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Why CNN's Racist Comment To The Indian-American Spelling Bee Champion Must Be Called Out

It’s a point that needs to be made over and over again and a spelling bee is as good place to drive it home as any.

05/06/2017 4:19 PM IST | Updated 05/06/2017 4:32 PM IST
Mark Wilson via Getty Images
NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - JUNE 01: Ananya Vinay of Fresno, CA. won the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee by spelling the word 'marocain', at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center June 1, 2017 in National Harbor, Maryland. Close to 300 spellers are competing in the annual spelling contest for the top honor this year. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Yes, another Indian-American girl, 12-year-old Ananya Vinay won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in the US. That's not news anymore.

She just follows in the footsteps of the likes of Gokul Venkatachalam, Vanya Shivshankar, her sister Kavya Shivshankar, Shriram Hathwar, his brother Jairam Hathwar, Sukanya Roy, Anamika Veeramani, Pratyush Buddiga, Nupur Lala.

Even the stories of "why do desis win spelling bees?" are not news. They have been written over and over again.

In a world where terror attacks rock Kabul and London (and of course one makes for banner headlines even in India and the other is a just another day in a war-torn part of the world) the spelling bee in America seems insignificant.

But Ananya Vinay's victory made news outside the spelling beehive for a different reason--a cringe-worthy CNN interview.

CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota and Chris Cuomo ask her to spell "covfefe", the Trump typo that was ruling the internet. She plays along and gives it a game attempt. Then Camerota tells her it was a "nonsense word" anyway.

And then she brightly says, "But we're not sure that its root is in Sanskrit which is probably what you are used to."

Getty Images
CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota.

The Internet has come down hard on Camerota. How would she react if someone told her she was probably used to Latin?

A CNN spokesperson dismissed charges of racism and bias.

"Alisyn made the same joking reference to the root of 'covfefe' in an earlier panel discussion that aired Wednesday. If she's guilty of anything it's recycling a joke. To assign a bias to what was a fun and innocent segment celebrating Ananya Vinay's incredible accomplishment is frankly extremely cynical," says CNN.

Perhaps so.

We do not always have to be so sensitive and thin-skinned and bristle about racism at the drop of a hat or a recycled joke. And let's give her some credit. She knows which part of the world Sanskrit is from.

The issue is not what Camerota intended. The problem is the way it came across. And that was neither "fun" nor "innocent" the way CNN portrays it. A 12-year-old girl was savouring her moment of hard-won victory. There was no need to inject Donald Trump snark into it.

The issue is not what Camerota intended. The problem is the way it came across.

The problem is not that she jokes that the origins of covfefe might be Sanskrit. The problem is the fact that she said Sanskrit is "probably what you are used to". CNN sidesteps that distinction.

The former just shows simple ignorance. It also betrays a certain presumption that a gibberish word must be put into the basket of something far-out exotic like Sanskrit. But the "probably what you are used to" is a presumption about the other.

There's nothing wrong with Ananya Vinay being used to Sanskrit. If she was it would be commendable. But the presumption that Vinay must be familiar with her Sanskrit just reeks of the assumption that she is still more Indian than American even if she was born in Fresno, California. (Of course most Indians in India are not that familiar with Sanskrit but that's another story.)

Let's face it. If she had been asking Trump the same question, would she have asked if the word had its roots in old German, because of course he must be familiar with German given his grandfather's Bavarian roots? Trump is unquestionably Americanised in a way Vinay is not.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters
Ananya Vinay of Fresno, California celebrates with family after winning the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

It's a variation of the old origin question, that brown people routinely face in America.

Where are you from?

San Francisco.

No, where are you REALLY from?

Arre baba, San Bernardino, Southern California.

It may not be asked with any hostile intent, just simple curiosity, but it does get old especially when you are third generation American. "It feels like someone is trying to point out their otherness: 'You're quite obviously not American, so where are you from?'" says Michele Norris, host of The Race Card Project.

This can seem trivial especially in America today where an overt racism seems to have acquired political license. And the bullies claim presidential blessing. Matthew Heimbach, a 26-year-old white nationalist says he shoved a black woman at a Donald Trump rally because he was acting "pursuant to the directives and requests" of Trump. Since Trump exhorted the crows to "knock the c*** out of" protesters and promised to pay their legal fees, Heimbach claims charges levied against him "must be shifted" to the President.

In a world where a man with grouse against Middle Easterners in general shoots an Indian engineer in Kansas City, a blonde television show host making a bad joke about Sanskrit with a little Indian-American girl is probably fairly benign on the Richter scale of racism.

It's easy to call out racism that's angry and tells you to go back to your own country.

Yet it is annoying because it is symptomatic of a kind of patronising white liberalism that seems accommodating of 'the other' but in the end never accepts the other as one of them. It's just a joke just as chilled monkey brains in Indiana Jones was a joke, not to taken too seriously. But it leaves an aftertaste. As Sabrina Dhawan who wrote the screenplay for Monsoon Wedding in 2002 and now Monsoon Wedding the musical in 2017 says, a decade of multiculturalism has not changed one basic fact. Everything is still judged by how the "white housewife in Idaho" will react. In the movie, the groom was an Indian immigrant. In the musical he is an Indian-American. It's an important point that could be lost in the song and dance and marigold showers on stage--the Americans in the play are brown. "Being American does not mean looking white. They are Americans. They have been here 30 years," she says.

It's a point that needs to be made over and over again and a spelling bee is as good place to drive it home as any.

It's easy to call out racism that's angry and tells you to go back to your own country. It's much trickier when it comes with a patronising smile but still assumes that you are really, in some essential way, from another country.

But both in the end make the Ananya Vinays of America very firmly 'the other'.

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