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Comedian Hari Kondabolu discusses stereotyping of South Asians in media

Hari Kondabolu speaks on Monday in the Carolina Union's Great Hall about the mischaracterization of South Asians in American media. This talk was the final event in a series sponsored by the Carolina Asia Center called “From Dave Carson to Apu: Global Circulations of Indian Brown Voice and Brownface."

Hari Kondabolu, comedian and creator of the documentary “The Problem with Apu,” spoke about the mischaracterization and stereotyping of South Asians in American media and beyond Monday in the Carolina Union's Great Hall.

This discussion was the final event in a Carolina Asia Center series called “From Dave Carson to Apu: Global Circulations of Indian Brown Voice and Brownface," organized by Pamela Lothspeich, coordinator and adviser for South Asia Program, DAMES.

Lothspeich said in an interview with The Daily Tar Heel that she was inspired by Kondabolu’s documentary and her students' shared experiences in organizing this series.

"The Problem with Apu'' discusses the portrayal of an Indian American character in the popular television show, “The Simpsons.'' Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is voiced by white American actor Hank Azaria, who puts on a heavy, stereotypical Indian American accent. Throughout the show, the character also plays into other generalizations.

“He was the only character that existed for a good chunk of my life, definitely throughout my childhood,” Kondabolu said.

Representation in the media

Stereotypical representations of South Asian American television characters can encourage teasing and alienation for the younger generation, Kondabolu said.

First-year Anshu Shah, who attended the event, said that other modern Disney characters like Ravi from "Jessie" and Baljeet from "Phineas and Ferb" continue to portray a similar stereotype to Apu.

Shah said that he was often associated with these characters in elementary and middle school and that these characters affected how other students viewed him and his Indian American friends.

Kondabolu said that media companies often create racist characters like Apu to appeal to white audiences' humor. He said that racism, as perpetuated by these characters, is often underplayed because of the humor it sparks.

“When something is effective as art, it's like propaganda," Kondabolu said. "It spreads messages, and you ignore it because you laugh." 

Madhavi Reddi, a PhD student in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media studying identity and representation in entertainment media and politics, also attended the event. 

“There are different ways to maintain white superiority," Reddi said. "One of them is to marginalize via humor."

Panel discussion

For a larger conversation about racism in the media, Kumi Silva, an associate professor in the Department of Communication, and Kellen Hoxworth, an assistant professor in the School of Theatre at Florida State University, joined Kondabolu for a panel discussion at the end of the event.

Silva said the creation of Apu's character came at a time when India started to gain more influence as an international power and as trade liberalization happened in the country.

“Popular culture is a reflection that kind of shows us the anxieties of American culture,” she said.

Hoxworth also said the misrepresentations of Asian Americans in the media can also perpetuate anti-Asian violence.

“There's a way in which they are seen as vulnerable to this kind of violence,” Hoxworth said.

When people view a demographic with one TV character or stereotype in mind, it also perpetuates the division between that minority group and the majority, Reddi said.

“Your whole opinion is based on what you've seen on screen,” she said.

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Kondabolu said that many actors and media outlets have recently taken responsibility for these misrepresentations of Asian Americans. But he believes many of them do not give credit to the Asian Americans who have shared their experiences to spread education.

“There is a history in this country of white people not acknowledging the labor of people of color, whether that's physical, emotional or intellectual,” he said.

Kondabolu spoke about progress in the media industry for people of color.

"I also want to say that right now is the golden age for writers and comedians and actors in general," he said. "But especially if you're in a marginalized group, because people want the stories."

Kondabolu said although it is still easier for white Americans to succeed in the media, there are roles and shows that provide opportunities for Asian American people.

“​​It is a really exciting time to be someone who historically hasn't been heard," he said. "Because now you have the chance to be heard." I