We have been living in a time of self-deception for decades when nothing is quite what it appears to be. By ‘we’ I mean those of us who live in liberal western societies – the presumptuous, all knowing and sanctimonious flag bearers of all that is presumed to be good for the ‘rest’ to follow. Times like this make anything possible in such societies: we can be what we want to be, act out our fantasies, bend the truth to mean what we want it to mean, and throw out any conventions or mores with hardly a protest. Such indulgences are permissible in the name of progress under the broader rubric of ‘our freedom’ but without matching responsibilities. Given that western is a code for white, it is presumed to be always right and pure, and nothing ever seems to stick to its Teflon surface.
The ongoing uproar surrounding The Simpsons is an exemplar; and, tempting as it is, it’s Apu controversy has little to do with the favourite bogeyman of our time, nor can it be brushed off as fake news, for the symptoms of the decay in western societies and their accompanying malaise, have been with us for a very long time.
The failure on the part of the creators and producers of series to seriously address recent criticisms of Apu’s portrayal, and its impact on the lived experiences of millions around the world, speaks volumes. It shows how easy it is for the rich and powerful to double down on criticism and avoid any responsibility, whilst mesmerising all and sundry with the chimera of feigned compassion. More so, it is about damage control of a product in decline and increasingly viewed as defective when subjected to closer scrutiny.
The reported reactions of the actors, creators and producers to any criticisms left a lot to be desired but they also underscored their sense of superiority for being white. Hank Azaria (Jewish American), who is the voice of Apu, did not cooperate with Hari for his documentary, The Problem with Apu. Hank needs to be reminded that Jews were never discriminated against or suffered anti-Semitism in India. His belated acknowledgement of possible harm aside, he would do well to remember the treatment of his people, not so long ago, when they were not whites. The show’s creator, Matt Groening (German-Norwegian American), the producer, Dana Gould (American) and executive producer, Al Jean, (Irish American) were all dismissive of any hurt caused by Apu – widely ‘applauded and inoffensive’ to whites for years. Groening saw him as benign and countered any criticisms by stating ‘people love to take offence’. Gould though must have been blinded the shine of his whiteness: without a tittle of awareness, he said, ‘What’s funnier for white people?’ Really? Try to turn the table on whites and see what happens if you traduce their culture, create negative white stereotypes or challenge white sacred cows.
Confronting someone else’s truth is just too inconvenient – even painful, especially if it stands to cause financial damage. But to know the truth one has to experience or feel it in some way. That is, one has to be or be able to put oneself in the shoes of the vilified, and therein lies the germ of the problem, especially for those who continue to shamelessly parade their hubris, arrogance or intentional ignorance, and refuse to accept what is obviously deplorable bigotry of a privileged minority and should be universally held in contempt.
One has to be comatosed not to notice that America, and more generally, many whites in western societies continue to have a problem with so many non-whites in their midst. The resurgence of the white supremacists amongst us and the recent demands of the ultra right in nearly all western countries is no aberration. What is galling though is the realisation that whites constitute barely 17-20% of the human race, (the exact numbers are difficult to ascertain as many countries claim to be multicultural) which means that it is the white race that in is the minority.
Yet for some five hundred years, apart from warring and plundering the wealth of other nations, white people have managed to treat everyone as the ‘outsider’, the ‘other’, the ‘alien’ or the ‘ethnic’ – as if they are not an ethnic group that somehow stands athwart to all ‘others’. Their ability to dominate was the outcome of their native impulse to usurp and invert power through organised violence, not through enlightenment, human rights or superior
values, as they would have us believe. With power came white privilege and the self-appointed centre; everything good came from them, they argued and, thus, arrogated a carte blanche to intentionally and maliciously subvert the identity, denigrate, vilify, dehumanise and ‘otherise’ people of colour with impunity. ‘That was in the past’ is their constant refrain, so to see Apu’s antics in 2018 and realise that the centre still holds, is simply mind-boggling!
For sure, there has been progress over the last fifty years but evidence of new racism of anti-racists is ubiquitous. So is their right to mock but no one has a right to be offended. You see it in sports, entertainment, art, religion, media and politics; you name it, the list goes on. Once the Good Book had enabled whites to accept the misguided belief they were the ‘chosen ones’, the racism genie was out of the bottle, and it has refused to get back in.
For the new generations, however, colonialism is a distant memory, white-washed and sanitised by more liberal, revisionist interpretations. The old racism was combined with the Faustian urge to control ‘others’ for economic gains. But our unintentional insidious biases have become sophisticated, and their practices, more nuanced and subtle. In time, they propelled the formerly exploited to morph into the exploiters – even made us all a little racist.
Hollywood represents the epicentre of the icons of haute Anglo-Saxon-Celtic phoneyism, and when it’s longest running ‘cultural staple’, The Simpsons, saw nothing wrong in furtively misrepresenting and stereotyping another culture’s moorings, it was bound to attract attention. There is nothing new about racism in the Tinsel town. It has an unenviable long history of selective amnesia and hypocrisy which need to be confronted and repudiated, each time they rear their ugly heads to eschew the rights of those deemed not to be at its core. Where are its leading lights who come out in force if something happens to one of their sacred cows: white celebs, Jews, LGBTI or oppressed white women? Within its hallowed precinct, blacks have had to fight for every inch of their crawl to the top but, for all their occasional gloss and glitter, they have only won numerous battles not the entire war!
Even one who reached the highest office in America had to put up with racial profiling and denigration through ‘racism without race’. His intellect defied the black stereotypes and he had too much class, but that was not enough for some. Let’s be very clear: the much-touted post-Obama, post-racial America is a good idea but it does not exist.
The denigration of other races, their religion and culture has been an unyielding leitmotif in American films, drama and TV series, and for all the phoney intellectualising of who-is-who in Hollywood, it remains incapable of confronting its own lies because its core belief is make-believe. It is as if it literally accepts the lies through which it seeks to represent the truth of its art.
As a proud Australian of Indian extraction, not a South Asian, I want to scream to Apu’s creators: the dumb, goofy, hostile caricaturisation of Apu is a problem for its white creators to fix, and for whites generally to come to terms with this ‘noxious pastiche of South Asian stereotypes’ – to borrow Jake Nevins elegant expression (The Guardian, 15 November 2017). We should all thank Hari for bringing the depraved travesty of Apu to the fore, that so damaged South Asian representations in popular culture generally, ‘gave school bullies carte blanche to pick on him’ and has been the bane of South Asians’ existence worldwide.
Their problem is they are too acquiescent. Whites don’t get it because they got to the top by being violent, pushy, greedy and ruthless – just as their forebears did through development of the weapons of mass destruction and organised violence. Until 1945, they spent a lot of time killing each other and trying to steal from ‘others’ what was not theirs to take. After reaching the top unfairly, they want to view the world through the prism of their prejudices.
On closer examination, it is clear the show’s American creators used an old template in creating the repugnant cartoon character. As a young antipodean student, I first encountered a virtually identical anti-Indian caricature by the American writer, James Michener, in Return to Paradise (1950). Hailing from Deep South this arch-racist’s hostile diatribe against Indo-Fijians was too perplexing for me to fully understand at the time. Borrowing from English hatred of Indians popularised by Churchill (for wanting English to quit India), he took poetic license to misrepresent their oppression, their imposed grinding poverty and the difficult circumstances of their servitude, as signs of their disloyalty to the country they had helped build with their bare hands under most trying conditions.
The book’s short section on colonial Fiji remains jarring for its acrid writing but Michener’s vile, racist, and highly offensive rant was designed to deliberately misrepresent and reinforce anti-Indian prejudices and stereotypes for global consumption. He succeeded because they survived quite a few generations.
Michener was the first to construct an unknown, unnamed, unidentified shopkeeper as a device to vilify the Indian character, showing him to be miserly, goofy, and furtive, with a poor command of English and an over-the-top weird accent. Forty-two years later, another American writer, Paul Theroux, in The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992) regurgitated Michenerian construct of the shopkeeper with all his attendant woes: weird character, dishonesty, exaggerated accents, poor language skills, etc. These writers only ever meant to purposely disparage Indians and parade their ‘Indianness’ scornfully. Surprisingly, I just spent two months travelling all over India and never met a single Indian (from India) who speaks or behaves like Apu.
Although isolated and seemingly unrelated, these writers documented how historical memories can remain embedded deep in our psyche and, consciously or subconsciously, rework our stereotypes into hard prejudices without our full awareness of their impact on others. It is a form of subtle conditioning, often reinforced by tainted history of the winners since they write a version of their history. However, history’s winners are also known to have selective memory which sometimes suffers from the greater crime of distortions or omissions.
Of the thousands of horror stories about Apu I heard, I should report my own to illustrate how this cultural icon can be responsible for unleashing egregious behaviour in miscreants. Years ago, whilst moonlighting and managing a sideline distribution business with mostly white staff (not deliberately), I was forced to throw out two thugs when they came drunk, got abusive and refused to leave when asked. They just laughed and called me an ‘Apu’ but the belting I gave the abuser left me with a broken wrist and some very unhappy memories.
At the time, I did not know about the iconic grandeur of ‘Apu’. I hardly watched TV but on enquiry found The Simpsons rather bizarre and unedifying like most Hollywood trash we get these days depicting dysfunctional American families, murderers and the American obsession with the wackos and weirdos. Still, as an odious weapon of assault, Apu seemed to lurk in the dark recesses of untamed minds hell-bent on reinvading and recolonising the more docile.
We all live by our own truths and we don’t need yet another study to convince us that racism, misrepresentation of ‘others’ and stereotyping don’t exist. The powerful, overwhelmingly white and Jewish Hollywood bureaucrats, will not pay a price for promoting their prejudices. And, Indians don’t need to be told that they are being overly sensitive. All minorities have paid and continue to pay a high price for being just themselves. The target du jour is Islam, but the Indians were never favoured with proper treatment in or outside America until recently. The re-engineered US-India bonhomie is about trade, to balance the rise of China or to protect American interests – as always, it is about them!
Apu is a borrowed, reconfigured notion which, reduced to a sinister meme, was only ever meant to subvert South Asians’ sense of self, and left unchallenged, it will continue to rely on white privilege to mock, remotely bully the mind and justify the so-called soft racism of non-racists (there is no such thing as soft or casual racism!). In the final analysis, The Simpsons controversy proves that education, opportunities, wealth, power and white privileges are insufficient conditions for some to learn to respect ‘others’. The Problem with Apu is a problem of white people, created by white people; only they can fix this problem of their psychic wilds that seeks to eviscerate the hopes and dreams of ‘others’ caught in the indissoluble menstruum of white arrogance, fear and exceptionalism.
Gopal Nair PhD is a Sydney based writer and commentator.
The opinions expressed herein are his and do not represent the views of the publisher(s). Released May 2018.