American actor Hank Azaria has apologised for voicing the character of an Indian grocery store owner, named Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, in the animation series The Simpsons, reported BBC on Tuesday. The Indian character, a part of the show since 1990, has been repeatedly criticised for reinforcing racial stereotypes.
“Part of me feels like I need to go around to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologise,” Azaria, who is white, said during an interview on Monday to the Armchair Expert podcast, hosted by American actor Dax Shepard and Indian American podcaster Monica Padman. “My participation in racism or at least in a racist practice or in structural racism as it relates to show business...that took a while [to understand].”
The Simpsons came under scrutiny in 2017 when South Asian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu made a documentary titled The Problem with Apu. Kondabolu had said that the character was “problematic because he is defined by his job and how many children he has in his arranged marriage”. After repeated backlash, it was reported in 2018 that the creators may write off the Indian character from the show.
Azaria said on Monday that he couldn’t decide quickly if he should keep voicing the character after the controversy. “I didn’t know how to make it so I needed to educate myself a lot,” he said, adding that he read and spoke to American Indians and attended seminars. The actor said he talked about the controversy on a public platform only after he was completely aware of the implications of such a character.
“By then I had felt like I know what’s in my heart. I knew where I stand on this. I felt like I had something thoughtful, intelligent, compassionate and responsible to say... I realised I have had a date with destiny with this thing for 31 years. I really didn’t know any better.”— Hank Azaria
The American actor added that he was unaware of the “relative advantage” he got as a “white kid from Queens [a borough in New York City]”. He said the Indian character was created with good intentions but admitted that the series was part of structural racism. “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.
Meanwhile, Kondabolu, reacting to Azaria’s apology, said: “Hank Azaria is a kind and thoughtful person that proves that people are not simply ‘products of their time’, but have the ability to learn and grow. Nothing. But. Respect.”
In 2018, Argentinian news channel Cronica TV drew criticism for displaying the Indian character to announce Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arrival in the country for the G20 summit. The channel showed visuals of an Air India aircraft landing in Buenos Aires and juxtaposed it with a picture of Apu, using a headline “Apu arrives”.