ACTOR Hank Azaria, who is white and voiced the role of the Indian American shopkeeper named Apu in the show The Simpsons, has apologised “to every single Indian person”.
He was part of the show since its inception in 1989 but stood down following criticism of racial stereotyping. Moreover, he was willing to be held accountable for its “negative consequences”.
Azaria added that the show was made on good intentions, but it contributed to the “structural racism” in the US. He also admitted that it took him some time to realise that his potrayal of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon was offensive to the Indian american community.
“I really didn’t know any better,” Azaria, 56, said while speaking on Monday (12) on the Armchair Expert podcast hosted by the actors Dax Shepard and Monica Padman.
“I didn’t think about it. I was unaware how much relative advantage I had received in this country as a white kid from Queens.
“Just because there were good intentions it doesn’t mean there weren’t real negative consequences to the thing that I am accountable for,” he added.
In The Simpsons, Apu potrays the character of an immigrant from the state of West Bengal in India, and with a doctrate in computer science, runs the Kwik-E-Mart convenience store in Springfield. There have been contentious episodes involving him, particularly one aired in 1996 where the character Apu purchased a forged birth certificate from local mobsters.
According to IMDB, Azaria’s character came under scrutiny in a 2017 documentary, The Problem with Apu, made by the Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu as a take on “how western culture depicts south-east Asian communities”.
Kondabolu welcomed Azaria’s apology but saw it as a “comeuppance” for the show.
“The ‘Apu Controversy’ is not real. Racism isn’t ‘controversial’, it’s a constant,” he tweeted. “Unless you think People of Color finally standing up for themselves is ‘controversial’. However, I suppose a word like ‘controversy’ is more clickable than ‘comeuppance’.”
In another tweet Kondabolu called Azaria “kind and thoughtful”, which he said proved that “people are not simply ‘products of their time’ but have the ability to learn and grow”.
Earlier this year Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, told the BBC that the show had no intention to sideline or offend ethnic minorities. Last year he announced that non-white characters would no longer be voiced by white actors.
In the Armchair Podcast Azaria also said he tried to understand the issue with the help of his teenage son Hal.
“I was speaking at my son’s school, I was talking to the Indian kids there because I wanted to get their input,” he said. “(There was) a 17-year-old, he’s never even seen The Simpsons but knows what Apu means. It’s practically a slur at this point.”
Azaria added he “read, spoke to people who knew a lot about racism, spoke to lots of Indian people and went to seminars. I realised I have had a date with destiny with this thing for 31 years.”