Hank Azaria has apologized for voicing Apu in The Simpsons in his fullest discussion yet of the role, which has drawn widespread accusations of racism in recent years.
Speaking on this week’s episode of the Armchair Expert podcast, the actor — who is white — said, “I apologize for my part” as the Indian American convenience store owner. “Part of me feels I need to go round to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologize,” he added.
Since the release of the 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu, which argues that Apu embodies and perpetuates negative stereotypes about Indian Americans, there has been a heated public debate about the character’s impact on society. Azaria confirmed in January 2020 that he would no longer voice Apu. He later spoke about his journey of self-education during the controversy, admitting that he’d had “a real blind spot” about racism.
Azaria described this process in more detail to Armchair Expert hosts Dax Shepard and Monica Padman (who is Indian American). He spoke about initially feeling defensive, then deciding “to keep my mouth shut until I have some idea what the hell I’m talking about.” He read, took seminars, spoke to Indians and people knowledgeable about racism, and eventually changed his mind about Apu’s implications. As he said:
To me, racism — participating in racism, as in structural racism in this country — is about blind spots. I really didn’t know any better … 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.
And there were very good intentions on all of our parts [on the Simpsons crew], and we tried to do a funny, thoughtful character. Just because there were good intentions doesn’t mean there weren’t real negative consequences to the thing that I’m accountable for.
Azaria went on to say that he thought characters of color should be voiced by actors of color, arguing that they can bring greater authenticity in the role, and adding, “Let’s not take jobs away from people who don’t have enough.” The role of race in voice casting entered the spotlight last year, as white actors walked away from characters of color on high-profile series — including The Simpsons — in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
His views contrast with those of Matt Groening. In an interview with USA Today published in March, the Simpsons creator approved of how Apu has been portrayed in the past. He said:
I think the Apu stories are fantastic, and he’s one of the most nuanced characters on a silly two-dimensional cartoon show. So, yeah, I’m proud of Apu. (Pause.) I’m trying not to open up another chasm of criticism, but it doesn’t matter what I say. I’ll get it anyway.
Groening added that the show is planning “something kind of ambitious” for the character, who has been sidelined since Azaria walked away from the role.
In another interview with the BBC published in February, Groening said, “Times change, but I actually didn’t have a problem with the way we were doing it,” in the context of a discussion about the casting of characters of color. But he added, “Bigotry and racism are still an incredible problem and it’s good to finally go for more equality and representation.”
Last June, the showrunners of The Simpsons committed to no longer having “white actors voice non-white characters.” In September, it was announced that Alex Désert would replace Azaria as the voice of Carl Carlson. In February, Kevin Michael Richardson started voicing Dr. Hibbert instead of Harry Shearer.