Wikipedia's "Macaca" Problem
The user-generated encyclopedia makes George Allen's faux pas seem more clear-cut than it really was.
A monkey-specter taunts George Allen. When the former Virginia senator announced in January that he was running to retake the seat he lost five years ago, nearly every news story mentioned his Aug. 11, 2006, campaign stop. Most people need little reminder of what went down on that fateful afternoon in southwest Virginia, when Allen singled out Indian-American college student S. R. Sidarth, who had been filming him all week. "This fellow here—over here with the yellow shirt, 'Macaca,' or whatever his name is, he's with my opponent," he said, looking into the camera. Allen made a joke about how challenger Jim Webb was raising money in Hollywood, and then returned to Sidarth: "Let's give a welcome to 'Macaca' here. Welcome to America, and the real world of Virginia."
What we may forget is that no one present at the campaign event appeared to think much of the incident or the gibberish nickname Allen had come up with for Sidarth—everyone except Sidarth himself and his bosses at the Webb campaign. The following Monday, Sidarth told the Associated Press that he felt the senator was "singling me out as a person of color when the rest of the audience was Caucasian." As far as the word macaca was concerned, the AP offered that it's "a term associated with a species of monkeys." (The scientific name for the rhesus monkey, for example, is Macaca mulatta.) The article also noted that, if spelled "Makaka," the word referred to a South African city. The Allen campaign insisted that Allen made the word up, and that he didn't mean anything by it.
Before Allen said "macaca," it had no entry on Wikipedia. That was corrected the day after the first stories were published, when a frequent contributor to the user-edited encyclopedia posted a short definition:
Macaca (also spelled Macaque) is a dismissive epithet used by Francophone colonials in Africa for native populations of North and Subsaharan Africans, similar to the British "wog", or US "gook" or "haji". Macaca is also a coded word used in the White Power Movement to refer to people of African descent.
The article was edited 37 times in the first day, but the closest anyone came to disputing the word's use as a slur was to slap a "" stamp on the sentence above. Meanwhile, journalists and bloggers were desperately searching for evidence that it was in fact a slur and that Allen knew it, even subconsciously. (Allen's mother was born to Jewish parents in Tunisia back when the country was a French protectorate.) There were some tantalizing hints, such as traces of the word on white supremacist websites and scattered references in Colonial African literature, but no smoking gun. George Allen had clearly crossed a line by implying that Sidarth was a new arrival to America. (Sidarth was born in Virginia.) Whether he had committed the far graver offense of using a racial epithet—or even knowingly calling him a monkey—was very difficult to determine.
Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.
Photograph of George Allen by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.