Friday, August 18, 2006

Monkey see, monkey do

Casual racism, homestyle

Yes, Senator George Felix Allen of Virginia is a racist. Defenders of the junior senator from Virginia claim he was misunderstood, but they are wrong. Most of them probably know they are wrong, but they may hope Allen's insult was sufficiently obscure that most people will shrug and let it pass.

This is not a complicated matter. Allen's disdain of racial minorities is so ingrained, so bred in the bone, that he can casually apply a derogatory epithet to a dark-skinned young man who is actually recording his words and actions on video. “Macaca” flows trippingly off his tongue. He pauses to say, “whatever his name is,” but that's only a rhetorical dig. Allen's not stumbling at all. When he repeats the insult—“Let's give a welcome to Macaca”—Allen demonstrates that it is a studied and deliberate slur. Perhaps Allen is thinking he'll get away with it because no one will understand the epithet. Perhaps Allen's not thinking at all. Racists are like that sometimes. Just shooting from the hip and letting the words gush from their mouths.

I know the word macaca well, having heard it throughout my life. In my Portuguese-speaking family, it was a word applied to my sister whenever she was acting up or behaving foolishly. It means monkey to the Portuguese (and Brazilians), just as it does to other cultures on or near the Mediterranean. When it was applied to me, the word was rendered macaco, with a masculine ending.

The adults in my family used it as a term of admonishment to children. It was never addressed to adults. That would be gravely insulting. It seems that the insulting connotation was common among the Mediterranean cultures that employed it. In particular, George Felix Allen's French-Tunisian mother grew up in a culture that employed it as a racial slur against blacks. Where else did Senator Allen pick it up than from his mother? Did she use it on him when he was little, or did she teach him to use it as a convenient substitute for the n-word? How very subtle!

Senator Allen's insult of S. R. Sidarth was no accident, but it was a mistake. The senator outed himself much more effectively than he realized. The origin and connotation of macaca were quickly uncovered, as well as Allen's familial connection to the source of the slur. What many suspected before, everyone now knows for sure.

Senator George Felix Allen is a racist. É stupid, também.

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