Late last year, Hari Kondabolu’s excellent documentary, “The Problem with Apu,” premiered on truTV. In it, he talked about his experiences as an Indian-American growing up in the shadow of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the Indian convenience store owner on The Simpsons. He spoke to a variety of other Indian-American celebrities. He discussed blackface and minstrels with Whoopi Goldberg. He argued with Kal Penn as to whether The Simpsons was redeemable despite the racist caricature (Kondabolu said it was, Penn said it wasn’t).
In my previous article, I talked about why Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, is wrong to be casually dismissing the controversy. In this article, I want to address the bigger problem of representation on The Simpsons, and how white liberals like me have been giving the show a pass for far too long.
All of the major recurring characters on the show are yellow except for Carl Carlson, Bumblebee Man, Dr. Hibbert, and Apu, and their families. Given the utter lack of white people on the show, and given Groening’s own background, it’s fair to say that the yellow characters are stand-ins for white Americans.
For the most part, The Simpsons is meant as a satire of white suburban America. Groening himself grew up in Portland with parents Homer and Margaret and sibling Mark, Patty, Lisa, and Maggie. With the exception of the older siblings, The Simpsons are basically the Groenings.
There’s nothing particularly new about the show’s structure. It’s a standard family sitcom; there are dozens of other shows in the history of television with a similar structure. The main reason why it has survived for a quarter century while other shows have fallen by the wayside is because of its extremely sharp writing staff that has usually managed to roll with cultural changes to address timely social and political issues. There’s also an Inception quality to it: Because it’s making fun of family sitcoms, it often winds up making fun of itself.
The show’s politics are fairly consistently liberal: The most obvious antagonist is Mr. Burns, the ultrarich owner of the nuclear plant. We’re encouraged to see Nelson, the school bully, as being misunderstood. Lisa tries to balance her intelligence with her love of “girlie” things.
But these liberal politics are distinctly White American Liberalism. The black characters are fairly positive: Dr. Hibbert is a competent physician who happens to be black, while Carl Carlson, an overwhelmingly boring character, is the token black in Homer’s friend set (a trope that South Park mocks in calling their own black character Token). But they’re underrepresented, and they’re the sort of blacks that “colorblind” whites think of as safe.
Meanwhile, Bumblebee Man is predominantly seen on TV shows within the show. And then there’s the problem with Apu.
Hari Kondabalu does an excellent job of picking apart that particular problem; if you haven’t watched the full documentary yet, please do so.
Meanwhile, The Simpsons’s in-show response was to suggest that nobody’s complained about it before, so it must be a new problem. Groening goes one step further, to suggest that the current zeitgeist is just to pretend to be bothered by things.
I’m here to say: I’m white. I watched The Simpsons from its beginnings. I have several of the video games, and lots of issues of the various comic books. And I have always been bothered by Apu.
And yet, I still watched The Simpsons. I never said anything until a month or so ago, when the documentary started stirring serious conversation.
I’m not here to pat myself on the back for having recognized the problem from the outset. Quite the opposite. I’m here to acknowledge guilt and complicity in recognizing the problem and looking the other way.
I’m going to posit, by the way, that I’m not alone. I’m going to posit that there are many, many white people who knew that the caricature of Apu was wrong from the outset, and yet because of everything else about The Simpsons, we were willing to give the show a silent pass.
Well, not everything else.
Because once Kondabolu poured so much into detailing the problem with Apu, I looked more carefully.
Who voices Apu? Hank Azaria, a white man.
Who voices Bumblebee Man? Hank Azaria, a white man.
Who voices Carl Carlson? Hank Azaria, a white man.
Who voices Dr. Hibbert? Harry Shearer. A different white man.
As of this writing, iMDB lists 644 episodes of the show. How many actors of color (not just black, but anything other than White of European Descent) have had voices in more than five episodes?
I’ll admit that I don’t know the full background of all the actors, but based on names and iMDB photos, I see one: Kevin Michael Richardson has been in forty episodes, doing a variety of voices. That’s out of 32 total voice actors with more than five credits. There are a few actors of color who have been in five, and some have had even smaller appearances.
Richardson’s first appearance was in 2009. For its first twenty years, the minority representation on The Simpsons was limited to having a white man’s voice. That’s a major problem.
In “The Problem with Apu,” Kondabolu gives two competing versions about how Azaria wound up voicing Apu. Azaria contends (in an earlier talk show interview) that he was told to give an Indian caricature. When he did so and then complained that it was over the top, he was told it was fine, and to do it exactly like that. Meanwhile, a scriptwriter contends that the script specifically said that the unnamed convenience store owner wasn’t supposed to be Indian, because that was a stereotype, but that Azaria’s voice was so funny they went with it.
This is sadly typical white behavior: Blame the other guy. Azaria could have refused to do the voice that way, regardless of his misgivings. Even now, he’s willing to “consider” stopping the voicing. In the early days, perhaps Azaria feared that refusing to do as ordered would result in a pink slip, but there’s absolutely no reason why Azaria can’t stop right now, never do the voice again, without repercussion. He’s absolutely fire-proof.
Meanwhile, even if Azaria himself came up with the voice, the room full of white people (presumably mostly, if not all, men) didn’t have to pat him on the back and go along with it. The other white actors didn’t have to go along with it. And the TV audience at home absolutely didn’t have to tolerate it.
(Incidentally, South Park’s Token was originally voiced by Trey Parker, who is white. He was later given to Adrien Beard, who was the South Park team’s only black staff member. So voice talent can change without destroying a character.)
I knew there was a racist caricature on the show, but dang, the rest of the show was funny. White privilege meant that I could ignore the injury being perpetrated right in front of me. I could look the other way. It didn’t affect me.
Except, it did affect me. I just didn’t know it. The way in which The Simpsons is so utterly white except for the handful of characters of color, mostly voiced by a white man, reinforced my own implicit biases involving the marginalization of people of color.
I’ve recently compared Matt Groening to the loveable grandfather at the Thanksgiving dinner, the one who normally means well but spews racist subtexts when he gets upset. My own father was a United Methodist minister, a lifelong Democrat, someone who hesitated about driving through California during a family vacation because it meant getting a state road map with then-Governor Ronald Reagan’s face on it. When I was a child, he referred to a black contractor who was late as being on “n****r time” and otherwise grumbled about lazy black people.
We laugh with that, and we tell ourselves we’re laughing because they don’t know any better, because that’s how they were raised, because we love them too much to confront them.
And while that might be true, we also laugh because we secretly think it’s funny. We white liberals want to claim we’re above it, but if we’re truly above it, we won’t laugh. We won’t tolerate it. We’ll find a way to tell our loved ones that, not only does that not nonsense fly anymore, it never should have in the first place.
This isn’t just Matt Groening’s problem, or Hank Azaria’s problem. It’s our problem, every time we see something that we know is racist but we give it a pass because, you know, it’s a friend of ours. They’re on our side. They just screwed up this one time.
If they’re really on our side, they’ll listen when we say, “Hey, that’s racist. Cut it out.”
But before we can say that, we need to be sure which side we’re really on. Because maybe, just maybe, some of us white liberals are good with a racist joke here and there.
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