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Is Hank Azaria's Depiction of Apu Racist?
January 19, 2010 9:17 PM   Subscribe

Is Hank Azaria's depiction of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on The Simpsons racist, or not?

The topic of whether or not Hank Azaria, a non-Indian, doing a stereotypical Indian accent to portray Indian character Apu on The Simpsons is racist or not has been discussed quite a bit online. I've read these articles plus a few more and I tend to think it certainly smacks of racism. Indeed, this comedy sketch, which I saw years ago and makes the point that doing an Indian accent for the sake of comedy is racism, was the first thing that popped into my head when considering the issue. In some ways I think it's actually a form of blackface, which is most assuredly racist (even if you're of Indian descent). And I'm certain that if Azaria put on black make up and did the Apu voice there would be outrage, so I can't see why it's not racist to just do the voice and put provide it for an animation.

In discussing this with my wife, she also saw the argument that it's racist, but she provided a good counterpoint in that Sam Worthington or Hugh Jackman could therefore also be called racists. Both actors are Australians who have imitated an American accent to portray American characters. If Azaria is to be considered a racist for faking an accent of a country they're not from, why arent Worthington or Jackman or countless others? And in the same vein (and as some of the articles I linked above mention), why is the depiction of Groundskeeper Willy on The Simpsons not racist if Apu is?

I consider myself a fairly left wing, liberal sort of guy. And even though my gut is telling me that Azaria's portryal of Apu smacks of racism, I'm still having a hard time reconciling these two positions and I'd like some guidance. What's the prevailing wisdom here? Has Azaria ever commented on this issue (my Google-fu says no, which is probably understandable)? Help me understand.
posted by Effigy2000 to Human Relations (79 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't know if Azaria's said anything about Apu, but "American" isn't a race, so isn't this kind of apples and oranges?.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:21 PM on January 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Both actors are Australians who have imitated an American accent to portray American characters. If Azaria is to be considered a racist for faking an accent of a country they're not from, why arent Worthington or Jackman or countless others?

Worthington and Jackman aren't portraying characters of other ethnicities, they're portraying characters of other nationalities. "Australian" and "American" aren't ethnicities. "Indian" is both an ethnicity and a nationality-- and among Indians, you'll hear a lot of back-and-forth generalizations about Gujaratis vs. Marathis and so on that non-Indians wouldn't grasp.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 9:22 PM on January 19, 2010


I think the test is whether the person is perpetuating a stereotype, particularly a demeaning one.
posted by metahawk at 9:25 PM on January 19, 2010


I don't think the problem is with Azaria doing an Indian accent. The problem is that Apu owns a convenience store and has an arranged marriage with a woman who bears him octuplets.
posted by coppermoss at 9:26 PM on January 19, 2010 [13 favorites]


those things that I mentioned being, as metahawk so concisely puts it, demeaning stereotypes
posted by coppermoss at 9:26 PM on January 19, 2010


Effigy2000, for the purposes of these conversations, is your definition of racism the same as the one cited in your first link?
("a belief system or doctrine which states that inherent biological differences between human races determines cultual or individual achievement — with a corollary that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others")
posted by kidbritish at 9:27 PM on January 19, 2010


The stereotype exists in the writing to start with, but I think only on the surface. Once you've spent some time with the character he goes beyond the stereotype to become a very well-rounded and sympathetic person. There's no implication on the show that Apu by virtue of his race is inferior to anyone else on the show. If anything, he may occasionally be used to point up racist attitudes in the other characters.
posted by wabbittwax at 9:33 PM on January 19, 2010 [15 favorites]


[removed links - do not make your AskMe into a MeFi post please.]
posted by jessamyn at 9:35 PM on January 19, 2010


I know plenty of Indians who have arranged marriages, and a fair number who own or work in convenience stores. (Though none with octuplets.)

I think it's fair to say that Apu is characterized by various stereotypes of Indians. But I also think it's fair to say that *everyone* on the Simpsons is based largely or entirely in stereotypes - and many of these stereotypes are demeaning. I don't need to make a list; it's obvious - the rural hillbilly family, "Lurleen" the country star, Groundskeeper Willy, various gay and lesbian characters, the Albanian exchange student, the "industrialist" Mr Burns, the very Jewish Krusty the Clown, the "geeky" scientist guy and so on. I'd be concerned if Apu were singled out for this sort of treatment, but he's not. Some of the stereotypes in the Simpsons have to do with race, creed and color, some don't. But it's all fair game - I think they do a good job of making fun of all of our little quirks and stereotypical ideas and behaviors, and you'd have to be a bit of a lunatic to think that there's a bias there towards or against any single group.

Interestingly, on the Simpsons' 20 anniversary special, it was pointed out that Apu seems to be the only character who actually works hard at his job.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:36 PM on January 19, 2010 [38 favorites]


About 20 years ago I worked for a summer with a Indo-Canadian guy (he came from a Sikh background) who very much felt that the character of Apu was racist.

So there's your answer. Some Indian folks think it's racist.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:41 PM on January 19, 2010


A better example of put-on American accents being "racist" would be the Americans near the end of Monty Python's Meaning of Life - where the grim reaper comes to take them away after they ate the tinned salmon mornay, and ends up telling them off: "You fucking Americans, with your 'just let me tell you one thing'..." (etc)

(that's using "racist" in a broad sense, because we don't really have a word for "nationist")
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:42 PM on January 19, 2010


Some Indian folks think it's racist.

And some Indian folks seem to think it's funny, as evidenced by the time I walked into an Indian restaurant in Studio City and Hank Azaria was sitting there and the Indian waiter and host both asked him to do Apu, and they all stood around laughing merrily.

This may say more about the eternal weirdness of living in L.A. than anything else, I admit, but there's another bit of anecdata for you.
posted by scody at 9:45 PM on January 19, 2010 [11 favorites]


kidbritish: "Effigy2000, for the purposes of these conversations, is your definition of racism the same as the one cited in your first link?
("a belief system or doctrine which states that inherent biological differences between human races determines cultual or individual achievement — with a corollary that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others")
"

Not really. It's probably closer to the explanation made in the comedy sketch I linked to, given as I say it's the first thing that popped into my head. The relevant bit is about 2.10 in, when the presenter, Shaun Micallef asks why doing an Indian accent is wrong, and the character JanDeLaney from the Equal Opportunities Commission responds by saying that you can't tell a joke that relies on its humor on someones ethnicity and that in the case of the Indian accent it portrays Indian people as "wobble headed idiots."

That's probably where I'm coming from here.
posted by Effigy2000 at 9:53 PM on January 19, 2010


Well, look at it from this angle: if you want to have an Indian character on a parody show, how else would you do it? The thick accent is pretty much required to show that he's a native Indian, and we probably all know or have known some shopkeepers from that country. It's a very common thing, so it's easy to riff on... it gives them the Quickie Mart to play with as well, so they can occasionally beat up on 7-11, or on the dumb people who eat the crap they serve. :)

It would be racist if they were demeaning; if Apu was stupid or an asshole or extremely greedy or something, and it was projected that this was because he was Indian. But as wabbittwax says, he's on equal footing with practically everyone else, and in many ways is a more sympathetic character than the leads themselves are. Somehow, they manage to both wildly exaggerate Apu, and yet treat him with a fair bit of respect.

So, no, I don't think it's racist, just parodic.

A slightly different angle again: after you watch a show with Apu in it, do you feel any less inclined to like real Indians you know? Do you feel that Apu is insulting to them in any way?
posted by Malor at 9:55 PM on January 19, 2010 [8 favorites]


There is nothing antagonistic about the portrayal of Apu. If anything he's has one of the more awesome characters: PhD in computer science, beautiful wife, hard-working business owner. His character seems completely within the bounds of all the other depictions of stereotypes on the show.

And there hasn't exactly been an outcry -- he was introduced in 1990.
posted by whiskeyspider at 9:59 PM on January 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Malor: "A slightly different angle again: after you watch a show with Apu in it, do you feel any less inclined to like real Indians you know? Do you feel that Apu is insulting to them in any way?"

Jessamyn deleted the links, but a lot of the stuff I've read (and a few answers in this thread so far) suggest that Apu is insulting to Indian people, and that in turn leads me to think it's probably racist. But there are many good counterpoints, and I'm having trouble reconciling them. Hence the question.
posted by Effigy2000 at 10:01 PM on January 19, 2010


Also;

Malor: "Well, look at it from this angle: if you want to have an Indian character on a parody show, how else would you do it?"

Hire an Indian actor?
posted by Effigy2000 at 10:03 PM on January 19, 2010


I don't think God has decreed or science has identified clear boxes into which we can put things that are either "racist" or "not racist". The world is a complicated place and especially on an issue so deeply loaded with history, baggage, and consequence as racism, there's often not a simple yes or no answer.

If you're just polling the metafilter community at large, I'll weigh in and say that I find the Apu character to troublesome because he represents a number of stereotypes, and he appears on a show primarily created by non-Indian writers, producers and actors.
posted by serazin at 10:05 PM on January 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


But there are many good counterpoints, and I'm having trouble reconciling them. Hence the question.

You don't need to reconcile or score points here, and it's probably not wise to attempt to boil down such a complex and nuanced thing into a "racist bad" or "not racist good" balance.

You won't be getting a black or white answer to a question that's about the possible feelings of millions of people, or the qualitative "validity" of those feelings.

I think Dee and Malor have it. In the overall context of the Simpsons, in which almost every character can be viewed as a parody of a stereotype, it's hard to find malice here.
posted by rokusan at 10:07 PM on January 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


A lot of humor traffics in racial stereotypes; whether said humor is "racist" can be a pretty fine line. A very simplistic test is that malicious, mocking humor is more likely to be racist. But on the other hand, it's certainly easy enough to be racist without being insulting per se.

The race-based humor which is generally not considered racist because it generally sends up and employs racial stereotypes in an insightful way to be a more complicated kind of funny. (The problem with this is that it relies on contemporary perceptions of race, so it doesn't age very well. Secondly, it helps a WHOLE lot to be actually funny. Thirdly, it's easier to tolerate coming from within the culture being satirized.)

I would say that The Simpsons gets a pass for being edgy rather than racist because the whole timbre of the show is essentially social satire. I can understand them not hiring an Indian actor to play Apu because a feature of the show is the small ensemble cast, rather than a zillion guns for hire. But I can understand some Indians being annoyed by Apu, too.
posted by desuetude at 10:08 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


And secondfavoriting Serazin that yes-no is the wrong framework to use here.
posted by rokusan at 10:08 PM on January 19, 2010


I have thought about this as a linguist, as I have a number of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese colleagues in my department, most of whom mispronounce or misuse r and l sounds in various ways. We talk about it openly, since we spend our days being aware of speech patterns, and we even joke about it. I have thought to myself, would some people (outside of my department) find this racist if I, for example, joked about how a grad student always pronounced "Carlos" as "Calros"?

I think you start to tread a fine line where it really depends on what about the accent is funny. If it is purely the features of the accent itself -- from a logical perspective anyway -- it shouldn't be racist. A speaker could be offended that something in their accent is thought to be funny, but language is not inherent to a race so I don't see how that could fairly be called racist. But, if the accent is coupled with racial stereotypes of some kind (like in that comedy sketch you linked) then that could easily be called racist -- but then the racist part is not really the accent, but rather, the stereotypes.

However, certain races and certain nationalities have been historically made the butt of jokes where their accent was incorporated into it, and this seems to have tainted joking about those accents. The Indian accent is one, Chinese and Japanese are others. I get a similar nagging feeling that if I am openly entertained by the features of certain accents because it might appear racist (whether or not I believe they are).

I think things just get wrapped up in certain bits of history and then even the accent gets associated with it as well, and Apu's accent is in the group where you really have to be careful, particularly if you are white. That's just the way it is, for better or for worse. But in my opinion, the accent itself shouldn't be racist!
posted by kosmonaut at 10:11 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


According to the gist of the recent post about writing GLBT characters into your fiction, maybe the issue of "balance" comes into the equation.

In the context of GLBT characters, the argument was along the lines that if you have a promiscuous gay character, you should balance him out with others who aren't promiscuous. Or something like that. You know, to avoid stereotypes & portray diversity.

So, Apu works in a convenience store. Are there any other Indian characters balancing this out? (other than his wife, I guess). Any Indian police officers? Nuclear plant workers? Doctors?

I can't think of any, and that fact gives the show a faint whiff of "lolindiansworkinconveniencestoresamirite?"
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:19 PM on January 19, 2010


Hire an Indian actor?

I don't want to comment on this directly, but I think it's worth noting the Azaria does the voice of many Simpsons characters. According to Wikipedia, he started with Moe. Here's the list from Wikipedia:
"As well as Moe, Wiggum and Apu, Azaria provides the voices of the Comic Book Guy, Carl Carlson, Cletus Spuckler, Professor Frink, Dr. Nick Riviera, Lou, Snake, Kirk Van Houten, the Sea Captain, Superintendent Chalmers, Disco Stu, Duffman, the "Wise Guy" and numerous other one-time characters."
So Azaria wasn't hired just to do an Indian accent. He was hired to do Moe and then branched out to many characters. Other actors voice multiple characters as well.
posted by mullacc at 10:20 PM on January 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Are you really concerned about this? As if the the green can tell you definitively whether something is racist. Are you really hoping to have a definitive, "more PC than thou" answer? You won't get one.

Answering the question, for myself, no. Actually, I'm more likely to think the white-trash portrayal of the hillbillies is more troubling. Apu is hard-working and earnest, the white-trash are stupid leeches.
posted by Invoke at 10:36 PM on January 19, 2010 [7 favorites]


OH MY GOD ALL THE PEOPLE IN THAT VIDEO YOU LINKED TO WERE DOING AUSTRALIAN ACCIENTS! THAT'S SO RACIST!!!
Here's the thing though, from wikipedia:
Hindi, with the largest number of speakers,[122] is the official language of the union.[123] English is used extensively in business and administration and has the status of a 'subsidiary official language;'[124] it is also important in education, especially as a medium of higher education.
The "Indian" English accent is a regional accent, the same way the Australian, or Jamaican accent is. There is a big difference between making fun of regional variant of English and making fun of someone for having an 'ESL' accent. If you were going to say
"All Japanese people say 'erection' for 'election'"
that would be kind of racist, because some English speakers from Japan will get their Ls and Rs straight.
On the other hand saying
"all english people say water like 'wo-teh'"
that's not racist, that's just how they sound.

--

I actually met an Indian woman once who spoke with an American accent when she talked to me, but when I heard her talking to some other Indian students, she suddenly got an Indian accent. She was code switching, and I didn't even realize she was "doing" an American accent when she was talking to me.

--

On the other hand. The fact that he owns a convince store... er... But there is a huge difference between playing of a positive or neutral stereotype and a negative one.
posted by delmoi at 10:52 PM on January 19, 2010


An Australian actor portraying an American (or vice versa, for that matter) isn't on par with a racist portrayal. An American portraying someone from Australia, Ireland, France, Sweden, etc, in a demeaning/stereotypical manner would be closer, but still not quite the same.

I guess Groundskeeper Willy would sort of fall into this category. Or the Notre Dame Fighting Irish mascot.

This discussion reminds me of the Spanish Olympic basketball team posing in the photo with the "slanted eyes." It might not have been racist since they said it was meant to be more playful than malicious, but it was in bad taste. There's racist, and racial. Race is definitely part of Apu's character. I don't think it's offensive, but I could certainly see how it could be deemed so.

The Simpsons could get away with Apu for the most part because it was popular and highly acclaimed and is heavy on satire, but if I were starting an animated series and someone proposed an Indian convenience store clerk, I'd probably go "Are you kidding?"
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:55 PM on January 19, 2010


The Simpsons could get away with Apu for the most part because it was popular and highly acclaimed and is heavy on satire, but if I were starting an animated series and someone proposed an Indian convenience store clerk, I'd probably go "Are you kidding?"

Well, keep in mind Apu's character first appeared in 1990
posted by delmoi at 10:59 PM on January 19, 2010


The problem is that Apu owns a convenience store and has an arranged marriage with a woman who bears him octuplets.

How grotesque. No Indian even ran a convenience store or entered into an arranged marriage, and anybody who does is surely beneath contempt.

I think the test is whether the person is perpetuating a stereotype, particularly a demeaning one.

No, the test is whether a particular race is maliciously singled out and held up for ridicule. Every race, culture, creed, gender, sexuality, occupation, age etc is held up for ridicule by The Simpsons in one way or another, and there's not an ounce of malice to any of it. They even refer to it directly by breaking the third wall ('thisa olda Italian stereotype'). You'll be telling me Krusty is anti-Semetic next.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:08 PM on January 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


For whatever reason I seem to have a lot of Indian friends and there is nothing they love to do more than imitate their parents' accents and amusing antics. And they all seem to love Apu, so I'm going to error on the side of not racist. Apu seems generally beloved by my Indian friends.

I think the whole working in a convenience store thing rings pretty true as most of their parents, generally regardless of what degrees and jobs they held back in India, initially worked at Burger King or factories or convenience stores upon coming to the states. And a lot of their parents are very happily in arranged marriages. I don't think working in a convienance store and having an arranged marriage (if begrudgedly by choice) is actually all that negative of traits to have. Didn't Apu own the Kwi-k-e Mart? Apu always seemed a lot more together than Homer.
posted by whoaali at 11:09 PM on January 19, 2010


(As an aside, if Apu is racist, is he still racist when he's acing the citizenship test and holding American intellectual values up for ridicule? Is he racist when he drives a sports car and pulls multiple women in one night? Is he racist when he grapples with the very real issues of upholding traditional cultural values while abroad?)
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:11 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I hate to heart on 2 or 3 perspectives that often get me deleted here on the green, but...

There are plenty of places in the world that have folks from all over AND have pretty big GLBT populations. We from there generally have less worry about being P.C. Because, well, all of our jokes are usually about/to the subject when we make fun of when we do.

My husband is from Alexndria, Egypt. We all ( me, him, friends!) crack up when I mimic his accent. It's funny shit.

In short, I think intention is everything.

I always thought the Apu character was an interesting/funny take on American life viewed thru the eyes of an immigrant (as a foil against the stupider aspects of American pop culture.)

... but you know, maybe I'm just making the whole thing high-brow. 'Cause I'm smart, so I transpose that.

As you do...
posted by jbenben at 11:16 PM on January 19, 2010


" if you want to have an Indian character on a parody show, how else would you do it?"

Hire an Indian actor?
"

Does that mean that Bart being voiced by a woman is sexist? They should fire Nancy Cartwright and hire a ten year old boy?
posted by robotot at 11:37 PM on January 19, 2010 [8 favorites]


Hire an Indian actor?

If Apu is a racist depiction, then the ethnicity of the actor voicing him is irrelevant. If the depiction of Apu is not racist (and I don't think it is, given the depth of the character and the degree to which the Simpsons depict stereotypes in order to subvert them), then it's not racist for a non-Hindi accented actor to voice him, since in any case you're hiring someone to play a role.

In other words, the discrepancy between the actor's ethnicity and the character's is a pretty minor part of it. Blackface is racist because its a racist depiction of black people, and it wouldn't be any better if it was black people performing the minstrel show.
posted by fatbird at 11:38 PM on January 19, 2010


it wouldn't be any better if it was black people performing the minstrel show.

for which see "Love, Flavor of."
posted by scody at 11:48 PM on January 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


To the degree that depicting any racial stereotype is racist. Homer is stereotypical middle aged white guy who is portrayed as an idiot drunk (with a heart of gold). With the exception of maybe Lisa and Marge, everybody in the show kind of a bent take on a stereotypical character. There's a few others too, Willy is a drunk angry Scot, Dr. Nick is definitely from outside the US, the French, the Brazilians, pretty much anywhere they visited they made fun of. Apu is actually one of the few characters in the show who has a life that he's to some degree in control of and enjoying. Most of the characters are trapped in Springfield but Apu moved there.

A lot of comedy is racist in that sense. If they had a black man playing the voice of an atypical uptight white guy, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion but it's just as racist. I think the real issue is that while it is racist, it's not angry or even unsympathetic. Without anger, racism is just observation.
posted by doctor_negative at 11:51 PM on January 19, 2010


There seems to be a misunderstanding of the term "racist" here. To be "racist" there needs to be a belief or intention to depict negatives to being of a certain race. If I say, "I think black people are awesome!" - that's not racist. If I say, "Black people are awesome compared to white people" - that's technically racist because I'm pushing up one group at the expense of another.

Portraying a stereotyped accent, then, is not racist unless the intention is to depict Indians as being stupid or otherwise unworthy of speaking English. Merely using a stereotype is not racist if there's no negativity associated with it, no matter what a third party chooses to interpret it as.

It really grinds me gears that even mentioning race nowadays can lead to accusations of "racism." There needs to be negativity or promotion of one race over another to get to that word.
posted by wackybrit at 12:11 AM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I sincerely doubt that the The Simpsons treats Indians any worse than it treats Americans. In terms of exploitation (whether based on skin color, income, education, nationality, anything else) the show's pretty much an equal opportunity offender.

As for the issue of the voice actor not being Indian, well Apu is a cartoon character. Carry this kind of logic too far and you'll find yourself arguing that a "white" comic artist shouldn't be allowed to work on characters of Chinese origin.
posted by philip-random at 12:11 AM on January 20, 2010


There seems to be a misunderstanding of the term "racist" here. To be "racist" there needs to be a belief or intention to depict negatives to being of a certain race.

Ummmm, no. "Asians are good at math" is totally racist even though that's not at all negative, because it reinforces the notion that all people who look a certain way behave a certain way.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:46 AM on January 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


If most Indians were offended by it, you would have a case for calling it racially offensive, regardless of any (other) logical argument for or against the proposition that the depiction of the Apu character is racist.
posted by pracowity at 12:56 AM on January 20, 2010


If I say, "I think black people are awesome!" - that's not racist.

Well, depending on your context, it might be. If you're saying, "I think black people are awesome because black skin looks neat", that's not racist. If you're saying, "I like black people because they're like X", you're classifying a whole group of people based on skin color, and assigning them imaginary traits based on that color. That is a form of racism, albeit, in this case, not a terribly damaging one.

It's like saying, "I think brunettes are awesome!", when you're implying that they're smarter or better librarians or something. Hair color is mostly irrelevant to anything else about the person (except possibly other coloration, of course), but if you assigned traits to brunettes based on that color, you'd be hairist.

Likewise, if you assign behavioral traits to skin color, that's a form of racism. If the traits are positive, I doubt it's anything to worry about, but it IS a variant of the same underlying symptom.... classifying people based on skin color.
posted by Malor at 12:57 AM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


There needs to be negativity or promotion of one race over another to get to that word.

Calling one race superior in some way means that other races are inferior in comparison.

"Black people are awesome," if it means anything, means that people of other races are not awesome, and it means that all black people, by definition, are the same in some regard.
posted by pracowity at 1:07 AM on January 20, 2010


Hire an Indian actor?

And then hire only females to play female characters and only children to voice child characters? It's called acting for a reason.
posted by jedrek at 1:44 AM on January 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


"Black people are awesome," if it means anything, means that people of other races are not awesome.

No, it doesn't, because "awesome" is not a zero sum game.

Any number of things can be awesome, and this doesn't reduce the potential of any number of other things to also be awesome.

"Black people are the smartest." might be more what you're looking for, here.
posted by rokusan at 2:27 AM on January 20, 2010


"all english people say water like 'wo-teh'"

that's not racist, that's just how they sound.


Not it isn't. All English people do not sound the same.



Do you think this is racist?

One of the actors is putting on a thick Indian accent and reinforcing several stereotypes about Indian people. Does the fact that he looks Indian make it OK? If I said he wasn't Indian, would that change how you felt about it, would it suddenly become racist?

I can't answer those questions for you but it might help you decide what about Hank Azaria's performance you think is racist. Is it the content? In which case does it matter that he's not Indian? If the character itself is racist, it shouldn't matter who is portraying him. Or is it inherently racist to portray someone of an ethnicity that isn't your own? On Lost, Sayid is from Iraq but the actor who plays him is of Indian decent, is that racist?

This clip is a group british-asian actors taking the piss out of white, british people. Is it racist? Personally I find it hilarious.
posted by missmagenta at 2:58 AM on January 20, 2010


Well, depending on your context, it might be. If you're saying, "I think black people are awesome because black skin looks neat", that's not racist.

I think most black people would kind of skeeved out if a white dude said that.
posted by delmoi at 3:14 AM on January 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Not it isn't. All English people do not sound the same.

I didn't say they all sounded the same. But there is such a thing as a British accent. That's not a controversial point. The point I was making was that an "Indian" English is an actual accent, not an accent that people have from learning a second language.
posted by delmoi at 3:21 AM on January 20, 2010


No, it doesn't, because "awesome" is not a zero sum game.

So a white guy wearing a T-shirt that says "I Must Be Awesome Because I'm White" wouldn't strike you as just a tad racist? You'd accept "Dude, it's not a zero-sum game. I didn't say other races aren't awesome." as an explanation?
posted by pracowity at 3:33 AM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


But the thing about the Apu character is that very little of the comedy on the Simpsons relating to Apu is based around mocking his accent or ethnicity.

I don't see the portrail as derogatory or dsiscriminative of his race.
posted by mary8nne at 4:11 AM on January 20, 2010


Yes, I don't see how it can consistently be acquitted of racism. It is often claimed (strangely) that The Simpsons evades race issues by making its characters yellow, but evidently some are yellower than others. It's also a bit odd, imo, that they could make an episode where Krusty is booed off the stage for doing a 'comedy' Chinese impersonation without some uncomfortable thoughts about their own portrayal of ethnicity coming to mind: but we're all prone to the motes and beams thing, I expect.
posted by Phanx at 4:31 AM on January 20, 2010


It's also a bit odd, imo, that they could make an episode where Krusty is booed off the stage for doing a 'comedy' Chinese impersonation without some uncomfortable thoughts about their own portrayal of ethnicity coming to mind:

Just my opinion, but I think the difference is that Krusty was specifically trying to poke fun at a very old-fashioned and one-dimensional stereotype of what Chinese people are like. Apu is fully rounded person (as much as any other character in the Simpsons) where his ethnicity is just one aspect of his character and I don't think it is ever specifically made fun of.
posted by missmagenta at 4:46 AM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Apu is a fully fleshed out and recurring character. Overall, he's both sympathetic and worthy of emulation. He's not one dimensional or reduced to stereotypes. In many ways he's as complex a character as the show presents.

There may well be moments that smack of racism, but it is not the individual moments that are important in a portrayal like that of Apu, it's the accretion. Indeed, one of the uses to which the Apu character is routinely put is making the point that differing appearance often belies core similarity. One of my favorite snippets in the Simpsons is when Homer becomes an infant safety inspector, and he goes to Apu's house where he wraps everything, including a statue of Shiva, in bubble wrap. On his way out the door he suggests that Apu get rid of the statue, and Apu, outraged, says, "But, Homer, I'm Hindu!" Homer replies, "So am I, but you don't hear me going on about it." I think this neatly frames the role of ethnicity in much of the Simpsons: it's mysterious and unexpected, but also something not to be taken too seriously.

I'm also reminded of something Spike Lee once said about an animated series Eddie Murphy developed. The series had Murphy voicing a janitor in a housing project or something. Spike Lee said he didn't like it, and didn't like it because it "demonstrated no love for Black people." (Or something close to that.) I could see his point about the series, which, even though developed by an African American man, simply traded in stereotypes without looking beyond them. I don't think Apu's character is like that, and I think it shows plenty of love for Indian people.
posted by OmieWise at 5:06 AM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, it doesn't, because "awesome" is not a zero sum game.

So a white guy wearing a T-shirt that says "I Must Be Awesome Because I'm White" wouldn't strike you as just a tad racist?


You added "must be" and "because", which changes things somewhat.
posted by rokusan at 5:10 AM on January 20, 2010


In Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, there's a scene in which Kumar is ridiculed by being compared to Apu. The ridiculer is racist and is interpreting the Apu character as racist, but that doesn't mean that his interpretation is the only correct one. Any stereotype is open to that form of use, but if it's seen as a generalization, rather than a stereotype, and not meant in a hostile way, it's not racist. The meaning is the use.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:27 AM on January 20, 2010


Maybe as a thought experiment consider Matt Groening's other animated series Futurama: it's a show with a similarly diverse cast, including the Martian Wongs, a nuclear family of ethnic Chinese humans who live on Mars. Leo and Inez (Mr. and Mrs. Wong) conform to some stereotypes and speak English with strong Chinese accents--even in the year 3000--but their daughter Amy (who acts like a typical spoiled American college student) doesn't.

Here's the question: Leo is voiced by Billy West, who is white; Inez and Amy are voiced by Lauren Tom, who is Chinese. Does this make Leo a more racist/offensive depiction than Inez?

Special bonus question: Hermes Conrad, a Jamaican character, is voiced by black American actor Phil LaMarr with a ridiculous fake-o Jamaic-o accent, but is otherwise counter-stereotypical (he plays a very orderly bureaucrat)...is there anything problematic about his depiction?
posted by kittyprecious at 6:15 AM on January 20, 2010 [2 favorites]



So a white guy wearing a T-shirt that says "I Must Be Awesome Because I'm White" wouldn't strike you as just a tad racist?

You added "must be" and "because", which changes things somewhat.


Would "I'm Awesome. I'm White." be any better?
posted by srrh at 6:31 AM on January 20, 2010


Apu is stereotypical, but he's not racist. Denigration is necessary for stereotyping to be racist.
posted by jckll at 6:49 AM on January 20, 2010


[few comments removed - this needs to sort of stay on the Apu target and not get into whether there's a British accent or not, thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:01 AM on January 20, 2010


It's specifically about Apu as a Hindu stereotype, but this from Mark I. Pinksy's excellent book The Gospel According To The Simpsons might be useful:

With the help of Hinduism Today, I informally surveyed attitudes toward The Simpsons. What I found is that Indian immigrants and adolescent and teenage children of immigrants--especially orthodox Hindus--were generally offended by Apu and his stereotype. . . .By contrast, American converts to Hinduism, steeped in our culture of irony, seemed amused and unfazed by the portrayal of their faith on the series.
posted by EarBucket at 7:25 AM on January 20, 2010


Apu is arguably the most intelligent, most educated and hardest working character on the show.
posted by nightwood at 7:38 AM on January 20, 2010


nightwood: Apu is arguably the most intelligent, most educated and hardest working character on the show.

AND his arranged marriage is probably the strongest union on the show. Apu is awesome. If there were any Simpsons character I'd like to see in a spinoff, it'd be him.

I find characters like Groundskeeper Willy and Cletus more troubling as stereotypes.
posted by mkultra at 8:03 AM on January 20, 2010


As an American-born Indian, Apu was the first Indian character I ever saw on TV. Maybe my family's just weird, but we think the character's portrayal on the show is great. In particular, the "do not offer my god a peanut" line is both hysterical and incredibly relatable.

Of course, my mom thought it was awesome that Dhalsim was in Street Fighter II, so take that for what it's worth.
posted by sachinag at 8:07 AM on January 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'll throw in my two cents by way of anecdote.

I went to high school with a lot of Indians and Pakistanis, so I had a lot of Indian and Pakistani friends. We also had an occasionally unfair chemistry teacher with a very thick Gujarati accent and generally unusual verbal mannerisms, and I did (and still do when the time is right) a very accurate impersonation of him.

Most of my Indian friends who knew him thought it was hilarious, but a few did not, and some of my Indian friends who did not know him still thought it was hilarious, but a few more did not. Now I keep it in the same place as other racist jokes I know.
posted by cmoj at 9:16 AM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


(that's using "racist" in a broad sense, because we don't really have a word for "nationist")

Xenophobic
posted by idiomatika at 10:07 AM on January 20, 2010


If you're saying, "I like black people because they're like X", you're classifying a whole group of people based on skin color, and assigning them imaginary traits based on that color.

I still don't see how that's racist. It's most likely stereotyping, but stereotypes involving race are not automatically "racist" if the stereotype isn't negative or intolerant of that race.

Would "I'm Awesome. I'm White." be any better?

That's not "racist." People of differing races often proclaim their awesomeness. As long as they don't proclaim it in a sense of being overall better than other races, it's not racist. If it were, having events like the MOBOs, the Black Reel Awards, and the Black Weblog Awards would be "racist." They're not; they're just celebrating the achievements of a certain group of people, without putting down the achievements of other races.

If you're wondering why I keep harping on about this, it's because I sense a rather nasty shift amongst liberals lately to consider any discussion or mention of race to be "racist." We're all different races, genders, colors, and what not, and we should enjoy these differences while recognizing they exist but without being intolerant or negative of the aspects of others. Being positive, though, is great!
posted by wackybrit at 11:53 AM on January 20, 2010


Should this question even be here? Isn't it a matter of opinion?
posted by Groovytimes at 11:59 AM on January 20, 2010


Would "I'm Awesome. I'm White." be any better?

Would you have any problem with it if it said: "I'm Awesome. I'm Black/Asian/Hispanic."

No, because with world history the way that it is, it becomes a problem to explicitly state if you are a member of a traditionally "higher class." (I am NOT implying that white people are better than any other.) It's rude to say "I'm Awesome. I'm Rich." It's bad to be a member of the KKK, but not the Black Panthers, because to level-headed people, the Black Panthers are/were the sympathetic group.

jckll has it. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. Namely, because a large proportion of the given population displays certain qualities. It doesn't mean that they're good or bad, though it can be construed that way. Stereotypes do not imply racism.

Asian people (here read: Japanese) are very smart. This stereotype exists because they have a very effective educational system and a very different culture that encourages education. This is a fact.

Indian people in a traditional Indian family tend to be in arranged marriages. Not good or bad, it is just so. This trend may be changing, IANAE.

I'll say it again for you. Hank Azaria is not racist. Apu is not a racist character. At most he is a heavy-handed stereotype. However, as many have pointed out, he is arguably the most well-balanced, intelligent, and successful characters on The Simpsons. I think this question is ridiculous, FWIW.
posted by InsanePenguin at 12:04 PM on January 20, 2010


Should this question even be here? Isn't it a matter of opinion?

Yes and no. You can be offended or not by Apu, but he's simply not racist. He is not discriminatory (he is not excluded by other characters.) He does not believe he is superior to other characters, nor do others ever imply they are better than him.

Again, racism implies superiority. This question has a fundamental problem, and it is that the OP doesn't seem to have a grasp of the definition of "racism."

If the question were "Is Hank Azaria's Depiction of Apu Stereotypical? We would all laugh at Effigy and tell him to go away.
posted by InsanePenguin at 12:08 PM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Would "I'm Awesome. I'm White." be any better?"

That's not "racist."


In the words of Hans Landa: "That's a bingo!"
posted by InsanePenguin at 12:10 PM on January 20, 2010


Xenophobic

No, xenophobic doesn't quite fit. That's just a generic fear of foreigners, not "racism" targeted at a particular nationality (which isn't a race unto itself, or may be comprised of a mixture of races).
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:16 PM on January 20, 2010


Again, racism implies superiority. This question has a fundamental problem, and it is that the OP doesn't seem to have a grasp of the definition of "racism."

Lots of people who get paid to write down definitions of words have constructed definitions of "racism" that do not hinge on superiority as a necessary component. You should be able to verify this rather easily.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:41 PM on January 20, 2010


More anecdata, I'm Indian-American and am not aware of anyone I know being offended by Apu. Like other characters on the show, the stereotypical portrayal is what's immediately seen, but the more you know about the character, the more he becomes a complex, quirky, sympathetic individual. One of the major themes of the show is the way so many disparate characters - hell, even Mr. Burns - come together to form a unique, satisfying, (barely) functional community.

One way in which Harold and Kumar rings true to real life: for whatever reason, much of the outright racism I encountered in childhood took the form of mocking Apu impersonations. The way racists seem to have latched onto the character isn't a fault of the Simpsons creators in any way, though.
posted by naju at 12:45 PM on January 20, 2010


I'm not really comfortable with some of the assertions that "it's not racist because they make fun of everybody" or "it's not racist if they don't mean anything bad by it." I can see where that's coming from, but I don't think it's a good precedent to set. People can be racist with good intentions, and being equally derogatory of everyone doesn't necessarily make it OK.

Anyway. Apu's generally portrayed as an individual and not as an Indian strawman, but sometimes the border is crossed into problematic territory. The accent is tough. I don't think it's racist to adopt a stereotypical accent, but lots of racist jokes are made that way to the point where it's basically shorthand for derogatory ideas so I wouldn't blame people for getting upset.

I think he's a well-portrayed character, but it would be better if he weren't the show's token Indian.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 1:25 PM on January 20, 2010


I don't think the fact that Azaria isn't Indian but putting on an Indian accent makes him racist.

After all Nancy Cartwright voices Bart - we don't think that she is being SEXIST.
posted by trialex at 3:00 PM on January 20, 2010


I'm a middle school teacher, and one of my favorite kids cracks all of us up by doing amazing voices. But there's one teacher who won't let him do Apu because she thinks it's racist. I don't see it.
posted by dzaz at 3:49 PM on January 20, 2010


If a joke is racist when it relies on someone's ethnicity for its humor, then yes, the depiction of Apu is racist.

But if Apu were played by an Indian actor, that wouldn't diminish the fact that the joke relies on someone's ethnicity.
posted by kidbritish at 10:20 PM on January 20, 2010


Again, racism implies superiority. This question has a fundamental problem, and it is that the OP doesn't seem to have a grasp of the definition of "racism."

To be fair, racist tropes are a little bit more complicated than mere "inferiority." For example, the prevailing wisdom is that black men have genitalia of a proportionally greater size. Who doesn't want a bigger dick! This is GREAT. Except that it's used as a backhanded insult to propagate the fear of dangerous sexuality. Asians are good at math and science and are academic overachievers. And such hard workers! This is GREAT, this is like the American ideal of capitalist, pull-yourself-up-by-yr-bootstraps industriousness! Except that it's used a backhanded insult suggesting that Asians are also too socially backward to have anything better to do, or that they're so ruthlessly competitive that they're being all academically superior in order to unfairly take over all the valedictorian spots in the world.

I don't think we disagree, InsanePenguin. I think that Apu is stereotypical but not racist. But I disagree with your simplified definition of racism.

Meanwhile, I don't agree that all jokes relying on someone's ethnicity are racist, either. I think that this is an oversimplification in the other direction, and deprives us of a lot of useful shades of gray.
posted by desuetude at 8:32 AM on January 21, 2010


But there's one teacher who won't let him do Apu because she thinks it's racist. I don't see it.

actually, there's a huge difference between a professional reading a script in a show doing a character and a little kid using that same character to (potentially) mock a race of people.

On the other hand, Apu is hilarious, and therefore not racist. The end.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:23 PM on January 21, 2010


Simpsons is an equal opportunity offending show, NO ONE is spared. Thus, I can't see how they do much that's racist.
posted by skepticallypleased at 1:21 PM on January 22, 2010


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