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The Simpsons’ Apu isn’t funny any more

Adam Kassam is the chief resident in the department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at Western University

One of the most dramatic moments of my adolescence was finding out who shot Mr. Burns. I was expecting the culprit to be Smithers, but I was disappointed when it was Maggie. And don't get me started on the annoying cliffhanger reveal between the two episodes. Looking back, it is hard to overstate just how important The Simpsons was to my youth. It was my favourite show, though my mother forbade me to watch it. I remember sneaking into my parents' bedroom before they got home from work to watch that quirky and hilarious family from Springfield.

More than 20 years later, I question why I was endeared to such a program despite the show's only brown-skinned character being depicted in the most caricatured of ways. That reckoning brewed over this past week when I learned about Hari Kondabolu's documentary The Problem with Apu. The film's cultural importance and relevance to the South Asian community was also recently highlighted in The New York Times.

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Mr. Kondabolu, a successful Indian-American comedian, recently debuted his new film, which explores how Apu's character in The Simpsons played a significant role in stereotyping Indians in the mainstream media. It should be noted that the voice of Apu is actually played by Hank Azaria, a Caucasian man who admitted that producers of the show asked him: "Can you do an Indian voice, and how offensive can you make it?" The rationale being, "There are accents that, by their nature, to white Americans, sound funny. Period."

Growing up, I never gave much thought to how Apu was portrayed. Naively, I did not consider him to be a representation of me or my background, despite how relatively commonplace jokes about his character were, especially in hockey dressing rooms where I was usually the only visible minority. Besides, I thought, I was born in Canada, I speak English without an accent, and I am Ismaili, not Hindu, and my family is from East Africa, not India.

Six years after the Mr. Burns episode aired, everything changed. The tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks – a horrific scene I still remember watching on that same television in my parents' bedroom – led to a racial equalization for individuals with brown skin. Suddenly, it no longer mattered if you were South Asian, Arab or African. We were all thought of as the same: either Apu from The Simpsons, or foreign and dangerous radicals.

Unfortunately, Hollywood has helped to perpetuate these desperately tired tropes. One rarely sees brown-skinned actors cast for roles in television and film that fall outside the box of cab driver, convenience store worker or extremist. Moreover, the media seems to employ different methodologies when covering mass casualty events depending on the ethnicity and background of the suspect: a South Asian and Arab-looking individual is usually automatically described as a terror suspect, while a Caucasian suspect is said to be a lone wolf.

In my line of work as a physician, microagressions are not infrequently encountered. They range from seemingly innocuous questions like, "Where are you from?" to comments such as, "You speak great English." Sometimes, the odd patient requests "not to be seen by a foreigner." With this in mind, I have become attuned to my interactions as a visible-minority physician with patients and colleagues. I am also cognizant that I have the luxury of not being what the Toronto Star's Shree Paradkhar deftly describes as an audible minority – like my grandparents. This ultimately speaks to the notion that all visible-minority experiences with discrimination are not created equal.

Despite how tenuous race relations have recently become, I remain optimistic. In a way, populist and white-nationalist rhetoric has bred its own counter-reaction of individuals and groups who have been forced to speak up against hate.

Personally, I look to giant voices like Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Kumail Nanjiani, Riz Ahmed, Hari Kondabolu and Hasan Minhaj, who are paving the way for better representation and understanding by telling our collective stories to a wider audience. Because, just as Mr. Minhaj declares in his recent Netflix special, I too have the audacity of equality.

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Video: YouTube star Jus Reign on the importance of representation (The Canadian Press)
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