How communities help ethnic stereotypes live on

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Sabrina Almeida

Around two weeks ago, media reported that Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the controversial cartoon character in The Simpsons, would slowly be phased out after a three-decade run. The exaggerated accent of the convenience store owner provoked the ire of many South Asians and producers axed the character to avoid further controversy.

However, it’s no reason to celebrate as we are likely to continue seeing these stereotype portrayals in Western films and television. Critics say it is largely what the mainstream audience wants to see… Indian taxi drivers, Muslim terrorists, African gangsters and South American drug lords.

It may surprise many to learn that comedian Hari Kondabolu, the man behind ‘The Problem with Apu’ documentary, has been trolled ever since the news broke. In an interview to a media outlet he revealed that he had received nasty messages and threats to eliminate his whole family from individuals who believe he is responsible for Apu’s departure.

While Kondabolu and many first-generation immigrants hold the “white man” responsible for ethnic stereotypes, and they are the source of it, communities must accept their part in allowing them to continue. After all, Russell Peters has carte blanche to make crude jokes about the Indians in an exaggerated accent… and laugh his way to the bank. His shows are also televised on prominent mainstream outlets. But that’s okay because he is from the community, right? And what about other celebrities from ethnic communities who play these stereotypical characters? At least Ms. Priyanka Chopra had the gumption to say no. Judging from her meteoric rise, the refusal didn’t affect her Hollywood career. Surely, they could have had a positive influence in the matter.

In 2014, CBC raised this very same issue in a special report. “The Hundred-Foot Journey’ with Om Puri had just released and I was asked to share how I felt about the stereotypical portrayal of verbose, curry-perfumed Indian characters. Four years later we are still talking about it. So, I decided to look at it from the other side!!! Perhaps media is just mirroring what they see.

The answer is as troubling as the stereotypes we confront. Many second-generation South Asians will use the exaggerated accent to poke fun at their parents, older relatives and new immigrants. It makes me mad because no one in my social circle talks that way. But I’ve realized that my observation may not be accurate because I’m accustomed to hearing it. For example, many who worship at my church complain about the thick South Indian accent our priests have. While I jump to their defence citing all the other foreign accents in Canada, it doesn’t change the fact that it is true. A friend of Indian-origin but born and raised in Kenya shared the difficulty she had understanding them. She wasn’t being judgemental and definitely not racist. She just wasn’t accustomed to the accent having never been to India.

Our kids could also be accused of perpetuating these stereotypes by their attitude to those born and raised outside the country. But when they narrate their experiences with the people I want to defend, I can’t help but see their point of view. Many Indian immigrants have yet to discover deodorants or invest in an exhaust system that will eliminate the strong smell of curry from their clothes. Nor do they respect personal boundaries or have any civic sense. What’s more they don’t hesitate to ridicule other communities and in public which makes their offspring want to bolt out the door.

Those that have adopted some Western ways are quick to distance themselves from the ones who haven’t mentally checked out from the home country yet. Of late more than one friend from Brampton expressed their desire to move out frustrated by the annoying habits of the growing Indian community there. If they have no stomach for it, what about the ‘white guy’?
Indian cinema is as stereotyped in its portrayal of Westerners and Africans as Hollywood. With the former typically depicted with scanty clothing, cigarette in hand and easy. The latter are relegated to roles of villains. Let’s not forget the anti-Nigerian sentiment here.

The best way to erase stereotypes is to step out of our ethnic ghettos and the ‘them versus us culture’ that engulfs us here. It’s also time to step up our game. If we were miffed at our prime minister for wearing ethnic clothing to functions in India surely the same rule applies to us here? And lastly let’s not hesitate to acknowledge our failure to assimilate. Didn’t we really come to the West to continue being ‘Indian’? And more Indian than those we left behind in the home country??? -CINEWS

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