Growing up as a female minority was difficult in and of itself, but what made it even harder was the representations I received in beloved television shows and movies. While my classmates saw the people who looked like them in the media as being able to solve mysteries, travel the world and be applauded for their strength and beauty, I saw my Indian heritage mocked and distorted. Inside, I felt insecure — a struggle to be comfortable with my identity for which I blamed myself, rather than the omnipresent dehumanizing portrayals of my culture. However, I did not know better than to laugh along at my peers’ insensitive jokes, because no one pointed out what was wrong.
Let’s talk about “The Simpsons,” a successful sitcom and American classic we all love. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the thick-accented Indian immigrant and convenience store owner in an arranged marriage, is the epitome of a racist stereotype of Indians.
Considering the various dialects spoken in India, his accent (which is replicated in nearly every representation of Indians on TV) represents only a small percentage of the way people in India actually speak. Because the accent is so different from the manner in which white Americans speak, it is used to identify a specific trait among South Asians and saddle them into single group with a single voice. To complicate matters even more, Apu’s voice artist, Hank Azaria, is white.
Despite Indians being visible, contributing and functioning members of society who partake in a variety of occupations, their representations on mainstream media remains confined to foreigners who struggle and fail in the American ways of life. While Apu is a convenience store owner, most other Indian actors assume the roles of taxi drivers, tech wizs coming to America for opportunity, or runaway brides escaping their “oppressive” culture.
In his documentary, “The Problem with Apu,” stand-up comedian Hari Kondabolu explains why Apu’s depictions matters: “Everything is through the lens of a white person’s perception of an Indian immigrant. It’s the same jokes: India has over a billion people, something about curry, gods with many arms and elephants’ heads, arranged marriage.”
Rather than being portrayed as everyday Americans, Indians are categorized as foreigners incapable of assimilation. Despite being members of and contributors to society, these representations assert that cultural differences cannot coincide with an American identity unless they accommodate to standards of whiteness — insinuating that Indians must disregard their minority culture in order to find a place in the mainstream society.
The Indian identity being used for comic relief and reduced to a punchline is wrong because it sidelines a significant population, delegating them as subhuman. While there has been some progress in recent years with portrayals of Indians as fully developed characters in shows such as “The Mindy Project” and “Quantico,” it’s still not enough. To truly progress past these problematic representations, it is essential to challenge America’s racial status quo and overcome the norm of a white, homogenous America.