The Good Word

Wikipedia’s “Macaca” Problem

The user-generated encyclopedia makes George Allen’s faux pas seem more clear-cut than it really was.

George Allen

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 “[citation needed]” 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.

Wikipedia editors could not be dissuaded. The largely unsupported claim about the white power movement disappeared in a day or two, but on the day of the election, Wikipedia still stated that “Macaca is a dismissive epithet used by francophone colonials in Central Africa’s Belgian Congo for the native population”—virtually the identical definition that survives today. The chief substantiation offered for this assertion is a footnote in the transcript of an obscure conversation between anthropologist Johannes Fabian and a Congolese painter named Tshibumba Kanda Matulu, in which Fabian states: “T. is being polite when he uses the French (baby-talk) caca for excrements, shit. Together with the plural/collective prefix ma- this sounds to me like makaka, sometimes heard for French macaque, ‘monkey’, a derogatory, racist term.” Allen lost to Democrat Jim Webb by 9,329 votes out of more than 2 million. In retrospect, the macaca incident was the point at which everything started going wrong for Allen, who had started out 16 points ahead in the polls.

Wikipedia was still on the cusp of widespread credibility in 2006. In 2011, it’s an authoritative source for most subjects. I still think its contributors are too territorial, driving away less devoted editors with different perspectives, but by and large its information is accurate. Those who freak out about a liberal bias on the site are usually overreacting in the face of unconvincing evidence. But this is a case where the page’s editors are exaggerating the certainty of the information presented and thus contributing to the impression that Allen knowingly used a slur. There is a short argument over this on the page’s discussion section, where editors can quibble about what to include or not include on the page. “Afterwards, people were absolutely certain that, even though no one had ever heard of this word, it was a very bad word,” one commenter wrote. “So they created a story where none previously existed.” None of this concern is represented in the article itself.

I voted for Webb and was as happy as anyone to see Allen go down. If I were still registered in Virginia, I would surely vote against him again. That doesn’t change the fact that he was unfairly branded as a racist when it’s quite possible he was just being a buffoon. (I have a hard time imagining Allen was well-versed in the scientific names for different small primates.) But whatever he really meant, the incident was the perfect peg for columns about Allen’s “race problem,” segueing into his affection for the Confederacy and rumors that he was less than devoted to racial equality in the ‘70s. A month after the macaca incident, Salon published allegations by former teammates of Allen’s on the University of Virginia football team that Allen regularly used the word nigger. The same day, UVa political scientist Larry Sabato, another classmate of Allen’s, went on Hardball to say that Allen “did use the N-word” as a student. The Allen campaign produced witnesses of their own from the football team to dispute the evidence, but the die was already cast.

That’s what happens in politics—when you can’t prove a guy did something wrong, you just insinuate that he did until he may as well have. I have no expectation that this will change. But there’s no reason Wikipedia needs to aid and abet this dirty work. If they don’t temper the certainty of the definition of the word, the Wikipedians who monitor this page risk confirming the fear that they parrot information from the left. Like a bunch of Psittaciformes.