Imran Siddiquee | Longreads | December 2017 | 15 minutes (3,638 words)
When I was 2 years old, my family moved from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Springfield, Illinois. My parents had come to Canada as graduate students in the early 1980s to attend the University of Manitoba, thousands of miles from their homes in Bangladesh. They were raising me and my two older sisters there when my dad received a job offer to teach economics at a small university in the middle of Illinois. So in 1987, they traveled across another border, embarking on a journey to becoming not only Americans, but Springfielders.
It was just a coincidence that soon after we had settled in the Land of Lincoln, around the same time I started at Carl Sandburg Elementary School, another family, much more famous than us, would move into a place called Springfield. Suddenly the name of our town would become synonymous with some larger American story, or at the very least, the absurdities of American culture.
The Simpsons debuted in 1989 when I was 5 years old, less than a year after my baby brother was born in Springfield. I recall my parents being wary of any of us watching this strange cartoon with its adult humor and reputation for vulgarity. But by the time I was in fourth grade I had managed to record a couple episodes on VHS, and my brother and I would occasionally watch life unfold in the fantasy Springfield in between chapters of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
By then The Simpsons was a global phenomenon, and regardless of whether you watched the show or not, its influence was pervasive. There were the enviable “Cowabunga” t-shirts at the mall, the ubiquitous TV ads featuring Homer being Homer, and the persistent echo of “D’Oh” and “Don’t have a cow, man” on the school playground. Lots of little boys wanted to be Bart and I was no exception, repeating risqué lines from a show I didn’t really understand. Even when we would visit family in Bangladesh, I remember people asking me about that strange-looking family from Springfield. Is that what’s it’s really like there?
But of course, in the real Springfield, in its classrooms and shopping malls, football games and state fairs, we were the strange-looking ones. And in truth, I was never going to be as rebellious as Bart, or be allowed to complete that journey across the border which my parents had set out on in the 80s. Because, when it came down to it, I was already someone else in the imaginary Springfield, the imaginary America.
As Hari Kondabolu explains in his new documentary The Problem With Apu, my family and I had been assigned a role by white culture — the foreign, strange, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon — as people like us had been assigned many times before, and would continue to be assigned many times after. On those same playgrounds, kids would soon ask me to do the famous accent or to nod my head from side-to-side like Apu did. I would learn that in order for white people to remain in their roles — people whose bumbling inadequacy never quite moves them from the center of American life — they needed me and my family to remain in the Kwik-e-Mart.
Growing up, we’d often talk about whether or not ours was the city that inspired Matt Groening’s made-up version. I was convinced it was since we had a Shelbyville nearby, a power plant, and a quaint downtown which, in some places, at some angles, looked like the one in the cartoon. We also didn’t have many other brown people around us. But I imagine the mere fact that there are more than 30 Springfields in the United States is the whole point of setting The Simpsons there; it is a specific place, but also a generic one.
Which is also why most of the characters are a bright, unreal shade of yellow — a generic look for the people in this generic town. It’s a default from which any number of critiques and satirical points about American life can grow. Groening has said that he chose yellow so that the show would stand out as you channel-surfed, while others have offered that the color (shared with cartoons like Spongebob Squarepants) is perfectly crafted to pop in the red-blue-green color wheel of television screens. Like a smiley face or the shining sun, it signifies a warm feeling of happiness.
And yet, Apu and his wife Manjula are decidedly not yellow. Neither are most of the Black, Latinx, or other characters of color who show up on The Simpsons periodically. Some of the few East Asian characters are yellow, like Akira, a waiter at the The Happy Sumo sushi restaurant, differentiated from Homer by their shade, the shape of their eyes, or the sound of their voice. But it was always safe to assume, and I certainly did, that the main characters in The Simpsons, the happy people at the center, were meant to be white people. As M. Henry writes in The Simpsons, Satire, and American Culture, “yellow functions as a mask for white identity” on the show. Apu’s brown skin only emphasized their whiteness. Even when they were being skewered, and they often were, I knew they were meant to be seen as the most important people in town.
I would learn that in order for white people to remain in their roles in Springfield, they needed me and my family to remain in the Kwik-e-Mart.
Because that’s the way it was in the real Springfield too. White was the default. The rest of us were variations, in the shadows. This was mostly unstated by my white teachers, white friends, or local white politicians for the same reason that Apu hasn’t left his convenience store job in 30 years. Or why most white people don’t use the white emojis on their phones. They’d rather not think about the thing that is pushed in front of everyone else constantly.
When my dad first arrived in Springfield a few weeks ahead of the rest of the family, he set out to look for an apartment. His new colleagues at the local university recommended certain areas, and he started making calls. But no matter who he spoke to, or where he showed up, he was universally rejected.
As my dad tells it, he had an accent; his American English hadn’t yet been perfected through decades of lecturing to college students. Whoever was on the other line would hear that accent, or they would ask him to say his name, and suddenly the vacancy he had just read about in the paper was magically filled. This continued for some time until he finally went to the chair of his economics department, a very distinguished white man, and requested some help.
The chair also recommended an apartment, but it was one that my dad had just visited, where a nice white woman had told him to his face that there was nothing available. So the distinguished white man decided to personally walk into the same townhouse and tell the woman that he was there on behalf of a brilliant, new professor in town. He didn’t mention his name or his skin color or his country of origin, and she excitedly gave him the paperwork. He proceeded to write his colleague’s name in ink on the form, before taking it outside where my dad was waiting to sign.
That’s how we got our first place in the real Springfield. In a way, like Hank Azaria’s Apu, it was via a white man playing the part of a brown man for the acceptance of a white audience. But more precisely it was a white man vouching for a brown man in a country that hated brown people. That was what it took in the United States of America in 1987, the same country into which The Simpsons would be born two years later. That was the same culture of xenophobia that created Apu, and into which Apu was spread as an example of brownness. But, as Kondabolu’s documentary explains, Azaria’s character was never vouching for us.
Whoever was on the other line would hear my father’s accent, or they would ask him to say his name, and suddenly the vacancy he had just read about in the paper was magically filled.
A few years later, in 1995, the local mosque was burned down by white supremacists, and in 2001, after September 11, there was bullying, racial slurs, and many other reminders of our difference. Nowadays, in that same Springfield, my parents own a home, are well respected by many white people, and have appeared in the city paper more than once. My dad is retired and has even served on local councils dedicated to ending racism. Even so, he hears the epithets. My mother still gets teased when she walks into classrooms as a substitute teacher, wearing her hijab. The kids make fun of her still-present accent and sometimes do their best Apu impressions. And in the omnipresent shadow of Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, his call for a border wall, and this country’s hatred of women of color, it turns out, things have never entirely settled down for my parents. There is always that visibly invisible line.
On a recent Monday morning, I woke up to the news that a Bangladeshi man living in Brooklyn had attempted to blow up the Port Authority subway station in New York. It was initially jarring because I have often been in that particular station; where the buses from Philadelphia end up when I’m visiting my sister and brother, both of whom now live in Brooklyn. But by midday, it had morphed into a larger kind of fear. On Twitter, I started scrolling through the hundreds of tweets with the words “Bangladesh” and “ban” in them, and I felt that familiar schism inside me light up.
When Kondabolu, in his documentary, asks his parents why they aren’t as annoyed by Apu as he is, they reply it’s not because they don’t understand why they should be, but that they have always had bigger concerns. They were thinking about “succeeding, no matter what,” whereas Kondabolu — whom his parents joke has “Apu hair” — is already an American. As Hua Hsu writes in The New Yorker, “in a way, it’s the privilege of the acculturated to worry at all about any of this.”
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For most of my childhood, I bought into the dream that shows like The Simpsons represent, which is the dominant dream of the country itself. This idea that although I’m an outsider, I can eventually work my way to the center. At local Bangladeshi parties, I would do the accent too, just as I did at school with my non-brown friends. I would perform for other Bangladeshi Americans, including my parents, trying to make them laugh by playing the part of comedian in the only way I knew how. Even more so than Apu, I would ape Peter Sellers in The Party, which Kondabolu points out was a major influence on Hank Azaria’s particular accent. I loved The Party. We had only watched part of the film as a family, but I took to repeating its lines frequently. Saying “birdie num num” in that “patanking” way Sakina Jaffrey describes, which was guaranteed to make somebody crack up. Strangely, sometimes this made me feel more connected to my culture.
But it’s not simply that the white men behind the brown faces were teaching me how to perform my own browness and American-ness, via their caricatures, they were also teaching me how to perform my masculinity. The three were intertwined, inseparable. There were other influences and heroes, of course, but all of those other visions of manhood felt unattainable to me. Could I really be Michael Jordan? Tom Cruise? An imam? Apu, even more so than other cartoon heroes like Aladdin, was within reach.
At least the mocking of Apu, for the pleasure of white folks, was within reach. I wanted entry into whiteness like I wanted to make the basketball team. I wanted to break past the unspoken limitations of masculinity that I had long felt, and thought that if I accepted my demeaning place in their hierarchy, maybe they’d let me move up. Maybe I already had? After all, Sellers might be a bumbling idiot in The Party, but he does still get to dance with the white girl. He ends up the hero of a Hollywood soiree, filled with famous, wealthy, beautiful white people. And like the white Sellers, I wasn’t really a foreigner anyway. I was above Apu and his accent and his convenience store job. And I was definitely above his wife Manjula and all the brown women who barely even show up as comic relief in these worlds.
For most of my childhood, I bought into the dream that shows like The Simpsons represented: that although I’m an outsider, I can eventually work my way to the center.
The truth is, doing Apu’s accent could at least get me to the store, into the conversation, and maybe onto a movie screen. If white was one default, being a man was another. I was already protected by some borders. And yes, it was emasculating — it was always about poking fun at my own manliness, or lack thereof — but it was also an avenue available only to someone like me, who had a stake in the manhood game. Someone who was straight, not poor, and who didn’t have the accent in his mouth. My sisters couldn’t do the Apu act and get the same result, whether it was at a dinner party, school, or at an audition. And my mom, dad, aunts and uncles, couldn’t use it for laughs in the same way that I did, or rid themselves of the fear of violence, like I, perhaps naively, did.
Despite the reality of racism I’ve felt my whole life as an outsider in Springfield, for the most part I was oblivious to the fact that I was making the choice to believe the lies of America — of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy — the idea that one day I’d be allowed so far into the club that they’d forget what I looked like. And I chose to believe this over the truth of what that path would require of me. What it might require me to do to others.
What’s always been strange, given the popularity of the show here, is that when I hear the word “apu” I still don’t necessarily think about The Simpsons first. Often I think about my sisters instead. That’s because in Bangla and Bengali, “apu,” or “apa,” means sister. Just as “abbu” is what I call my dad, and “ammu” is what I call my mother.
Apu is most likely from South India, perhaps Tamil, and is represented, often through demeaning stereotypes, as a Hindu. Though he was inspired by the Apu of Satyajit Ray’s classic Bengali films, The Apu Trilogy, it’s not entirely clear what he grew up speaking back home, where the official languages of the country are Hindi and English. Yet most fans of the show probably don’t know or care to know about these differences, let alone about the existence of Bangladeshis, most of whom are Muslims, and have rarely if ever been to Apu’s homeland.
Of course this is the intent of a racialized stereotype, to flatten and exoticize. But I imagine, after this year, more white Americans might be curious about this place called Bangladesh. If it wasn’t as a result of the suspected terrorist in New York, maybe they first learned about the country over the summer, when reading about the plight of the Rohingya refugees crossing the border from Myanmar to escape violent persecution. In either case, I doubt many are thinking of the Bangladeshis like me, who grew up in the Springfields of their country. Or like my apus, one of whom lives in Brooklyn.
Those Americans calling for an expansion of the ban might be imagining a vague version of people like my parents, who came to North America after fighting for their country’s independence from Pakistan in the early 70s, surviving genocide and war. My parents were visiting Bangladesh at the time of the attack and only returned to Illinois earlier this week. How strange that thirty years later, every one of their border crossings is like an echo of the first. Uncertainty, fear, and a need to prove one’s legitimacy, humanity, in the place you call home. When does that feeling go away?
Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. To belong to a place, you might need to feel ownership over it. And to feel like you have ownership over a place like the United States of America, you might need to erase the entire history of the country. You might need to overlook genocide and slavery and buy into the myth of hypermasculinity.
Instead, I’m trying to embrace this feeling of otherness which has been passed down and placed upon me. I think less about crossing imaginary borders now — those lines we create to center ourselves — and more about my parents’ actual experiences when they first came here. I try to think about the brown and black people who actually work in American convenience stores, hotels, and restaurants, who have less money than we had growing up. My apus, near and far, who are queer and femme and fat and disabled and trans, who are ostracized by their own communities while watching white television. I think about how rarely their experiences have been accurately represented in the media, and that despite claims that comedies like The Simpsons satirize everything and everyone, I think about how they don’t actually point out the absurdities at the heart of this country.
Uncertainty, fear, and a need to prove one’s legitimacy, humanity, in the place you call home. When does that feeling go away?
What I dislike about The Simpsons, as Kal Penn suggests in the Apu documentary, is something which I wish I could bury within myself. It reminds me of how I once was, and often continue to be, seduced by the false promise of normalcy. The lie that those who rule this country, left or right, with their winking satires, are ever actually on our side. Or that there is even such a thing as an America which exists independent from oppression. Or that there is even such a thing as “being American” – or that it is worth trampling over others to get to that thing.
Recently, Azaria responded to Kondabolu’s documentary by saying he and the rest of the Simpson cast and creators were taking its messages to heart. There is a lot to “digest,” he says. Personally, I can’t imagine a real path forward to find enough redeeming qualities in the show to justify its continued existence. Part of this is my anger and guilt, but most of it comes from the fact that Apu, for me, is a problem for the entire world of The Simpsons, not just for a few white people behind it. It’s what I hear in Dana Gould’s words, when he says in the documentary, “There are accents that by their nature, to white Americans … sound funny.” Having Azaria voice a stereotype of an Indian man is the outgrowth of a specific worldview; one which the mythic Springfield, and my real Springfield, are still built around.
From who lives where, to the names of streets, there is clear evidence that both of these places were made for and by white men. And this was done on the backs of black and indigenous people. The Simpsons has glancingly acknowledged that past in a few episodes, here and there. But beyond Apu and Manjula, many other characters of color, most of whom are men, like Bumblebee Man or Carl Carlson, have also been voiced by white people.
It’s not just that racial stereotypes exist in the show, but that the white people — or the white people painted yellow — don’t have their own constant encounters with whiteness at the same time. By ridding its world of white-skinned people, but not black and brown people, The Simpsons allows white viewers to disappear into the notion that they are the real humans, just as the Lord of the Rings films, with their all-white casts, implied to me that I was one of the monsters.
Doing Apu’s accent could at least get me to the store, into the conversation, and maybe onto a movie screen. If white was one default, being a man was another. I was already protected by some borders.
Yet, despite the oppressive framework, sometimes I do dream of how Homer’s story might end a bit more honestly. I imagine the final episode of the final season culminating with the Simpson family standing in the town square with all their other famous friends. In the middle of my imaginary hometown, the sun abruptly turns into a blinding light à la The Truman Show, and when it hits their faces, it uncovers everything about them. They are revealed, to themselves and each other, as white. Building on Utkarsh Ambudkar’s suggestion in the documentary, I picture every single white person behind the camera, from the voice actors to the cartoonists, stepping forward. Suddenly the white audiences across America who have obliviously adored these characters so much would have to look in the mirror at this sea of whiteness and consider the fact that they, too, are white. That their skin color is not the default, but just the one the country chooses to exalt.
Finally, the camera would pan over to a real house, in a real Springfield, at the end of a real cul-de-sac, with a basketball hoop out front. There, in the front yard, would be two older South Asian Americans tending to their flowers, sweeping away the leaves in their driveway. In their hijab and beard and brightly colored clothing, they’d wave at a white woman walking her dog on the sidewalk. She’d meet their eyes and look down, away, pulling on the leash.
The brown people would look at each other, then directly at the camera. Cue the theme song.
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Imran Siddiquee is a writer and filmmaker exploring intersections of race and gender in popular culture. His essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, Salon, and other publications. He was also a founding staff member of The Representation Project.
Editor: Sari Botton