Editor’s Note: Shalini Shankar is the author of “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success” and a professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at Northwestern University. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
The National Spelling Bee, canceled in 2020 because of Covid-19, returned in 2021 with the live prime time finals on Thursday, July 8. This iconic American contest drew particular attention in 2019 because it ended in an eight-way tie.
The remarkable 14-year old Zaila Avant-garde is the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion. Living up to her surname, Avant-garde is the holder of three Guinness world records for basketball dribbling; she can add a fourth record to her name as the first Black American National Spelling Bee champion, and a fifth for being the first winner from Louisiana.
This year’s finals may seem like a return to normal, albeit with the additional excitement of first lady Dr. Jill Biden attending in person. For the 11 finalists, however, much has changed. Early rounds were conducted remotely, and the number of contestants is greatly reduced.
More broadly, the prospective participants in the Bee now confront a world remade by massive social changes wrought by the pandemic, not least the socioeconomic and racial inequalities it has exacerbated, which surely will widen already evident economic and social gaps in this contest. To benefit more of America’s children, the National Spelling Bee should focus on greater access and inclusion for socioeconomically disadvantaged and racially minoritized kids.
Socioeconomic concerns have come to the fore in recent years of this contest, regarding who is able to afford the contest and the preparation to get themselves there. With more spellers paying to attend than being sponsored, the contest was already skewing heavily toward families able to pay their own way.
Rather than revert to old models of competition, organizers can instead look to other ways the pandemic has forced innovations that could, if adapted, transform the Bee to be more inclusive and accessible. For example, conducting the first three rounds of the competition remotely meant that Scripps had to look beyond the onsite contest into spellers’ homes. To create a uniform broadcast, they shipped each of the 209 participants (a smaller number than in years past, because of the pandemic) technology hardware and monitored the stability of each internet connection.
Certainly, this measure was taken to ensure a smooth television broadcast, but it can also be seen as an acknowledgment of the unevenness of this playing field. When I spoke with J. Michael Durnil, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, he termed this measure an “equal access onramp.”
In acknowledging that not all children who wish to participate in the Bee possess equal internet access, the Bee could open up a new series of possibilities. What if, in every year going forward, early rounds of the competition could include remote participation for those unable (for financial or other reasons) to participate in person? What if, in future competitions, they provided those remote participants with the technological capabilities to be an equal part of the contest?
Another area of growing disparity among participants is access to spelling bee coaching. When I began my study on spelling bees in 2012, there were relatively few paid coaches, but those competitors who worked intensively with a teacher or parent tended to progress farther into the competition. This scenario is illustrated in the beloved 2006 film “Akeelah and the Bee,” in which a young Black girl from a disadvantaged background is able to transform her gift for spelling into contest-readiness after a teacher volunteers to serve as her coach.
By 2019, when I published my book “Beeline,” the coaching field had expanded considerably, populated by former elite spellers as well as spellers’ parents offering coaching services, word lists and on-site support at the national finals. In fact, the level of competition has risen to the extent that only these experts can keep up.
Given the increasing number of spellers paying coaches and training year-round for this event, Durnil emphasized the importance of “leveling up” the competition to meet the preparation of today’s competitors. Why not take access a step further and offer financial assistance for coaching? All kids with aptitude and ability would greatly benefit from this kind of support. Need-based scholarships for coaching, even in limited amounts, would go a great distance to giving economically disadvantaged children a much fairer chance at progressing in this contest.
It may seem absurd to offer spelling bee coaching scholarships in a time when many children lack educational resources. Yet, addressing inequality in education as well as extracurricular activities is a viable way society can take steps to counter racism and White supremacy. The alternative is to perpetuate the exclusion and elitism upon which the spelling bee is based. Although this educational contest is open to all children, it has historically rewarded racially and economically privileged children.
The roots of the spelling bee are in standardizing American English as part of the settler colonial project of American nation building. Establishing a distinct variety of American English was a central part of this process. Spelling bees were originally classroom exercises to create uniformity of pronunciation as well as spelling, and the latter was regimented through the dictionary publishing industry. Lexicographer Noah Webster’s early dictionary from the 1806 eventually formed the basis for Merriam Webster’s publishing company. The emphasis on American English monolingualism amidst a plurality of Native American and European languages spoken at the turn of the 20th century was intentionally exclusionary.
American English monolingualism prevails despite the United States soliciting migrants from regions with numerous languages and other varieties of English since 1965. With Generation Z (b. 1997-2012) containing more children of immigrants and mixed-race individuals than any in the modern era, finding ways to ensure this diversity in the contest is vital. “There’s no social engineering with the Bee,” Durnil confirmed in our interview, emphasizing the mission that all students who want a spot on the national stage should be able to see themselves there. Yet, exclusion is built into the ways in which those with the most resources are best able to compete.
Exclusion routinely occurred along racial lines as well. Although the first National Spelling Bee was held in 1925, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Black children were routinely banned from participating in spelling bees. All winners were White until Puerto Rican Hugh Tosteson García was named champion in 1975. Until this year, the only Black winner was Jody-Anne Maxwell representing Jamaica in 1998. The Indian American winners who have steadily won since 1998 have endured a litany of racism on broadcast and social media for not being “American” – code for not being White. Seen by many as outsiders, and as part of communities subjected to waves of anti-Asian violence, they are left to make sense of negative reactions to their success in the form of calls for “real Americans” to regain control of this contest.
Let’s use this time of economic and racial reckoning to address not only who can afford to participate in this competition, but also who counts as American. Nearly everyone’s reality has changed, and we find ourselves in a moment of potential, and potentially intentional, transformation. A racially diverse Bee in which children are offered increased access to technology, coaching and support would not only create a more inclusive dynamic but also help transform its purpose as one over which new generations of Americans can feel a sense of ownership.