We live in relatively good times. Noises are being made all around us. And people who had the luxury of living unaffected by those noises can no longer pretend to never have heard them. Sex abusers are being called out. Racists are being called out. The need for culturally and racially representative media is being asserted more and more.
One such noise concerns the much-loved animated TV show The Simpsons. Comedian Hari Kondabolu has made a documentary called The Problem with Apu to throw light on… well… the problem with the character of Apu.
The documentary has been out for some time, but the number of people who dismiss it as just another whine about racism by a hypersensitive minority seems to remain constant. Only yesterday, I came across two of my Facebook friends trying to appear broad-minded by dismissing it as — and I paraphrase — Indians being Indians and whining about racism because we are by nature entitled and pretentious.
I agree that a lot of Indians often behave in pretentious and entitled ways. I will also be the first to agree that getting offended at the drop of a hat is something that happens too often in India. We outrage from sunrise to sunset about identity, justice, community, and culture.
But here’s the secret — the controversy about Apu has nothing to do with any of these things. In fact, it is not an Indian issue at all. I want to clear some matters up for those among us (mostly Indians in India) who have no problem misrepresenting someone’s views without actually hearing them out. I suppose it helps that Matt Groening effectively did exactly the same thing.
This is not about you
Hari Kondabolu’s documentary is not about you dear fellow Indian. It is largely about and for Indian-Americans. The problems it points out affect Indian-Americans. They are the ones who grew up being defined by the character of Apu. What you consider an amusing representation of how Indians talk on a TV show you watched on Star World, is something entirely different for Indian-origin people who grew up in America during the last 30 years or so.
You, dear Indian-Indian, do not wake up every day and find yourself surrounded by White people. You do not have to be judged on a daily basis by classmates and coworkers because you don’t look like them. You have the luxury of not being aware of what you look like because most people you encounter on an everyday basis look like you — they are all different shades of brown.
Which is not to say that you don’t get subjected to stereotypes. If you are a Bengali, you get fish jokes. If you are a Gujarati, you get miser jokes. If you are from any part of the South, you get conflated with all of the South and your accent is made fun of in the North. If you are from the North, you get put in the same box as superbrats and rapists. If you are from Odisha… well you get my drift.
All of these things are offensive, or at least they can be if the respective people chose to take offence.
But as an Indian, you live in an India which contains many other people like you. And for every stereotype that exists about you, there are real world exceptions — Gujaratis with no business sense, vegetarian Bengalis, Keralites who sound like Haryanvi Jats. Again. The drift. You get it.
What makes Apu problematic to Indian Americans is that for a long time, it was the only representation for brown-skinned people in America. Apu and the way he talked and acted became a first impression. And what was even more unfair is that it was not how Indian Americans would have portrayed themselves. It was a White man’s impression of what Indians acted and sounded like.
I keep hearing that Simpsons makes caricatures of all cultures. But the point is exactly that. Simpson making fun of Italians does not change how Italians are perceived in America because there have been other significant portrayals of that community in the past. An Italian person does not simply get defined on the basis of how The Simpsons’ writers decide to portray him.
Kondabolu’s documentary makes this point over and over and over again with such clarity that I don’t even understand how anyone can dismiss it as selective outrage by one community over something inconsequential. Look at the trailer above. The point is made there as well. Instead, I keep hearing from Indian-Indians that this is silly outrage over nothing — “it’s just a joke, ignore it”.
There is a specific variety of Indians that thinks the idea of offence itself is offensive. These are people so comfortable in their relative privilege that they cannot even see why someone else might not be completely happy with their lives. So naturally, the only response one gets out of them with respect to an effort like this, is an apathetic “chill”.
It might help if such people tried to see themselves as different from the community Kondabolu is trying to give a voice to. I think their brown skin is blinding them to the fact that they literally have little in common with Indian Americans as far as identity is concerned and that the worst possible thing they can do right now is to say “this is not a problem” because it does not affect them directly. An Indian person saying she does not understand why Indian-Americans are offended about Apu is arguably the same as a White American saying she does not understand why Black people are offended about racism in popular media. Similar skin-colour does not automatically imply similar cultural context.
Race and representation matters
I don’t think it is anybody’s case that Apu should be removed from The Simpsons. Or that The Simpsons stop being the show it is because it is offensive. That sort of black and white thinking will not get us around this corner. But I do think there is merit in introspection. What do we see when we see a person on screen that looks like us? And how does that image change who we are? How does that image change how those around us see us? And if these questions matter (and I do think they matter), then what can be done to make sure the power to use these images is used responsibly?
Perhaps one of the most celebrated movies of recent times was Black Panther. It was celebrated because it was a big win for representation. It broke the mould whereby the Black identity was defined as a contrast to the White identity. It portrayed African characters as they had never been portrayed on screen before — as empowered and independent and even privileged. It was revolutionary because the depiction of Black people has traditionally been through the lenses of contempt or pity. And pity can be damaging too — maybe not as damaging as contempt, but damaging nonetheless. If you haven’t watched the TED talk titled The Danger of a Single Story, you should.
The reason Black Panther was a triumph was because it hadn’t been done before. And the only reason it got done was because people were tired of what had been done up until Black Panther got made.
In order for better representation to happen, voices like Kondabolu’s need to be heeded and appreciated. Chilling never got anything done.