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Monday, 8 August 2016

Is It Racist: Apu


I've heard the accusations made, particularly in the early seasons of The Simpsons. Apu is the Indian character in the show who works practically non-stop at a convenience store in Springfield. It plays on a stereotype that many of the people in those positions are also Indian. Does that make Apu a racist character?

My answer is no, and here are four reasons why.

The term "stereotype" is very often linked with bigotry. It can pigeon-hole an entire demographic into one key characteristic. But I would say that isn't always racist. The stereotype has to come from somewhere. In my experience, the vast majority of convenience store workers, taxi drivers and bus drivers I've seen have indeed been either Indian or Middle-Eastern. But there are two ways to acknowledge that. One is to say that all Indians work at convenience stores. I think that's the racist way to go. The other is to say that all convenience store workers are Indians. Of course that's not totally accurate - I do know Caucasian people who have that job - but I think it's far better than the former.

Second, there are many jokes made on the show that are based around Apu's Indian ethnicity. And this is something on which I can comment more authoritatively. When The Simpsons came to my country, Australia, they took every stereotype and observation they could and ramped them up to an insane degree. Some Australians were offended. Most weren't. The majority recognised the kernel of truth inside each joke and understood that the rest was just hilarious exaggeration. It wold be exactly the same in the situation of Apu.

Third, like the rest of the characters on the show, Apu has a lot of depth. The Kwik-E-Mart is a big part of his character, but that's because he loves it. He lives to work and loves the idea of American democracy and capitalism and everything else the country stands for. He's often more politically aware than his Caucasian counterparts. He goes home to his strong, intelligent Indian wife and his eight (eight) children, who all have subtle differences in their personalities.

And fourth... How many other strongly Indian characters do you see on television? With the exception of Raj from The Big Bang Theory, I can't think of any. The fact that here is a character with a very strong, undiluted display of Indian culture, attitudes and mannerisms is a fantastic thing to promote diversity. It acknowledges that there are people who are vastly different to their white American counterparts. Sure, they could have made him a suited lawyer character, someone who's high on the social ladder. But I think that would have been much less helpful than what they did. We've seen it with the African American people of the US. During the civil rights movement, there were black people wanting the same respect, opportunites, rates of pay etc as white people. But there were also people saying "No, fuck you. We don't want to be a new generation of white people. If we're going to flourish, we'll do it our way, on our terms." Now, thanks to that and to characters like Apu in popular media, people who are minorities in their own countries can thrive without having to give up their culture.

21 comments:

  1. I'm going to start backwards with your points. It's not promoting diversity if it's a white guy doing a stereotypical, and to Indians, offensive accent. Yeah, the character has depth, but that's only after 20 years of being on TV. At this point, Disco Stu has depth. An exaggeration doesn't make an offensive characterization, again, performed by a white guy, acceptable. Finally, I have to take exception with your idea that "It can pigeon-hole an entire demographic into one key characteristic. But I would say that isn't always racist. The stereotype has to come from somewhere." I've heard this argument about a slew of bigoted characterizations. The reason that stereotypes are bad is precisely what you said in your initial sentence that I quoted, they are reductive. They take people who are nuanced and individualistic and reduces them to an overarching stereotype. No matter how seemingly mundane, it robs a person of their agency. It allows people to not treat them like a person and instead, group them. The thought that "stereotypes have to come from somewhere" is a huge problem because where does that stop? It gives people the license to use that mentality on all stereotypes. "Black people are lazy, I know a lot of black people and some aren't, but stereotypes have to come from somewhere." See what I mean? Apu may have risen above his racist characterization, but that character absolutely started from a racist place.
    A great comedian, Hari Kondabolu, is making a documentary about this very question. http://www.colorlines.com/articles/trutv-greenlights-feature-length-documentary-and-pilot-hari-kondabolu

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    1. Thanks for the feedback, I'll check that link out tomorrow morning.

      I forgot to mention in this post that originally Smithers was meant to be African American, but the creators changed that when they realised the implications of having such a subservient black character. That indicates to me that they're capable of recognising implied bigotry and would have made the conscious decision that Apu isn't the same thing.

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  2. I think we have to look at Apu in the full context of "The Simpsons." Everyone, every single character, is satirized in that show. No one escapes unscathed. Sometimes the show satirizes East Indian stereotypes via Apu but sometimes it uses Apu to make very valid points about the other character's ignorance and/or racism. If Apu were in a non-satirical show, he would be a racist stereotype. But in the context where everyone is satirized, even the racist stereotypes serve a larger satirical purpose to make people think. Assuming they're capable of thought, of course.

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    1. That is a big assumption ;) So you say that Apu is racist, but in a necessary way?

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    2. I guess that's what I'm saying -- sometimes the depiction is racist but not for a racist purpose of fostering hate or contempt. It's for a better purpose of satirizing racism and showing how stupid it is.

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  3. Phil here!

    I don't think it's racist at all. Apu and his wife are strong characters, as you noted. I'm curious what connection his character has amongst Indian people.

    I think in any debate, it's a debate of accuracy over the portrayal of Apu, his character and his family. Are there aspects of his character that are inaccurate? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps we can't comment until we've visited the Wal-Marts and 7/11s of the US. But the likely realistic answer is, 'probably not'. See the links below. Are these stereotypical or, rather, merely slightly inaccurate takes on a reality that exists in south Asia?

    http://www.oocities.org/sunsetstrip/towers/Towers/6704/apu5.gif
    https://tstotopix.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/homer-and-apu-season-5-episode-13-simpsons-world-17.png

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    1. I like your first point the best - it would be interesting to see how the Indian people relate to him.

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  4. I don't think it's racist. They go after everyone on the show, though not a viciously as Family Guy. It's tongue in cheek and most people get it.

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    1. The fact that they're never vicious makes it a lot better.

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  5. I agree with you. The Simpsons is not racist - they just take every stereotype we know and make laugh out of it.

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    1. That's probably the key, and the thing that makes Family guy acceptable too - they don't target any one demographic predominantly, everyone is treated the same.

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  6. I have never thought of it as racist, still don't it is a funny show and those who see Apu is a wonderful character some people just need to chill and stop reading things that are not there in everything

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    1. Hahaha maybe. There are definitely bigger problems to deal with first.

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  7. App is one of my favourite characters who is strong, funny and married to an strong, intelligent wife. I loved the one episode where you see his garden and that he meditates...he is a well rounded character in my book

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    1. Oh yeah I totally forgot about his veganism and his friendship to Paul and Linda McCartney :P

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  8. As many have said, the show pokes fun of everybody, so I don't think you can single that out as being racist.

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    1. Yeah I think that's the winning argument.

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  9. You know, the funny thing is that Apu has been around for 20-something years, and Hank Azaria has been doing his voice for all of that time, but only now are people really getting upset at him. I don't think it's a big deal. As a Mexican guy, I've seen plenty of 'white' actors portray Mexicans, or do that silly stereotypical Mexican accent, and it really doesn't bother me.

    If we really want to stop racism, we need to stop nitpicking the insignificant shit like this and focus on the REAL issues.

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    1. I agree with you on every point except for the first one - those wise sages on the internet were calling him racist from the very first season.

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    2. Wait, they had the Internet all the way back then? I assume, then, that the sages in question looked (and typed angrily) like this.

      "Is Apu racist?"
      https://media2.giphy.com/media/l41lUJ1YoZB1lHVPG/200.gif

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    3. Nah, they were much angrier than that bird.

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