The Simpsons, a series that has somehow endured beyond 1999, finally addressed comedian Hari Kondabolu’s criticism that Apu Nahasapeemapetilon perpetuates a stereotype that has haunted a generation of brown kids in America. The show’s creators, unsurprisingly, offered a bad response to critiques of a white man continuing to voice an Indian character.
Kondabolu, who has described Hank Azaria’s Apu accent as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father,” demonstrated the complicated relationship Indian-Americans have with the Simpsons in the 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu. As an ethnic minority with limited visibility, for a generation of Indian-American children and our parents, Apu was our only representation in American culture and media. Tragically, he defined both how our white peers related to people of South Asian descent and even informed how we understood our place as immigrant families in America. I’m willing to bet that nearly every brown kid growing up in this country has been subjected to a white person saying, “Thank you, come again!”
In the documentary, Azaria declined to be interviewed by Kondabolu. However, Simpsons producer Dana Gould justified the show’s treatment of Apu by telling Kondabolu, “The bottom line was always, ‘What’s funnier?’” Considering that Kondubolu is telling Gould that Indians don’t find Apu funny, what Gould is essentially saying is, “What’s funnier for white people?”
Then, using “anachronistic” as a euphemisn for “racist,” Gould says this: “How much do you want to tear at the fabric of the show? Do you want to pull Apu, a beloved character out of the Kwik-E-Mart...just for the sake of updating that character to be less anachronistic?”
On Sunday night’s episode, the Simpsons used its precocious character Lisa Simpson to make Gould’s point. In the clip, Marge and Lisa bemoan a new edition of a classic children’s book that has been revised to be less offensive—and, in her opinion, worse. Lisa responds, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Next to her, we see a portrait of Apu.
What the Simpsons misses is that Apu was “applauded and inoffensive” decades ago by white people, at a time when Indian-Americans had no visibility in this country. And now that we are more vocal, we’re speaking out against the harm the iconic show did. The Simpsons, however, seems uninterested in learning from this criticism, and instead insists on furthering a stereotype to deliver very cheap and racist laughs.
“In ‘The Problem with Apu,’ I used Apu & The Simpsons as an entry point into a larger conversation about the representation of marginalized groups & why this is important. The Simpsons response tonight is not a jab at me, but at what many of us consider progress,” Kondabolu wrote in response on Twitter. “Congratulations to the Simpsons for being talked about & being seen as relevant again.”