the world that coverage of the word really needs to stop. But this happened the week before the National Spelling Bee, and while some twelve-year-olds are quite aware of current events, perhaps more so in this day and age, I would expect that perhaps this twelve year old was a little preoccupied lately and may not have kept up on her Twitter news this past week. So frankly, it was insensitive to bring it up and put her on the spot like that.

Secondly, asking a National Spelling Bee winner to spell a fake word is mockery. It’s different from when, during the competition, competitor Shourav Dasari was stumped by the word Struldburg, because while that was a made-up word that made it difficult for Dasari to ascertain the word origin, it appeared in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, a book published in 1726. Introducing a week-old word that the interviewee likely had never heard of? That’s what was in poor taste during the interview. They could have invited a linguist to find out what the word likely was supposed to be, or a psychologist for that same purpose. They could interviewed a political pundit, or a typist, or any number of adults. But knowing that Ananya likely did not know the word, that because it was fake there would be no amount of knowledge of word origins that would have helped her determine the “proper spelling” of a typo (because yes, that’s what it was, and elevating it to headline news doesn’t change that), all it does is put her in a position of disadvantage, and mocks all the hard work that she had done over the past year. Even without Camerota’s comment, they set her up to fail. And that’s the real travesty.

Perhaps they meant it as a joke, as a humorous feel-good piece to engage Ananya in conversation. Perhaps the newsroom said, “You’ve got four minutes to interview her,”and with all racist questions off the table (any reference to how many Indians won the spelling bee), they decided this would be good. They were wrong.

Did you see that? Did you notice the side-head bob that Ananya gave in response to Camerota telling her that “covfefe” wasn’t rooted in Sanskrit, which is probably what she’s used to using. Do you know what that means? One, she’s got the maturity, at twelve, not to roll her eyes or shoot them a WTF look. I’ve got kids that age, and trust me, the snark gene is well matured by then. Ananya is showing an impressive amount of class and restraint in that moment by just smiling and not responding.

So on the one hand, her response could mean that she’s heard these benign ignorant racist comments so often that she isn’t even fazed by it. On the other hand, maybe she isn’t quite so jaded yet, and it really didn’t register what the woman had just said. Honestly, that would have been me. Maybe she’ll head home and hear about the response from everyone, and this wonderfully bright, confident young woman will start thinking about how best to respond to these types of ignorant comments in the future.

Because here’s how the interview could have gone, and should go in future years:

White lady: It wasn’t in Sanskrit, which is probably what you’re used to using
Indian spelling bee winner: Idiota. Bebec. Murkh. Buddhoo. Bete. Tonta. Baka.
White lady: What was that?
Indian spelling bee winner: I’m used to studying word roots in all languages. I just told you I spent two hours a day for the past year studying words and word origins. That would be English, Sanskrit, Latin, German, French, Italian, Japanese.
White lady: Right, but I just meant…
Indian spelling bee winner: I’m from Fresno, bitch.

Yeah, that’s what I really wanted to hear. “I’m from Fresno, bitch.” But see, she’s too classy for that.

So I understand that the news anchors probably don’t know much about Ananya, and so can only go based on what they understand about, you know, my people.

So let me tell you about my day yesterday.

  • The sound of my Sony alarm clock woke me.
  • I got out of bed (IKEA, with a mattress from some mattress store in Cleveland), and got ready.
  • I wore my shirt that I bought from Target with a skirt that I bought online, and made sure my kids got their lunches packed and ate their breakfast (they ate chia coconut pudding this morning, which I made last night from a recipe I found online to match something I’d eaten at First Watch).
  • I walked my dog around the neighborhood, saying hello to the other dog walkers.
  • My husband had Honey Bunches of Oats before heading to work, while my eldest son ate Lucky Charms before I dropped him off where he needed to go, driving my Honda minivan.
  • I went home and started working. You know, typing on a computer.
  • For lunch, I had a peanut butter jelly sandwich (since my son wasn’t sure about peanut allergies where he would be, he took a ham sandwich instead, and I didn’t want the PBJ to go to waste).
  • For dinner, I made burritos with a sweet potato black bean filling.
  • I took my son to drum lessons.
  • Sunday I drove one of my kids an hour away for a soccer game, and I sat in the stands and chatted with the other parents as we watched our team get clobbered. But the rain held off, and it was sunny and warm, so it was a wonderful outing. During halftime I walked with another mom, one of my friends, as I tried to get in enough steps, as monitored by my new Fitbit.
  • When I got home, I tried to watch the Cavs game, but couldn’t do it. I sent two of my kids to bed at halftime since they had school in the morning.
  • Then I turned on Netflix and watched an episode of Girl Meets World before going to bed.
  • My eldest went downtown with his friend’s family to the watch party, along with twenty dollars for some dinner.
  • His ticket was good for an order of chicken nuggets at McDonald’s, but the one they stopped at on the way home seemed closed.
  • I went on Facebook on my phone for a little bit, then read before going to sleep.

This week, my youngest has baseball and soccer games, so I hope it doesn’t rain, but if it does, I hope there’s lightning. So that the game is canceled. Because I’d rather not sit in the stands and soak. It’s also the last week of school, which means I have to send in some baked goods for middle school graduation.

I lead a pretty boring life, right? Ordinary, blah, mundane? That’s my life. Day to day, this is how I live. This is how we all live. Sure, your details may be slightly different. I didn’t mention the kids’ piano or guitar lessons, or when they bike around with friends, or how my husband likes to garden (I don’t). But these are also part of my reality.

Regardless of the color of my skin, regardless of where my ancestors originated, this is my normal. Last weekend, I took my kids to see Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2, and I’m going crazy trying to figure out when I’ll finally be able to go see Wonder Woman. These are the concerns that I have.

You know what I didn’t list above? I don’t know how closely you were paying attention, but there’s nothing particularly ethnic in my day to day. Yeah, sometimes I eat Indian food. Sometimes I even cook it. Not nearly as well as my mom or my mother-in-law, but maybe one day I will. And the recipe I’m best known for? My banana chocolate chip peanut butter chip cookies. It’s from a Mrs. Fields cookbook. Not samosas. Or that naan bread.

Yes, I cook with curry. Because curry is the Hindi term for spice. So yeah, I season my food.

But you know what I’m not used to using? Sanskrit. Because it’s spoken these days about as much as Latin. And not by everyone with brown skin.

I’m from Cleveland. Yes, that’s where I’m really from. If you see me wearing Indian clothes, it’s more likely to be in the form of a baseball t-shirt than a sari.

And before you ask, no, I probably don’t know him.

Oh, and this one may blow your mind a little, but I don’t believe in reincarnation. I’m not Hindu. I’m also not Muslim, Sikh, Christian, or Jewish either. Not Rastafarian, Bahai, Episcopalian, Catholic, or a subscriber to any other faith. I like the idea of believing in God, but I can glean as much about good living and how to be a good person from other stories. Because that’s what it’s all about: being a kind, decent, respectful human being.

So when you’re writing a news story, and you have to interview a 12-year-old girl who just won the spelling bee, start with that. Bringing up a typo tweet to mock the president and drawing an unsuspecting child into it? Not kind. Making her feel like she isn’t actually in on the joke? Not so decent. Insinuating that because she’s of Indian descent that she’s used to using Sanskrit (as opposed to being familiar with all word origins that she just spent two hours a day studying for the past year)? Not the least bit respectful.

I don’t think Alysin Camerota meant to be racist. I don’t think she meant to be cruel. I think the media blowback from her thoughtlessness is certainly educating her, but unless we set down the pitchforks, I think we miss an opportunity to move forward. I want to cling to the positive. That’s not saying I’m going to ignore the fact that the CNN interview failed. But hopefully by looking at why, we can expect better next time.

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2 thoughts on “How to Spell and Dispel Racism

  1. I finished second in a regional spelling bee to a South Korean girl who couldn’t speak English. At all. I know this because I tried talking to her when we were the last two up. I felt bad for making her feel embarrassed and it caused me to stumble on an easy word and give her the win. When I went to the state state spelling bee, I got first place. I couldn’t go to nationals because my family couldn’t afford the plane ticket.

    The funny thing about Sanskrit is that, while less than 1% of Indians speak it, it is still fairly common on signs (in some regions). Street signs, train signs, etc. Wouldn’t it be terrific if we used Latin on street signs? I wonder if they do this in the Vatican.

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