CNN host accused of racism after assuming an Indian-American spelling-bee champion could read Sanskrit
12 year old Ananya Vinay of Fresno, CA. holds her trophy after winning the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee by spelling the word "marocain", at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center June 1, 2017 in National Harbor, Maryland. Mark Wilson/Getty Images
A CNN anchor became the target of rebuke for assuming that the 2017 national spelling champion, a California resident who’s of South Asian descent, is “used to using” Sanskrit.
Alisyn Camerota and Chris Cuomo were talking to 12-year-old Ananya Vinay on “New Day” after Ananya’s Thursday victory at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Toward the end of the interview – and after several awkward seconds of asking the sixth-grader to spell “covfefe” – Camerota joked about the origin of the gibberish that President Donald Trump conjured on Twitter last week.
“It’s a nonsense word. So, we’re not sure that its root is actually in Sanskrit, which is what you’re probably, uh, used to using, so, I don’t know. Anyway,” Camerota said.
Vinay, an Indian American, is from Fresno, California.
Criticism of Camerota’s comment has since been circulating on social media. Many said her comment was racist, while others were simply in disbelief that the CNN anchor had made such an assumption.
A CNN spokeswoman said Camoreta’s comment had nothing to do with the girl’s heritage, and the interview was not the first time the anchor joked about Sanskrit being the origin of “covfefe.”
“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,” the spokesperson said in a statement, referring to a transcript of the Wednesday segment.
Sanskrit, a language closely associated with Hinduism, greatly influenced not just Indian languages, but also languages in China, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and the Philippines. The origin of some English words also can be traced back to the ancient language.
Sanskrit is rarely spoken today and is generally used by Hindu priests during religious ceremonies. But activists and Hindu nationalists in India still push for the language to be more widely taught in schools. Government officials in India’s northeastern state of Assam announced this year that Sanskrit would be mandatory in public high schools, the New York Times reported. The decision was met with strong resistance from student groups, which argued that other topics are more relevant and that few teachers are equipped to teach the ancient language.
The 4½-minute interview with Vinay began with Camerota and Cuomo praising the 12-year-old for her spelling prowess and asking her what it was like to win. Standing in front of a camera next to her trophy, a smiling Vinay talked about how she prepared for the competition.
“I study, like, a couple of hours a day for the whole year, and I just try to figure out language patterns and . . . root words so I can see if I could come up with a spelling that makes sense,” said Vinay, who was the first Scripps National Spelling Bee solo champion in years.
Then came the challenge.
Camerota and Cuomo asked Vinay to spell “covfefe.” As she did at spelling competitions, the 12-year-old asked for the word’s definition.
“Definition is a nonsense word made up by the 45th president of the United States in a late-night tweet,” Camerota said.
Vinay, smiling, didn’t spell the “word” right away. Here’s the rest of the exchange:
Vinay: Language of origin?
Camerota and Cuomo: Gibberish.
Vinay: Part of speech?
Camerota: It’s a noun.
Cuomo: It could be a noun but may be used as a verb and as an insult.
Vinay: Are there alternate pronunciations?
Camerota: Yes, oh, many! (Then she goes on to pronounce “covfefe” a few different ways.)
Finally, Vinay spelled: c-o-f-e-f-e. To which Cuomo said, “Good enough!” Camerota then went on to spell the gibberish the way Trump wrote it a few days ago – then joked about its origin.
After making the comment about Sanskrit, Camerota turned to Cuomo, who wrapped up the interview by praising Vinay’s performance at the spelling competition.
“You did a great job. You know what I love about this?” Cuomo said. “Not only did you make yourself proud and your family, but do you know that there are kids all over the country, probably the world, who are going to look at you and say, ‘I want to put in that work. I want to be a champion. I want to spell like her.’”
Then Camerota said, “You are an inspiration to us . . . Thank you so much and congratulations again.”
The Washington Post’s Sarah Larimer contributed to this report.