For One Group, 'Macaca' Recalls Slurs After 9/11

News of Sen. George Allen's derisive comments to S.R. Sidarth spread swiftly among Indian Americans.
News of Sen. George Allen's derisive comments to S.R. Sidarth spread swiftly among Indian Americans. (AP)
By Michael D. Shear and Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 20, 2006

Word of Sen. George Allen's controversial comments flashed across the country last week, but nowhere more rapidly than in Virginia's Indian American community, where frustration over ethnic stereotypes has intensified since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Dolly Oberoi, chief executive of a Northern Virginia technology company, heard what Allen said to a 20-year-old Indian American from Fairfax County replayed on the radio Monday while driving home from work. "To me it sounded like, 'You dirty kid, get out of my way,' " Oberoi said. "That was very painful to a lot of people."

Allen's comments during a campaign stop in southwest Virginia were directed at S.R. Sidarth, who was videotaping the event for Allen's Democratic opponent, James Webb. Allen repeatedly pointed at Sidarth, dismissively calling him "Macaca, or whatever his name is," and saying "welcome to America and to the real world of Virginia."

Once posted by the Webb campaign on the Internet, the video became a sensation, prompting anger about the use of "macaca," which refers to a genus of monkeys and is a racial slur in some countries.

But it was the scene -- of a senator singling out a member of her community in front of a mostly white crowd -- that affected Oberoi more than any word. It smacked of insults directed at her since terrorists, none of whom were Indian, attacked the Pentagon and World Trade Center nearly five years ago.

Oberoi recalled an incident in which "this woman came and started honking. She parked next to me [and yelled], 'All you people from the Middle East!' "

"They get mixed up about who's from what part of the world," Oberoi added.

Virginia is home to about 80,000 adults with Indian ancestry, most of whom live in Northern Virginia, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In interviews across the state last week, many said they were offended and disappointed by the comments from the one-term Republican senator and former governor.

Some said they hoped that the video, widely available on the Internet, would make people think twice about voting for Allen in the November election. Others said they hoped the incident would help cement Allen's solid support for their community's issues, such as allowing more visas for high-tech workers from India and backing nuclear cooperation between India and the United States.

The Indian American community in Virginia began expanding dramatically in the 1960s and '70s, when an influx of highly educated young immigrants began arriving. Many were engineers, doctors or teachers who settled in Washington's suburbs.

Thirty years later, the community has broadened and matured, civic leaders say. Many of its members are successful, especially in the region's information technology industries. And they are tight, placing a high value on sharing information quickly. When Allen's comments became public, the video link was sent nearly instantly across a very wired community.

Politically, Indian American influence in Virginia is growing, though it is somewhat limited by their numbers. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Indian Americans formed many groups aimed at expanding their political reach. Many cheered when Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) named a young Indian American business executive, Aneesh P. Chopra, to be secretary of technology.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company