‘Why I believe Apu is an American hero’

Come again: Apu is a shop owner and a vegan, who claims to be the “Fifth Beatle”. © Fox
by Manick Govinda

The head of the artists’ advisory services at the London-based organisation Artsadmin, and a producer there. Manick Govinda also campaigns on free expression, the arts and immigration issues.

Is The Simpsons racist? In a new documentary, comedian Hari Kondabolu argues yes: Apu is an Indian stereotype with a shockingly bad accent, voiced by a white man. But this writer disagrees…

Another day, another claim that the entertainment industry is racist. The latest subject of attack is a character from The Simpsons.

But who is the character causing offence? It’s not the stereotypically dumb, fat, white, blue-collar worker, Homer Simpson, or the loveable rogue, Bart Simpson. Nor is it the many typecast Irish, Scottish, German and other ethnic characters in this 28-year-old comedy. No, the media has taken offence at the Indian shopkeeper, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

Apu is the subject of a forthcoming documentary made by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu, called The Problem With Apu. Kondabolu, a successful comedian with a master’s degree in human rights, claims that when he was growing up in Queens, New York, kids would call him Apu and put on Indian accents.

Apu is not the one-dimensional Indian stereotype that Kondabolu makes him out to be.

Kondabolu admits to being a fan of The Simpsons, and expresses a fondness for Apu. “If you separate the impact of the character, and you just follow it, he’s a funny character in terms of how he’s one of the smarter characters,” he says. “The times when I watch it, within the context of the show, I can generally deal with it — until you hear a joke that you realise is basically a joke a bully would have made.”

Kondabolu places Apu within a wider context of brownface, blackface and minstrelsy in American popular media. Apu’s Indian accent is fake, performed by white, American voice actor Hank Azaria — who also performs the voices of other characters like Moe Szyslak, Chief Wiggum, the Comic Book Guy and Carl Carlson. This ”minstrelsy” is deeply problematic for Kondabolu — for him, it’s a white guy “brownfacing”.

This is, of course, ignoring the fact that Azaria’s talent is in performing a culturally diverse range of voices for fictional characters.

I grew up in 1970s London in a working-class, Indian-origin household. My family would watch British comedies like Love Thy Neighbour, Mind Your Language and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. All of them featured crude stereotypes of foreigners as well as black and Asian people. But we loved watching them, with a plate of biryani on our laps, laughing uncontrollably.

The Simpsons is a far more sophisticated comedy than the crude slapstick of my youth — and people of Indian origin born or living in America tend to be far more well-off than they are in the UK. So it’s peculiar that a successful comedian feels so troubled by a fictional Indian shopkeeper.

Fighting racism through media representation is misguided, and only serves to stop writers creating characters outside of their own ethnic or racial backgrounds. Who wants a walking-on-eggshells approach to creativity? Besides, Apu is not the one-dimensional Indian stereotype that Kondabolu makes him out to be.

Let’s not forget that Apu graduated first in his class of seven million at the Calcutta Technical Institute, going on to earn his doctorate at the Springfield Heights Institute of Technology. He began working at the Kwik-E-Mart during graduate school to pay off his student loan, but stayed on because he enjoyed his job and the friends he made. He even had a No1 hit singing in a barbershop quartet.

Apu is a successful immigrant businessman who loves America. Hats off to him.

This piece is reprinted with mind permission from Manick Govinda and Spiked. The original can be found under Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Is Apu a racist stereotype?

Activities

  1. As a class, divide the whiteboard or a large sheet of paper into two columns. On one side, list all of examples of stereotypes that you think Apu embodies. On the other, list all of the things that make him a unique character. Then discuss: Which side wins, and does that make the character racist?

Word Watch

The Simpsons
Last month, the comedy cartoon began its 29th season. The first episode was aired in December 1989, and it is America’s longest-running TV series.
Minstrelsy
This is a reference to minstrel shows in 19th-century America, which involved music and comedy performed by white entertainers with blackface (ie, make-up to darken their skin). Now, the word has come to mean any form of using make-up to dress as a person of a different race.
More well-off
According to the US census, Indian-Americans are the wealthiest ethnic group in America. According to the Resolution Foundation in Britain, Indian families still have slightly less disposable income than white families, although they are the wealthiest non-white ethnic group.
Media representation
How different groups of people are represented on TV and in other forms of media. It often forms part of the discussions around the treatment of ethnic minorities, LGBT people, women, people with disabilities and so on.
Barbershop quartet
A group of four a capella singers.

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