The Problem With Apu Is A Problem With America

A new documentary sheds light on the many ways the seminal ‘Simpsons’ character has harmed South Asian Americans.

Two years before I came to this country, another South Asian had arrived: Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the popular Simpsons character who runs the local Kwik-E-Mart and gleefully rips everyone off.

I was just starting elementary school after my family moved to the United States from India, and through those formative years, I heard “thank you, come again” from friends and bullies alike, in that absurdly exaggerated approximation of an Indian accent (never mind that there is no such thing as a single Indian accent, considering 780 languages are spoken in the many regions of India).

More than 25 years later, comic, filmmaker, and actor Hari Kondabolu has released a new documentary, The Problem with Apu, that examines how this minstrel-like character has created, perpetuated, and normalized the simultaneous other-ing and mocking of South Asians in America. The film’s aim: to break down, for the world, why the Apu character is so damaging to brown people like me.

In early 1990, Apu was drawn into existence as the cheapskate owner of a convenience store in Springfield. The Simpsons was actually engaging in fairly woke social commentary for the time: Apu embodied a kind of immigrant who really did exist, and was often overlooked by much of America — the educated outsider who leaves his homeland in search of better opportunities, but ends up forced into a menial job for which he’s overqualified, because of restrictions on how and where immigrants can seek employment in this country.

But this important depiction was made secondary to the crude stereotypes of Indianness that Apu portrayed. His character exemplified all the then-popular jokes about Indians — that we’re foreign and undeniably un-American, hardworking, cheap, and talk funny — and solidified them in the minds of the roughly 33 million Americans who watched The Simpsons at that time. And with few contrasting representations of Brown people to go off of (save for the Indians in Temple of Doom who ate chilled monkey brains), this in turn informed the average American’s perception of all South Asians.

Admittedly, The Simpsons pokes fun at people from many walks of life — in Kondabolu’s documentary, he interviews former Simpsons writer and producer Dana Gould, who suggests the portrayal of Apu is the same as any comical depiction on the show. But other portrayals don’t hinge on a racist depiction of the character. With Apu, his Indianness — as Kondabolu stated in an interview for the New York Times — is the joke.

Consider the genesis of his name: While “Apu” comes from Bengali director Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, “Nahasapeemapetilon” is a mocking fictional combination of a classmate of Simpson writer Jeff Martin named Pahasanee Mapetilon.

As writers and critics have expressed before — and Whoopi Goldberg notes in a conversation with Kondabolu for the documentary — Apu can even be seen as a minstrel-like character. While everyone else on The Simpsons (with the exception of Dr. Hibbert, and a handful of minor characters who have appeared over the years) is bright yellow, Apu is filled in with brown paint, the animation equivalent of Brown face.

This troubling dynamic is further exacerbated by the fact that Apu, who was conceived of by a white writing team, is voiced by Hank Azaria — a white guy. Azaria isn’t some Indian guy poking fun at the experiences of our people (or even an opportunistic one actively betraying us for the chance at a big gig); he’s a non-Indian who’s made it okay for the entire country to laugh at us. Kondabolu has described Apu as “a white guy, doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” (In response to this statement, Azaria himself expressed misgivings about the character, admitting that “if the only representation of Jews in our culture was Robin Williams’ impression of a Yiddish guy, I guess I might be upset with that too.”) Gould tells Kondabolu that some accents simply sound funny to white Americans, an argument that essentially suggests we deserve to be mocked.

It should also be noted that Hank Azaria has won multiple Emmys for The Simpsons, including three wins for his work as Apu — meaning those with power find the depiction admirable. And still today, South Asians in Hollywood must contend with the effects of this stereotyping; actor and comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who already has a Pakistani accent, has said he’s been asked to “do the Apu accent” during auditions.

While many people have talked about the more obvious ways Apu has perpetuated dangerous ideas about South Asian Americans, less discussed is how he also embodies the pervasive “model minority” myth. In the show, he has a degree in computer science, graduated first in his class of seven million at Calcutta Tech, and goes on to earn a PhD in computer science. He is highly educated and extremely hard-working, the hallmarks of the model minority stereotype.

At first blush, this may seem more innocuous than other aspects of the Apu character; it may even be considered flattering. But the perception of Asian Americans as smart, successful, hard-working, respectful, unobtrusive, and quiet does its own harm in our society.

In schools, this myth hurts students who are furthest from fitting the stereotype of the “smart, studious” Asian (and even those who barely fail to meet the extraordinarily high bar this stereotype sets). This myth is also used as a political tool to oppress minority groups, and creates a “racial wedge” between Asians and other people of color. Moreover, it’s misleading and inaccurate.

So why won’t the model minority myth die? For one thing, it’s been around a long time (it was first used in a 1966 piece for The New York Times Magazine, and then in 1973 in an academic journal). For another, researchers have shied away from studying challenges faced by Asian and South Asian Americans, which has further made Asian American students’ problems and difficulties less visible compared to other groups that are perceived as more disadvantaged (existing literature on Asian American kids is also severely limited, and what little literature does exist tends to grossly over-generalize and lump all Asian Americans together).

Finally, and crucially, mainstream media portrayals of Asian Americans perpetuate the stereotyping. In spite of ongoing campaigns to increase the representation of Asian Americans in non-stereotypical television roles, the ever-present nerdy Asian friend trope persists, and Asians continue to be cast as unattractive doctors or creepy IT workers (but rarely, you’ll notice, as CEOs or media moguls).

Apu, then, manages to embody two pervasive stereotypes —he is at once an annoying convenience store owner, ready to be laughed at and mocked, and a nerdy geek, ready to be pigeonholed and overlooked.

These stereotypes have more insidious effects than many imagine. When the media invites people to make fun of and look down on characters like Apu, they also open the door to more serious issues — like Americans other-ing and fearing Muslims following 9/11, especially turban-clad Sikh boys and men like my own brother and father.

Racism immediately after September of 2001 wasn’t particularly original; in school, a classmate once asked me if the guy who dropped me off that morning was Bin Laden. While on a family cruise, my brother, who was 10 years old at the time, was stopped by a fellow passenger, and told he looked like Bin Laden’s son. And my dad was stopped at work and called Bin Laden.

When the media invites people to make fun of and look down on characters like Apu, they also open the door to more serious issues.

Mine wasn’t the only family hearing this nonsense; in my doctoral research at Johns Hopkins University, a South Asian American participant in my study described the struggle of growing up and feeling ostracized by peers, and even being called a terrorist by classmates. (Interestingly, Apu has deal with this, too; one episode of The Simpsons depicts four characters being stopped by a border guard who thinks Apu might be a terrorist, a reflection of the very real and counterproductive racial profiling of South Asians and Middle-Easterners that occurs in airports. But here, too, the depiction wasn’t positive, as the joke wasn’t the border guard’s racism, but Apu’s appearance.)

The harm caused by these stereotypes extends beyond hurtful words or microaggressions. In the years following 2001, hate crimes against Sikhs, who wear turbans and are therefore visibly “othered,”’ have increased significantly. And recent American political events haven’t done much to quell the rising tide of xenophobia. The pattern of making us into outsiders is thus continued.

Because of all this, I’m looking forward to Kondabolu’s documentary, set to debut November 19 on truTV. The program is poised to speak to the many South Asian Americans who grew up frustrated about this caricature of themselves on mainstream television. Kondabolu — who has been a longtime commentator on issues of race, racism, and inequity in America — is himself Indian American. And he has, like me and people like me, experienced firsthand the racism disguised as joviality that is a byproduct of mainstream media’s depictions of South Asian Americans.

Nearly three decades after Apu’s debut on American television, the impact of his character is still felt — and we have every right to demand more from Americans than their unquestioning embrace of what he represents. As Kondabolu says, “you can criticize something you love because you expect more from it.”

Just a few weeks ago, at my best friend’s wedding, an older White man stepped into the elevator, and used the Apu voice to comment on my (White) husband’s Indian attire. Imagine the ridiculous Apu voice as he said, “Why are you wearing those Indian clothes but you are not Indian,” and then, as more wedding guests piled into the elevator, loudly continued in the same accent, “and oh look, they are now taking over.” The man never made eye contact with me, and my intelligent and typically loquacious husband was as dumbfounded as I was as we stepped off the elevator and stared at one another.

You may be thinking, maybe that guy didn’t mean any harm. Most Americans — most people — don’t set out to say or do offensive or racist things. But harboring — even on some subconscious level — stereotypical beliefs about South Asians as dangerous outsiders, or as some perfect nerd group, or as a big joke, isn’t all that harmless. Even decent people have realized that they might sometimes be scared of those who look different from them, or found that they actually believe stereotypes like the model minority myth.

Maybe, at some point in their lives, they’ve even slipped into that ridiculous Apu accent.

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