(CBS NEWS) — Hank Azaria, the White actor who famously voiced the controversial Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on “The Simpsons,” says he wants to apologize to “every single Indian person” for the character’s racist portrayal.
The show, which has fueled racial stereotypes of Indian immigrants for decades through the Springfield Kwik-E-Mart owner, has faced backlash for years, heightened by the 2017 documentary, “The Problem with Apu.” Azaria felt the brunt of the backlash for voicing a person of color with a fake Indian accent.
Speaking on Dax Shepard and Monica Padman’s podcast “Armchair Expert” on Monday, Azaria said that he spent time listening and learning about the character and his role in perpetuating racism before ultimately stepping away from the role. He said he “really didn’t know any better” before.
He credited getting sober as an important factor in recognizing the damaging nature of the character and having the tools to address it. He said he continues to educate himself.
“This was not a two-week process — I needed to educate myself a lot,” he said. “If I had not gotten sober, I promise you it wouldn’t have taken much wine for me to be in my feelings one night and fire off a tweet that I felt justified in firing off. Some kind of defensive, white-fragile tweet. Boy, was I glad I had a system in place where I could look at this thing.”
“I really do apologize,” Azaria said, also personally apologizing to Padman, who is the daughter of Indian immigrants. “I know you weren’t asking for that, but it’s important. I apologize for my part in creating that and participating in that. Part of me feels like I need to go to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologize. And sometimes I do.”
Azaria spoke with many Indian Americans to learn more about his character’s impacts, but one high school student left a particularly strong impact on him.
“I was speaking at my son’s school, I was talking to the Indian kids there because I wanted to get their input,” Azaria said. “A 17-year-old — he’s never even seen ‘The Simpsons’ but knows what Apu means. It’s practically a slur at this point. All he knows is that is how his people are thought of and represented to many people in this country.”
“With tears in his eyes,” the boy asked Azaria to tell the writers that their characters have impacts on people’s lives. He said he would tell them.
Azaria said that he now supports people of color voicing characters of color, as well as more diverse writers’ rooms.
“If it’s an Indian character, or a Latinx character, or a Black character, please, let’s have that person voice the character,” he concludes. “It’s more authentic, they’ll bring their experience to it, and let’s not take jobs away from people who don’t have enough.”