That a white man voiced an Indian character on The Simpsons is not the cause of anti-Indian racism in the United States.
As one of the world’s leading experts on Simpsons character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (yes, this is sarcasm!), I have once again been asked to bring my vast expertise to one of the great controversies of our generation: Is Apu a racist figure?
I have written about this controversy numerous times, both for National Review, as well as for other publications. And “controversy” is an exaggeration; this is largely a made up issue, contrived for people to claim victim status, not a true affront to equality and justice.
The latest foray in the Apu wars was a comment made by Hank Azaria, a white man who has long been the voice actor for the famously Indian character. Earlier this week, appearing as a guest on the Armchair Expert podcast, Azaria took his self-flagellation to the next level:
“I was speaking at my son’s school, I was talking to the Indian kids there because I wanted to get their input,” Azaria said. “A 17-year-old … he’s never even seen The Simpsons but knows what Apu means. It’s practically a slur at this point. All he knows is that is how his people are thought of and represented to many people in this country.”
The boy, “with tears in his eyes,” Azaria said, asked the actor to tell Hollywood writers what they do matters and has ramifications on people’s lives. Azaria said he would deliver the message.
“I really do apologize,” Azaria said. “It’s important. I apologize for my part in creating that and participating in that. Part of me feels like I need to go to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologize. And sometimes I do.”
But the Apu wars preceded Azaria’s latest self-flagellation. They largely began with The Problem with Apu, a documentary/comedy written and produced by Hari Kondabolu, an Indian-American stand-up comedian. The movie lays out the case that Apu has become a symbol of racial stereotypes and bigotry, and that the character has propagated prejudice against Asian Americans — Indian Americans in particular.
From early on, I said that Kondabolu was off base. Here is what I wrote initially in April 2018:
That said, Kondabolu’s tirade largely runs off the tracks as he blames the Apu character for all sorts of slights and insults during his career: “Apu was the only Indian we had on TV at all so I was happy for any representation as a kid. . . . He’s funny, but that doesn’t mean this representation is accurate or right or righteous. It gets to the insidiousness of racism, though, because you don’t even notice it when it’s right in front of you.”
The ridiculousness of this statement is almost too much to bear. On the show, Apu is a strongly accented, traditional Indian immigrant. As such, he is the owner of a convenience store (obviously a nod to the many 7-11s and other small businesses owned by Indians throughout the northeastern United States), who later gets an arranged marriage, has octuplets, and is shown as a fantastic father and husband. He is also, among other things, a gun owner who is extremely religious and devoted to his Hindu culture.
Some quickly condemned my position, and others simply attacked it as blind and ignorant. Meanwhile, the producers of The Simpsons seemed to be on my side, though eventually the controversy resulted in the predictable Hollywood response: They virtually killed off Apu from the popular animated show. For the showrunners, who probably believe Apu is a respectable, lovable character, a war with the woke mob wasn’t worth the effort.
Azaria has been attacked for his participation in this supposed atrocity as well. He initially politely appeared on Kondabolu’s documentary, but was largely blindsided by the complaints. He then was criticized for not providing satisfactory responses to claims of racism and bigotry. Again, as expected, rather than continuing to fight the thankless war against the woke mob, Azaria simply raised the white flag of surrender. In 2018, he decided to permanently stop voicing the character.
Unsurprisingly, that didn’t end the saga for Azaria. Charges of racism have dogged him ever since. Hence his self-flagellation on the Armchair Expert podcast. Apparently, the ridiculousness never ends.
But it should. For one thing, does Azaria really think most Indians give this even the most fleeting, passing thought? The Simpsons is not widely viewed, or even available, in India. There was a short period during the 1990s when the show gained some notoriety there, but mostly because people fell in love with the character of Apu.
1.4 billion Indians don’t really care. The few here in the U.S. who do care have, for the most part, misdiagnosed a problem, and blamed, in an incredible and mind-boggling twist of logic . . . a cartoon character.
Ask most kids in high school today about Apu, and you’ll find not only that few have ever watched The Simpsons, but also that few even have a clue who Apu is. The chances that bigots at his son’s school are using this character as their primary weapon against Indian-American students are very low.
I explored this several years ago, in an informal setting with numerous Indian-American students. I asked what Hollywood character was most used to “insult” their ancestry; the answer was not Apu from The Simpsons. It was Raj, the heavily accented immigrant Indian on The Big Bang Theory. With the end of that show, even that reference is now dated. I have asked various students this question over the years, and I have received very similar responses. Other names that are commonly brought up include Baljeet, an Indian animated character on the Disney show Phineas and Ferb, and Dopinder, the heavily accented taxi driver in the Deadpool films. Apu is almost never brought up as the weapon of choice from the prejudiced attackers.
Anyone see a pattern?
Bigots care not about what weapon they use to hurt the targets of their attack. They will use anything that is convenient. The characters, therefore, are not the problem; the bigots are. In the days long forgotten, it was the term ‘dotheads’ (referring to the red dots that we Hindus sometimes adorn on our foreheads) that was most commonly used.
Additionally, does anyone think the color of the voice actor matters? Azaria has repeatedly claimed that only people of color should voice such characters, but the examples above were voiced by South-Asian actors, and the targeting still occurred. The only other solution is . . . to never show Indian characters at all, correct?
The fact that, years after Azaria left the character of Apu behind, he still feels compelled to apologize (apparently, personally to every Indian soul, which means about one-sixth of the entire population of the planet) shows how ludicrous the social media mob has become. Azaria conceded the point to progressives, did exactly what they wanted him to do, and is still dogged by the controversy. There is no pleasing the left-wing mob.
As for Azaria apologizing: Most Indians would not know who he was, and wouldn’t care. But I am not most Indians. I would love a personal visit by Hank Azaria to my home so that he could apologize to me and my family. I can’t imagine anything would be more satisfying than meeting one of my comedic heroes in person the great and everlasting voice Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. As one of the Indian Americans who has been most targeted for his position on this issue, I think I deserve an apology. Give me a call, Hank. We can make it happen.