My EXCLUSIVE interview with quiz champion Yogesh Raut – Part 2

Hello and welcome back. When we left our chat last week, Yogesh and I were discussing how much easier it is to learn facts about things that you’re actually interested in…

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SH: Personally, I enjoy learning about culture, movies and arts and all that sort of stuff. But sport I don’t care about. And so if and when I have to learn stuff about sport, it’s much harder to make it go in… because I’m not going, “well, what can I learn next? What can I learn next?” I’m just going, “Here we go again…”

YR: Yeah, it is fun. Certainly, it’s interesting. Again, another thing I learned about as an academic was the phenomenon of ‘Interesting-ness’, but just at a commonsensical level, when two things that don’t seem like they’re related turn out to be related, that’s interesting, right? Something goes off in your head, and honestly, it’s inherently pleasurable. Which is not something that is talked about much in this culture because American culture is very anti-intellectual. I sometimes say it takes the attitude that Victorians had toward certain kinds of pleasure, and shifts it to the pleasure of learning.

SH: Ha! Yes, it’s similar in Australia. The amount of attention sport gets in this country… sportspeople are treated like gods and artists and performers and writers and actors are way, way, way, way down the level of priorities. People will have quasi-religious conversations about sport; sportspeople are the gods of our country. And as someone who’s not sporting and is more interested in more intellectual pursuits, it’s just… c’est la vie. That’s the way it is in Australia.

YR: Yeah, I mean, I like many sports, I follow them. I admire people who are good at them. But there was a certain point where I realised that my perspective was always going to be coloured by the fact that I put in the work to become, at one point, among the top 20 in the world, in an activity. And in any sport, if I were among the top 20 in the world, the amount of reinforcement and rewards I’d get from it are entirely different from what I get in the field of quizzing. I mean, first of all, the thing I am good at is literally called “trivia”. And often called “useless knowledge”. And sure, there’s a debate to be had about the extent to which it is useless. But then you compare it to throwing a ball up in the air and having it come down…

SH: I know! I KNOW! “Oh, you’re good at kicking and catching a ball, are you? Here, have a few million dollars…”

YR: Yeah. And now suddenly, the question of what is “trivial” doesn’t really seem all that ambiguous.

SH: (LAUGHING) Indeed, indeed. I’m in a conversation with my friend, and he’s watching the footy on TV out of the corner of his eye, and in the middle of our conversation, he suddenly yells at the screen, because one of the men running around on the grass didn’t catch the ball that the other man running around on the grass kicked to him. And I just think, “Hey, I’m right here! We’re having a conversation!” But the men running around on the grass throwing and kicking the ball to each other overrule absolutely anything else that’s going on.

YR: Yeah. I mean, it’s unavoidable to get sour grapes accusations thrown at me, but it is absolutely the case that like there isn’t anywhere close to the reward of being among the best in the world at quizzing as there would be in sport.

SH: Right. If you’re the 20th best golfer or the 20th best tennis player in the world, you’d be showered with endorsements and riches and all the rest of it.

YR: Right. But I don’t want to stop there, though. Because I don’t want to undersell the negatives that have come into my life as a result of working as hard as I have, to become as good as I have. In terms of people stereotyping you and taking your narrative away from you, starting with the myth that you just have a “photographic memory”. I put a lot of my effort into earning multiple degrees in psychology, including studying the psychology of memory. So I can say, as an academic, that that is not a thing, that’s not a real thing.

SH: Right.

YR: But what I can also say, as a person of colour, is that that is inevitably deployed to diminish your achievements. Because to wonder why is someone so curious about the world, so passionate, so able to see connections … it stirs an insecurity in certain people. Especially people who feel that, because they are white and you are Asian, then by definition you are less creative and more robotic than they are.

And this stirs some unpleasant self-reflection in those people, which can easily be cut off by saying, “No, no, no; they’re not more passionate, more creative, more committed to learning than I am. They’re just like robots. They just have a larger memory capacity, like a CPU.” And it diminishes who you are as a person. It causes people to assume you are uncreative, no matter how much you demonstrate otherwise. And I used to think that was the worst of it… until I started facing the literal, racist exclusion that I faced in pub trivia. And the ways in which the people responsible were never held accountable at all.

On my blog, I alluded to repeatedly the experiences that I had with racism, including most notably sitting in a pub in Portland with some friends. A friend had come in from out of town and invited me to join him. Sitting there quietly, just having fun, trying to have a nice evening while answering the questions, playing the quiz.

And the owner of the company got in his car, drove 20 minutes to the centre of Portland, came in, came into our group, and summoned me outside. And informed me that I was banned from playing all of his company’s games. And some of my white friends understood that this man’s report of what happened later would be different from the way he actually behaved. I’ve been through enough of these interactions to know that that’s how it works. And so they came outside and they witnessed everything; they witnessed him not being able to provide a genuine rationale for banning me, they witnessed his stumbling attempts to put together a rationale that ultimately involved just lies. Including also banning a white friend of mine who was a very meek and non-disruptive person. But he insisted that my friend had also done a bunch of stuff to deserve being banned just so that he could dodge the criticism that he was racist. Because he was like “Well if I am racist, why am I also banning this white guy?” 

SH: What did he say that he was banning you for?

YR: Well first of all he said that there was already a policy from before the pandemic (Because I hadn’t played since the pandemic, and I was only playing that day because I had been invited by my friend who was coming in from out of town)… He started off by saying that there was a policy in place banning me and it had been communicated to me and to my friends. I pointed out that I have repeatedly talked about the exclusion that I faced and my experiences of it and why on earth –  if this did in fact happen, and it was communicated to me – why would I never mention it to anyone in the two or three years since then? Also, of course, there’s the question of how something that would obviously be very laden with emotion for me – how could I possibly forget it? How could my friend who was supposedly there as well also forget it? I mean, for the owner’s version of things to be true, I would have had to have been somehow warned at these venues that I was behaving inappropriately, I would have had to return to the venue where I had allegedly been warned and continue to behave in exactly the same way despite having been warned about it… And my friend would have to have done so as well and both of our memories would have had to have been wiped afterwards, so that we had no memory of any of this.

It’s especially absurd considering that there were rival companies whose venues we generally tended to move to as soon as we felt even a little bit uncomfortable. You know, I really was only playing at his company’s venues out of sentimental attachment, because they were where I first started playing after I first moved to the Portland area. And as soon as my friends and I were made uncomfortable we would switch to another company’s venues. 

But in his narrative, somehow, We were warned not to do X behaviour – he never said what behaviour – and then, after being warned, we returned to the same venue and did the same behaviour. He insisted he had “records” somewhere of these behaviours and of these conversations. He kept saying the words “It’s in my records, it’s in my records”.  But he couldn’t provide any specific examples. But when pressed – and this is I think the thing he thought was his smoking gun, but which to everyone who was observing it actually kind of proved his complete bias…

He said that the last time I had competed, with a team, in their $1,000 championship tournament… When they were announcing the answers and they were working up to it, my team was trailing; we were in second place going into the final round. We made some educated guesses on some questions and then afterwards we told ourselves we won’t look at our phones. The phones had been put in a plastic Tupperware thing but once it was over you could take out your phones. But we all made a pact: “We’re not going to look at our phones, we’re not going to confirm whether our guesses were correct.” So the answers were announced and we basically came from behind on the second to last question…  And when I realised that we had gotten it right – because I had been down on myself, I’d made a few guesses and I narrowed things down to 50/50s and then I’d picked the wrong one and I kind of felt like I was under-contributing – and then there was a big value question where I said “I really think this is the answer” and they had gone with it, and then I discovered the answer was right…

Okay, so, my whole life I’ve been sort of struggling against this Asian robot stereotype. When you win all of these spelling bees, geography bees, chess tournaments and so on, people are on the lookout for some show of pride from you, so they can say “See? Look how arrogant he is!” So I had conditioned myself to not show pride or happiness in my achievements. You know, in 8th grade I won the regional Spelling Bee which qualified for Nationals. These are sponsored by the local newspapers, so the newspaper of course had a reporter and a photographer there. The year before, when the girl who won, she leapt into the air and they captured a photograph of her leaping in mid-air with her fist up. They wanted something similar from me, but I was so conditioned to not show joy that when I won, I just adjusted my glasses and nodded a bit. And they ran a picture on the front page of the newspaper of me with basically my hand over my eye. And people were like, “Wait, did you just win a Spelling Bee or are you taking an eye test?”

SH: You can’t win.

YR: Yeah. And so after a very long time – including working with a therapist to be able to own my success, to be able to feel normal amounts of emotion – when it happened at that tournament I think I said something like “Yeah!”, and slapped my hand down on the table in front of me. The staff from the company were all there, they came over to give us our prize and take our picture and so on. They said nothing to me. And at that moment, there were staff from the company there; they came over to take our picture, to congratulate us, to hand us the money, and so on. They said nothing about slapping the table being objectionable. It would have been silly if they did because it’s very routine. In a weekly pub trivia where virtually nothing is at stake, people will cheer very loudly just for getting a question right. Any question. You know? But coming from behind, dramatically winning $1,000, and just basically moving my arm from here to here…? And at that moment, no one seemed to have an issue with it. The team that we beat, they came over to talk with us, we talked for like half an hour afterwards, very friendly. If anyone were to feel that I that I was gloating, or lording it over them, it should’ve been that team, and they clearly didn’t have a problem with me. And neither did the staff at the time.

But when the owner came to eject me on that night, he held this up as his key example. He was like, “You want evidence?” but all the other stuff he said was so vague and easily contradicted so he was like, “Here is something you did.” He even said something about how the NFL has ‘excessive celebration’ penalties, just gliding over the fact that it’s been scientifically shown that those penalties are enforced in a racially discriminatory manner, which is why they’re often objected to. My white friend who had come outside with me asked this owner, he was like, “You hold these events, you give away money to drum up excitement. And then you do a countdown, you do an announcement of the answers, you build up to announcing who the winning team is to maximise excitement! You have cameras there, you want to record everything, because you want people to display excitement, right? And yet, you’re claiming now that it’s somehow a problem that Yogesh showed excitement?” And the owner just kept saying “It was gloaty, it was gloaty”, which is, I guess, a more politically correct term than “uppity”.

SH: Wow, yeah, that’s so subjective. And I think it plays into what you were talking about earlier, the word “gloaty” being pertinent.

What do you make of the game show The Chase? Because that sets quizzing experts up as ruthless Alpha WINNERS. And I think this probably exacerbates what we were talking about earlier, where it has to be a zero-sum game; someone has to win, and therefore someone has to lose. And The Chase, it seems to me, stokes those fires.

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And that’s where we’ll leave our chat for today. We’ll see you back here next Tuesday for Yogesh’s answer – and the next instalment – but until then, a quick reminder that you can find Yogesh’s blog The Wronger Box right HERE, and his podcast Recreational Thinking is right HERE.  

See you next week!

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