The apology comes after years of complaints about the character. The debate was brought to the fore with the 2017 documentary “The Problem With Apu.” In the film, Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu criticized the character and Azaria for perpetuating harmful racist stereotypes. Azaria announced last year that he would stop voicing Apu.
When I learned of the apology, I listened to the podcast. And much to my surprise, I cried.
As an Indian American actress, for me the shadow of Apu loomed larger in my life than I realized.
The first Indian American person I ever saw on television without an accent in a role that had nothing to do with race was myself: in a walk-on part on “As the World Turns” in 2004. In the early 2000s and prior, Indian Americans were seldom seen on television or in films. The few representations, like Apu, were typically accented caricatures played by White actors. “The Simpsons" was (and is) a phenomenon because it satirized popular culture — but the show also informed it. At the time, Apu was the most well-known, if not the only, “Indian” character in the American collective consciousness.
It was supposedly “progress” when the industry started to allow actual people of Indian heritage to play Indian roles, however one-dimensional and often offensive.
If I created a character with an authentic accent (there is no single Indian accent, as more than 30 main languages are spoken in India), the casting director asked me to do it again “but bigger.” If the role didn’t require an accent, casting directors asked me to redo a scene with one anyway because “we don’t know which way they want to go.” Spoiler alert: They always went with the accent.
Some incarnation of Apu is what they wanted. I realized that if I didn’t deliver, I wouldn’t work. So, I watched episode after episode of “The Simpsons” to imitate Apu’s accent.
At auditions, it soon felt as if I was doing a version of a minstrel show — and for good reason. A character Peter Sellers played while wearing skin-darkening makeup — Hrundi V. Bakshi in the 1968 film “The Party” — inspired Azaria’s Apu. To work, I — an actual Indian American — was imitating a White man, who was imitating another White man, who lampooned my race in brownface.
Even when I came across an authentically and respectfully written accented character, I worried that I was still contributing to the perception of Indian Americans as perpetual foreigners, even though South Asians have been in the United States since the 1700s and generations of us were born here. I didn’t want to contribute to us being seen as “the other” or diminish our humanity. The weight of the responsibility for how I represented Indian Americans crushed me.
So I decided to refuse to play accented, stereotypical characters. I turned down auditions. I lost agents. I definitely suffered for the decision. But I’m still a working actor, which is no small thing, and every day that remains true feels like a gift.
I don’t regret my choices. I’m just bitter about how few I had.
I’m not placing the blame for, you know, all the racism in the entertainment industry squarely on Azaria’s shoulders. Going forward, it’s more helpful to examine the system that allowed for the creation of Apu in the first place.
But hearing Azaria recognize that his performance as Apu was "racism, my participation in racism, or at least in a racist practice or in structural racism, as it relates to show business or ... all the above," and for him to say so not in a carefully crafted PR statement, but in a conversation long after the news cycle had moved on, caught me off guard. Azaria reached his conclusions after years of learning and reflection. He recognized how his work had hurt Indian Americans and wanted to start making amends.
That’s why I cried. His apology was cold comfort, given my past, but the validation and acknowledgment still mattered.
Psychologist Harriet Lerner advocates responding with something like, “Thank you for the apology. I appreciate it,” when accepting an apology. You’re not minimizing your own pain as you would with, “No worries.” You’re not disqualifying the apology to make the offender more comfortable, as you would with, “Oh, that’s okay.” It’s a way of demonstrating the strength required to face your own pain and to say, “Yes, you did something to apologize for. You hurt me. I recognize your courage in taking responsibility.”
Hank Azaria, thank you for your apology. I appreciate it.