Some people have argued that there is a problem with Apu, and are upset that the Simpsons don’t see it that way.
I’ve been called and teased as “Apu” from the Simpsons many times. In fact my real full name even evokes Apu, and in high school I was one of exactly two kids of Asian descent. I smelled funny, I looked weird, I was a geek and a loner (and still am). Apu was introduced to the world in 1989, my junior year, so I didn’t have to coexist with Apu for that long, and today’s kids probably see the Simpsons as archaic TV so I doubt Apu’s cultural resonance is as relevant now as it was during the 90s and 2000s. Still, at least two or three generations of brown kids have had to endure, at some point, a comparison to Mr. Nahasapeemapetilon. That sucks, sure.
However, had Apu never existed, would brown-ness have been invisible? Was Apu the cause of alienation, bullying, mean-ness, feeling different, feeling Othered? I think Apu was a handy tool for the kind of schoolyard nonsense we all endure in varying forms – and let’s be clear, being brown meant you were privileged in a way that other minorities were not, so enduring Apu and Kwik-e-Mart jabs during adolescence was hardly an existential identity crisis of the sort that Muslim Americans (kids and adults alike) have had to endure since 9-11.
Look, soft racism is racism, racism is bad. But soft racism can be endured without losing your dignity in a way that hard racism cannot be endured without true pain. I have experienced both and frankly, being compared to Apu is a mark of pride for me. Lets ask ourselves who Apu is?
Apu is not accused being part of a cultish religion that allegedly either controls the media and the world’s finances, or is set on replacing the world’s law with a throwback system of brutal control over unbelievers. Apu is not portrayed as a sexual fiend, a criminal, or a academically talented but poorly-endowed freak, based on the color of his skin or the shape of his eyes. Apu is not a member of an elite who makes your life miserable, who has everything you deserve.
Apu is a father, an entrepreneur, and a kind person, who minds his own business (literally and figuratively), who others rely on, who has sometimes needed help. But most of all, Apu doesn’t change who he is. Apu has been the target of soft racism for 20 years and hasn’t changed his hair, his clothes, his accent, his beliefs, his values.
Let’s compare Apu to the current heroes of the Brown Folk today: Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani. I commented elsewhere that these two real-life humans have done more (on screen) to damage Brown identity in just the past couple years than anything Apu has done in the past 20. Why? Others have said it better than me:
The Religion (Islam) Between Immigrant Parents and their Children on Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None”
The pursuit of white women: Brown actors like Aziz Ansari have reduced brown women to a punchline
The bottom line is that the Simpsons and Hollywood have two different versions of brown males. One is someone who embraces his identity, even in the face of mockery. The other is one who does the opposite. I’m with Apu.