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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: Silencing Apu

Actor Hank Azaria on why he walked away from voicing the c-store stereotype on ‘The Simpsons’
Actor Hank Azaria (right) with other cast members of ‘The Simpsons’
Photograph: Shutterstock

CHICAGO — Changes to social justice often move with the laborious speed of an iceberg. From statue removals to breaking glass ceilings, progress takes time. One move of recent significance to convenience retailing is actor Hank Azaria stepping down from voicing Indian c-store clerk Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

For 30 years, Azaria (pictured at right above) was the voice of Kwik-E-Mart employee Apu on “The Simpsons.” During that time the show received many complaints for the stereotypes in Apu’s character and storylines, eventually culminating in the 2017 documentary “The Problem With Apu,” in which Indian comic Hari Kondabolu explores the negative stereotypes and slurs against people of Indian and South Asian heritage presented by the character.

The complaints eventually hit their target. Emmy Award-winner Azaria now acknowledges the role he played was a problem, and he stopped voicing Apu in 2020.

“I realized Apu was pretty much the only representation of Indian people in American pop culture for about 20 years.”

In the podcast “Armchair Expert,” Azaria in April discussed how, when he was first called out, he dealt with a lot of feelings, including defensiveness, hurt and anger. Rather than rush to reply, he educated himself and instead chose to make amends, in part working with Soul Focused Group, a social change and leadership development consulting company.

Azaria said on the podcast, he realized that participating in structural racism in the United States is about blind spots.

“I really didn’t know any better,” Azaria said. “I didn’t think about it, and that was part of my … I don’t love the term ‘white privilege’—it applies—but I prefer ‘relative advantage.’ I was unaware of how much relative advantage I had received in this country as a white kid from Queens. I didn’t think about this stuff because I never had to.”

Self-reflection and research finally helped Azaria, who is Jewish, understand how and why his and The Simpson’s characterization of Apu was a problem.

“I realized Apu was pretty much the only representation of Indian people in American pop culture for about 20 years,” he said, “and if that were the only representation of my people in American pop culture,” he jumps into a stereotypical Jewish voice, “ ‘Was a Christian guy talking like this?’ I don’t think I would have been crazy about that.”

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