I Am Macaca

By S.R. Sidarth
Sunday, November 12, 2006

This past summer, between my third and fourth year of college, I decided to volunteer for the campaign of Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb in my home state of Virginia. For most of the summer, I worked behind the scenes at the campaign headquarters in Arlington, helping set up field offices statewide and performing other odd jobs. In the second week of August, I was dispatched by the campaign to serve as Republican Sen. George Allen's tracker on a "listening tour" across the state. Tracking was a rather solitary pursuit; I videotaped Allen's public appearances whenever I was admitted into an event and killed time between stops in places I had never been to before.

Then, on Aug. 11, my experience took a strange -- and now famous -- turn. On that day in Breaks Interstate Park, located on the Kentucky border, Allen acknowledged my presence for the first time in one of his stump speeches. I was singled out at a GOP picnic, identified as "macaca or whatever his name is" -- despite the fact that Allen knew my name, as we had been traveling the same route for five days -- and then "welcome[d] to America and the real world of Virginia."

Allen's actions that day stood out because they were not representative of how I was treated while traveling around the state. Everywhere I went, though I was identifiably working on behalf of Allen's opponent, people treated me with dignity, respect and kindness. I cannot recall one event where food was served and I was not invited to join in the meal. In southwest Virginia, hospitality toward me was at a high point.

The night before the incident in Breaks, I stayed at the home of Jewel Jones, Webb's aunt, in Gate City on the Tennessee border. I was treated like family even though I was a guest for only half a day, and I received a grand tour of the area where Webb's ancestors have lived for more than a century. The following day, at the picnic in Breaks, even after Allen's comments highlighted my outsider status, I was not allowed to depart without eating, because as one woman put it, "Political differences are set aside at the dinner table." In the same spirit, I was given accurate directions to Allen's next event, held in Bluefield the following morning.

After Allen's remarks, my heritage suddenly became a matter of widespread interest. I am proud to be a second-generation Indian American and a practicing Hindu. My parents were born and raised in India and immigrated here more than 25 years ago; I have known no home other than Northern Virginia. The hairstyle inflicted upon me by two friends late one night also became newsworthy; for the record, it was intended to be a mullet and has since grown out to nearly the appropriate length.

The larger question that this experience brings up is: How far has society progressed on the issues of race and openness? By 2050, according to most projections, the United States will be a minority-majority nation. But the fact that Allen believed I was an immigrant, when in fact I am a native Virginian, underlines the problems our society still faces.

Then again, Webb's victory last week gives me hope that Virginia will not tolerate playing the race card. It is still hard for me to accept that I could have had a pivotal role in the election results; I would not wish the scrutiny I received on anyone. But I am also glad to have helped Webb. Every little bit counted, especially in an election decided by about 9,000 votes out of nearly 2.4 million cast.

The politics of division just don't work anymore. Nothing made me happier on election night than finding out the results from Dickenson County, where Allen and I had our encounter. Webb won there, in what I can only hope was a vote to deal the race card out of American politics once and for all.


S.R. Sidarth is a senior at the University of Virginia.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company