Apu on The Simpsons: Are We Racist for Finding Him Hilarious?

Apu on The Simpsons: Are We Racist for Finding Him Hilarious?

It's commonplace in 2017  for people to say, "Everything is politicized these days."

There's great veracity to that statement when seemingly harmless situations can still be used as  platforms to launch sociopolitically offensive messages.

Two examples are Apu Nahasapeemapetilon of The Simpsons and the Catcade, a Lakeview cat shelter/video arcade hybrid.

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With the latter, all visitors must agree to a terms of service before entering. This terms of service includes the following:   "Do not bring your racism, sexism, or homophobia in here. This is a fun and positive place. Take your bigotry back to your den of sadness. The cats don't like it and neither do we."

Upon visiting the Catcade, we learned that this was necessary. Who knew there is a white supremacist presence within the cat rescue community?

With the former, we find a must-watch documentary, "The Problem with Apu" by Indian-American Hari Kondabolu. The writer/comedian shows us how Apu, who is voiced by a white guy, Hank Azaria, is an extremely racist stereotype.

And although the character is universally beloved and considered hilarious by many, he is also offensive.

You might be viewing Kondabolu's thesis, and by virtue of our endorsing it, as just more political correctness extremism, coming from yet another hyper sensitive social justice warrior who's obsessed with manufacturing outrage.

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Kondabolu addresses this charge early on in the film, and it's quite clear to anybody with an open mind that he's not a snowflake fixated on trigger warnings, safe spaces, and micro-aggressions. I've also repeatedly denounced this set of "values," which comedian Tina Fey described as "a real culture of demanding apologies."

In fact, I've written that this was one of the major factors that gave rise to Trump and empowered him. It needs to also be the first set of "ideals" abandoned by the left if we're ever going to stand any chance at all at not losing the country forever to the far right.

“The Problem with Apu,” like this essay itself, is not a hit piece on The Simpsons.  Kondabolu makes it very clear that he loves the show and he's not advocating anybody boycott it.

"It taught you that you could be smart and political and funny at the same time," the Queens native says in the film.  

"It shaped me into being the comedian I am today. It taught me about Pablo Neruda and Gore Vidal and Stanley Kubrick."

I couldn't have said it better myself. I've lived my entire life with the practice that there's a Simpsons reference for anything and everything.

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Perhaps the best testament of all to the credibility of the documentary maker is the fact he owns up to being guilty of the same crime he's alleging against the existence of Apu. The movie shows him early in his career doing the same bit that Azaria has been doing for 28 years.

Kondabolu makes it clear that he finds the cartoon character created in 1989 to be a stereotype of Indian immigrants in America, and thus a caricature of his parents. His parents appear in the film to say that they don't identify with the convenience store clerk character in anyway.

His mom adds: "Hank Azaria is a talented guy, they paid him. He did it and he did it good, but it doesn't mean we're not offended by it."

When you bottom line it, it's the opinion of people like her that matters. In 2017, it's probably time for Apu to go, or at the very least get a major overhaul. However, at the same time, and this goes for all potentially explosive situations like this: 

You can't be more offended than the actual victim.

If you are more offended than the victim, then you are the very definition of an absurdly p.c. social justice warrior. 

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If you're still not convinced that Apu is offensive, then maybe segments in the film with Aziz Ansari and Whoopi Goldberg will convince you.

"There's this idea that if it's four white people, it's mainstream that's accessible," says the comedian famous for starring in Parks & Recreation. "But if it's four black people or Asian people it becomes 'oh this is a black show or a black movie."

As Kondabolu points out, at the time Apu debuted there was no Aziz, Mindy Kaling, Noureen DeWulf, Aasif Mandvi, Hassan Minhaj, Kal Penn etc.

Apu was pretty much the only Indian-American with any visibility in mainstream entertainment culture and thus held much more sway over the public than one would think.

That is of course not the fault of The Simpsons or Azaria, but it is on them to adjust and adapt to the times. The show has been on for close to three decades, and the animated series must change along with all the social changes that have occurred over that time.

hari-kondalobu whoopi goldberg

Perhaps the most enlightening part of the film occurs when Whoopi Goldberg appears, and the viewer sees her extensive collection of "negrobilia," artifacts and objects from the past which convey just how socially acceptable egregious racism was in our society, and not all that long ago.

When the parallels are drawn between minstrel shows, black face and a white guy voicing Apu, it's extremely difficult to not agree with the central thesis of Kondabolu's film.

The next time you laugh at Apu skewering ignorance and racism by telling Homer Simpson "please feel free to tell me to go back to a country that I am not actually from," you'll feel some pain too.

While “The Problem with Apu” is a film focusing on one specific lampoon of immigrants from one particular area, it is also a poignant reminder that almost all of us are descended from immigrants. We all have roots elsewhere, it's just that most of us need to go look them up. There really is no such thing as "mainstream," which is essentially synonymous with "white" in American culture.

It's only a social construct, and not a naturally occurring phenomena.

Perhaps more and more people are feeling this way, and that can at least partially explain how commercial DNA testing is taking off.

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There are three big companies: Ancestry.com, 23AndMe.com and FamilyTreeDNA.com that can give you a fairly accurate idea of who you are and where you came from if you're not sure.

I can say first hand that getting your results can give you a better idea of the American immigrant experience, and also the viewpoint of "The Problem with Apu."

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.net and TheBank.News, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, NBC Chicago.com and Chicago Tribune.com, currently contributes regularly to WGN CLTV and the Tribune corporation blogging community Chicago Now.

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