Culture

What The Apu Controversy Tells Us About Woke White People

'The Simpsons' spent decades mocking us. Now, when confronted, its writers refused to listen.

Last year, comedian Hari Kondabolu released a documentary called The Problem With Apu. It exposed what many South Asians have long understood — that Apu, the beloved Kwik-E-Mart clerk from The Simpsons, is a harmful and reductionist racial caricature.

Voiced by a white man (Hank Azaria) and boasting a comical, exaggerated and inaccurate accent, Apu, Kondabolu argued, is a minstrel show Indian that only a blinkered, predominantly white writing room could see as funny or legitimate.

Five months later, The Simpsons responded to this challenge. In its most recent episode ‘No Good Read Goes Unpunished’, The Simpsons appeared to dismiss Kondabolu’s argument with a lazy and tired parable about the dangers of “political correctness”.

Apu himself doesn’t make an appearance in the episode. Instead Marge presents Lisa with an updated version of a once-problematic book, which she claims is now stripped of its “spirit and character”. Lisa is unimpressed by the sanitised version. “Something that started decades ago, and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect,” she sighs, gazing at a photo of Apu.

This episode seems like a huge cop-out, and a cynical attempt to deflect attention away from Kondabolu’s legitimate conversation starter. Instead of a serious consideration of how minorities are represented on TV, we got a milquetoast whine about ‘political correctness’ more reminiscent of a Fox News talking head than a show that has prided itself on years of smart, incisive commentary on the banalities of Middle America.

Apu And The White Liberal Imagination

Co-opting the conspiratorial language of conservatives may come across as a desperate and edgy grasp at relevance for a show that knows it’s a good decade past its prime. But The Simpsons’ reframing of the discussion around Apu speaks to a more important trait all too common among well meaning white liberals — a stubborn refusal to take accountability for one’s own racial biases.

“The Simpsons’  writers effectively tried to blame people of colour for daring to be offended”

Indeed, while The Simpsons’ dismissive and myopic allegory did little to rehabilitate the show’s credibility on matters of race, it does tell us an awful lot about the blindspots of liberal America. Well-intentioned, often progressive white people, like Azaria, often struggle to see themselves as capable of problematic behaviour.

In the fanciful utopia that is the liberal imagination, racism is a disease that only afflicts the cross-burners in Make America Great Again hats, not the good folk of the Hollywood Left. Of course, such people are not actively racist (mostly). Instead, they can often internalise and ultimately regurgitate harmful, stereotypical ideas about people of colour. Their racism doesn’t come from a place of animosity, hatred or fear, but is instead borne out of arrogant self-righteousness and wilful ignorance.

But, most importantly, this kind of racism is reflected by a refusal to listen and change. When you see yourself as a progressive person, immune from racial biases, you are unlikely to do anything to change your behaviour. Describing conversations about race with her white friends, British writer Reni Eddo-Lodge says “It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us”.

It is this stubbornness that ‘No Good Read’ so aptly demonstrates. Rather than listen to the very real criticisms of several South Asians, The Simpsons’ writers effectively tried to blame people of colour for daring to be offended.

Of course, the fact that one of our most beloved shows has deeply problematic elements may be unpalatable for some. As a society, we don’t like to grapple with the fact that many of our favourite cultural institutions are imperfect. But such institutions can, and should change.

Recently, National Geographic published an editorial owning up to the magazine’s long history of racially insensitive coverage. In January, the Cleveland Indians baseball team announced that they would abandon their racially insensitive Chief Wahoo logo from 2019.

While these are just small steps, that on the surface, appear to do little to change the pernicious nature of structural racism, they do demonstrate a laudable willingness to listen and change which The Simpsons did not have.

Instead, the writers chose to bury their heads in the sand, and wish the controversy away.

Why Apu Ruined The Simpsons For Me

It’s easy to dismiss critique of Apu as another example of the excesses of Generation Woke™. The Simpsons is, after all, just a cartoon, as so many keyboard warriors are no doubt about to tell me in the comments section. But representation of minorities matters, because it shapes how dominant cultures understand and relate to them.

Like the actors and comedians Kondabolu interviews in his film, I can’t shake off the feeling of discomfort and alienation Apu engenders. As a person of colour, you grow up with a constant, simmering sense of your own otherness. For me, Apu made that sense of otherness all the more real.

While the show does flesh out the character to some extent over its 29 seasons and counting, the thing that sticks is Apu’s inauthentic accent, his trademark catchphrase ‘Thank you, come again’, his quaint, silly foreign-ness. As Kondabolu describes it, Apu’s accent is like “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father”.

It’s worth noting that in the early 2000s, Apu was probably the only ‘Indian’ person on mainstream TV — Raj Koothrapalli, The Big Bang Theory’s socially awkward science geek, wouldn’t appear for a few more years. At the time, The Simpsons was huge, and for so many of my generation, is still conjures up fond childhood memories.

When your classmates’ only exposure to an Indian person is a crude caricature, your family and heritage can very quickly become the butt of a joke, and a source of cheap laughs. And often, people who are conditioned not to question their favourite shows struggle to see why you’re not laughing with them.

But at the end of the day, it’s really tiring explaining to people that none of your relatives talk like that, that Apu’s last name, ‘Nahasapeemapetilon’, is just a curious hodgepodge of consonants that sounds like no Indian name in existence, and how your relatives are actually doctors and engineers who do not all work at 7/11. And so, the stereotype sticks.

For most fans, Apu is just an irrelevant supporting character. But he remains my strongest memory of the show, and the lens through which my relationship with it is coloured. While so many of my peers look back on The Simpsons with warm, fuzzy nostalgia, my feelings toward it have always been complicated by a sense that just maybe, it wasn’t for me.

Thankfully though, the tide is turning. In recent years, comedians like Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nunjiani have burst their way onto the screen bringing nuanced discussions of race, as well as depictions of South Asians just being regular, everyday people, a luxury previously only afforded to white characters. As more and more South Asians enter into cultural spaces, the power of Apu’s stereotype wanes.

Ultimately, this change in context demonstrates The Simpsons’ detachment from the cultural zeitgeist better than it’s now mediocre ratings ever could. Kondabolu’s film is about so much more than just Apu. Instead, it seeks to open up a bigger cultural conversation about how minority groups are represented on screen. Instead of engage with this, The Simpsons slammed the door shut, effectively telling us that the conversation won’t be happening in Springfield any time soon.

The Simpsons spent decades mocking us. Now, when confronted, the writers refused to listen.

But maybe to them, we’re all just Apus.

Kishor Napier-Raman is based in Sydney and sometimes writes stuff. He also tweets @kishor_nr