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Apu Nahasapeemapetilon: Just One Example of Pop Culture Bias

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Apu Nahasapeemapetilon: Just One Example of Pop Culture Bias

In an article for CNN, Lisa Respers France discusses a recent interview with prolific “Simpsons” voice actor Hank Azaria on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Recently there has been a great deal of controversy over one of the many characters Azaria voices: convenience store owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. The character is highly stereotypical of South Asians and Indians in particular. “Nahasapeemapetilon, a Indian-American character with a thick accent, operates the Kwik-E-Mart convenience store in the fictional town of Springfield. The show recently aired a response to complaints about him,” writes France.

In the response episode, the show’s writers – through the character of Lisa Simpson – responds to criticism of the stereotypes promoted by the Apu character by saying, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” The shot then pans to a framed picture of Apu with the phrase “Don’t have a cow” written on it. Unsurprisingly, this response garnered further criticism.

While the show’s creators and writers doubled down and defended the Apu character, the actor that voices Apu – Azaria – expressed a different perspective in his interview with Colbert. “[T]he most important thing is to listen to South Asian people, Indian people in this country when they talk about what they feel and how they think about this character.” Azaria went on to say, “I really want to see Indian, South Asian writer, writers in the room, not in a token way but genuinely informing whatever new direction this character may take, including how it is voiced or not voiced.”

Related: Lessons From Starbucks: Public Displays of Bias

What Azaria is promoting, of course, are diversity and inclusion. He wants to see diversity among the writing staff, “not in a token way but genuinely informing,” the show’s writing. This is an insight that the show’s writers have clearly missed. As America – and the American TV audience – becomes more diverse, media companies can’t turn a blind eye to that diversity. Clearly a segment of the population is upset with the stereotype of South Asians. While the show’s creators blow that concern off, Azaria is promoting greater diversity and inclusion to address it head on.

This issue is instructive for workplaces as well. Over time, things changes, including the demographic makeup of our country, our markets and our workforce. Perspectives, comments, even comedy, that was once considered “okay” (whether or not it should ever have been considered okay…) change over time. Often, those changing perspectives are overlooked through conscious or unconscious bias.

What kinds of hidden bias and perspectives might be at work in your workplaces? Maybe it’s time to find out!

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