Racism as entertainment

So 7-11 has transformed some of its stores into Kwik-E-Marts, modeled after the convenience store on the television show “The Simpsons.”

I’ve heard all the arguments discounting the racism in the television show.  The store owner is a “loveable character.”  The show “makes fun of everybody” and not just Indians.  Of course it’s a stereotype, that’s why it’s funny!  And of course, there’s always that Indian guy who says that he thinks the character on the show is hilarious.  (One of the news articles about the Kwik-E-Mart transformations was quick to include an Indian who supported the theme.)

I call bullshit on all of it. 

kwik-e-mart.jpg

Here’s a picture of some of the employees at a transformed 7-11, wearing “Qwik-E-Mart” garb.  So basically they’ve been transformed into cartoon characters.  Which is the whole point of racism as entertainment, isn’t it?  It’s about dehumanization.  It’s about stereotype.  It’s about entrenching racism in pop culture.  It’s about reinforcing racist imagery, often on a subconscious level.  Constant repetition.  When the strongest image of Indian Americans is Apu, you know we’ve all been taught the big lies.

When people tell me that Apu is a “loveable character,” what I hear is that they love to laugh at racist imagery.  Yeah, the Simpsons makes fun of everybody.  But is everybody equally affected?  And are stereotypes really funny to the people to whom they have real consequences?  Because I find it sad, and scary, and unbelievable, but I’ve been asked if I speak fluent English at more than one job interview.  It defies the evidence of ones’ own eyes and ears and defies imagination, but that ching-chong shit is buried deep.

I don’t care if there is one brown guy out there somewhere who isn’t offended.  Because this isn’t about offensiveness.  It’s about humanity.

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12 thoughts on “Racism as entertainment

  1. This is interesting to read. I’ve always had issues with the Apu character. I’ve found it difficult to put into words why I’m offended by the character. I think it’s because Apu is presented as a goofball and there is no counterbalance to him anywhere on TV.

    I’m sitting here trying to think of an example of any character in a TV show that presents a person of Asian Indian heritage just as a regular person. I’m not big into TV, but I can’t think of any. Anyone else?

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  4. I am an Indian studying in US for the past one year. I came to know of this character only after reading this, I never watch Simpsons regularly.

    This character Apu and the ensuing Qwik-E-Mart campaign are totally absurd. I wonder how many other people made fun of and characters created for making fun of them were used to create la E-Mart trends. This reeks of racism.

  5. I am an Indian, grown up in India. I am proud of my thick Indian accent and will never change it because it is who I am. It is no less cool, or thick or foriegn than the American accent, the West Indian accent, the chinese english accent or the Yorkshire accent. Since I am very proud of who I am and of India and Indians,(not just proud but as some of you might have noticed many Indians have a slight superiority complex), it is not easy to get me upset about negative depictions of Indians etc., since I know they are exaggarations etc.

    At the end of the day, I think this is a question of identity. Many people of Indian heritage want some sort of re-inforcement, acceptance etc. as being no less american/english/european etc. In doing that they also seek to distance themselves and are somehow embarrassed by things like arranged marriages, elephant headed gods, Indian accent etc. To me, all of these are normal and good, even the ‘Thank you, come again’ line. I mean what’s wrong with ploiteness?? Apu is all out to just make money,(sometimes at the expense of his own dignity)but isn’t that true of so many immigrants and what is so negative about that? It might be a stereotype, but it is based on a sliver of reality. So it gives people ammunition to taunt you? Well, heck, if it wasn’t this, it would be something else. On the whole, I have found this character to be more positive than negative.

    I don’t care what the show depicts(personally, I find Apu a funny and also endearing character and have never felt offended), because I am sure it will not change the opinions of those who know me about me. On the otehr hand, I can imagine that if someone has a basic problem with who I am and where i come from, they would still taunt my accent, or my beliefs or habits etc. even if the character of Apu had never been created.

    However, at the end of the day, this is about The Simpsons and they make fun of a lot of things, it’s in the spirit of the show. I think we should be less uptight about this.

  6. m – There was a character of Indian descent (via Britain) on ER. I don’t watch the show, so I can’t say how her ethnicity was treated, but she was a doctor… like half the characters.

  7. Well written.

    I like Apu, I like the Simpsons and the local convenience store near my home is actually owned by people from Pakistan. I don’t think pointing out that many Indians, or Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis happen to run corner stores is in itself racist. It’s like saying that French Canadians eat poutine, or that Koreans smell like kimchi, or that Italians are fashion freaks….they are all very broad generalisations of course, but observations none the less. What’s horrible is when these generalizations become the rule, or become taken too seriously or perhaps become degrading jokes. Apu pushes the limit in this respect. I think he’s funny, but I can laugh at myself. The thing is, are we (am I) laughing at him because he doesn’t really fit in? Because he’s different? Would you laugh at your immigrant mother? This is tough. I love my mom, I tease her, I kid with her and I don’t think she’s dumb. The problem is that others might think that I do. others might think it’s funny because they think it’s dumb.

    If you could really get into the heads of every person who laughed at Apu and found out if they were being disrespectful or not. You could then say that a majority of people look down on Indians because of Apu, or the people think Apu is a dumb character then you have a point. But unfortunately you can’t. But at the same time I think requesting sensitivity and requesting that people don’t openly mock your accent is perfectly within ones rights. But why is it that no one steps up for Cletus? The white trash yokel? Or what about Homer? or Mr. Burns? or Principal Skinner? All stereotypes of white men. What about Beavis and Butt Head? King of the Hill?

    Now when you cast Apu in the live action film does he need to be Indian? When you cast Homer is he going to be a fat balding white man?

    I think my answer would be that perhaps not. Why be so rigid about something that wasn’t so serious in the first place? Why not make Spider-man Chinese? Why not make Homer black? Why not make Apu a white guy who thinks he’s from India? Or better yet, a white guy who can be just as easily laughed at? But if Apu stops being Indian, is he still Apu? If you change Apu, then will people be happy if Homer is Indian?

    If it’s a store and you are hiring people to work in Apu’s store do they need to be Indian too? Perhaps even less so. Perhaps if you want to keep with the tradition of the show it would be more authentic. So I wouldn’t be too angry if the people hired for the Kwik-E Mart were dark skinned folks from west/central Asia, provided it wasn’t the only requirement for the job…..ummm so your resume says you’re mother is from Bangladesh….can you do a really funny Apu voice for me?….No not like that, bob your head more, ya like that….crap you Indians are funny!!!!

    The whole idea is that the character is a funny commentary on the world. It’s a fact that Indians run more than a few corner stores. Is it racist to say something about it? Is it racist to make a character who is Indian who sounds funny on a show where everyone is being mocked? Is it then racist to make a real store that copies this show and hires people who look like the character? Well it is racial. But if it’s racist is a really grey area. One that exists in the minds of the creators, the people running it, the people who work there and of course you. So in the end, perhaps it’s racist. But I don’t think it’s that serious. It does however represent a very limited view that Americans have of other cultures, especially those that live amongst them…as Americans themselves. This is more troubling, but unfortunately a global issue. Koreans have even less knowledge of Indians. The Chinese are clueless about Africans. Brazilians are daft when it comes to the Swedes.

    I think Apu needs a son, a son who doesn’t have an accent, a son who hangs with Bart. This would be more realistic and would serve to push the idea that different cultures are more and more apparent within American society.

    Apu’s greatest fault is that he is outdated, behind the times….and in this way he is a racist character.

  8. Apu really IS a racist depiction of a caricature and it’s something that happens to minority characters a lot. Now you may argue that ALL simpsons characters are caricatures, and that’s true, however, real life people are affected differently by the caricatures. Minorities are MORE negatively impacted by caricatures because we’ve yet to achieve mainstream acceptance. In fact, there are many people out there who actually BELIEVE minorities all act like that. The fact is, regular people can cognitively distinguish homer from real-live white americans however, they have a harder time separating apu from real live indian-americans.

    Simpsons in general has done a really poor job of showing minorities in a positive manner. I’ve noticed that virtually EVERY SINGLE ASIAN character is drawn in this hideous way that resembles the “yellow peril” propaganda comics than modern animation characters. And the asian real-estate lady may not be drawn in that hideous manner, she’s someone who speaks english in that ear-piercing horrid fake chinese accent.

    So basically, all the asian characters in Simpsons are silly immigrants who can’t speak english properly and there are NO positive minority characters to counterbalance the negative portrayals.

    In addition, I saw the simpsons movie and I did NOT like how they portrayed native alaskans (or was it the inuit people. Honestly i forget cuz i saw the movie a long time ago)

    There is only ONE minority character who gets a pretty decent treatment and it’s the black character, carl, who is always with lenny. (i hope i haven’t gotten their names reversed). Anyways, that’s why I’ve stopped watching the simpsons. I feel my taste has gotten more discriminating and with age, I’m less able to tolerate racist depiction of asians. I have no doubt that there are a TON of asian americans working on the production of simpsons. I just hope they grow a spine and improve asian-american image in the media.

  9. This is great stuff. I agree. I think there can be varying degrees of racism in a fictional character, some subtle, some more pronounced. It’s all subjective based on the viewer.

    My production company is working on something about the cultural impact of The Simpsons. Would any of you be interested in speaking to us? It would be a great forum to express yourself and get your opinions heard.

  10. Apu is a silly Indian and barring his PhD, he is a character of ridicule. One can also recognize that the usa identifies Apu as a reflection of those South Asians who run 711s. Certainly there is no respect and while one may argue that the white characters on the Simpsons are simpletons while Apu is much more intelligent and heroic a personality, america merely enjoys seeing Apu as A-Poo. Waiting for a black or jewish caricature sorry character to come about, then we’ll see how tolerant everyone is.

  11. Apu is usually the most intelligent, best-educated, and most aware character in every scene that he’s in. His main flaw is being an extremely tight-fisted shop manager, which is where I think the negative stereotyping comes in. In every otger way, Apu is generally seen as a character who is the Observer of standard Caucasian-American stereotypes, such as comparative laziness, and gluttony.

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