What’s missing in the discussion about race sparked by Apu in ‘The Simpsons’

Comedian Hari Kondabolu. Photo:Twitter @harikondabolu

For the first time since Hari Kondabolu called out Hank Azaria, a White man, for his damaging work as the voice of the South Asian character Apu on the “The Simpsons,” the two comedians recently spoke about reckoning with race and representation in American culture. Azaria accepted responsibility for propagating “dehumanizing” stereotypes and now seeks to make amends.

But the historic instability of racial categories in the United States adds additional layers of complexity, irony and erasure to the story.

A century ago, “race science” thinking momentarily resulted in the U.S. government recognizing South Asians as “white by law” while calling into question the whiteness of Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman Empire, those who share Azaria’s family’s background. This history reminds us that U.S. racial hierarchies did not develop based on perceptions of biology or appearance alone, but rather as cultural, political and legal constructs that have morphed over the generations, redrawing the lines between “White” and “not White” along the way. These processes explain how Azaria and Kondabolu – and their communities – have found themselves on different sides of the “color line” today. Even now, those positions may not be permanent.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 declared that only a “free white person” was eligible to become a U.S. citizen. After the Civil War, those “of African nativity” were added. This legal reality meant that until racial prerequisites ended altogether in 1952, courts continued to adjudicate the question of who counted as “White” for the purposes of naturalization for all others.

Kondabolu began his career in Seattle, coincidentally the same city where intellectual Bhagat Singh Thind arrived from Punjab, India, in 1913, which eventually led to a major naturalization test case. After serving in the U.S. military during World War I, Thind invoked the logic of race science to claim that, as a high caste Sikh descended from the original Aryans, he was “Caucasian” and thus White and eligible for naturalization.

He echoed the Dillingham Commission’s “Dictionary of Races and Peoples,” which contributed to the restrictive immigration quotas imposed by Congress in 1924 by ranking people of the world from “most” to “least desirable.” It included South Asians – “Hindus” – among “Caucasians,” who were ranked higher (Whiter) than “Hebrews” or “Turks.” Despite the “scientific” ranking, the commission described East Indians as “the least desirable race of immigrants.”

A lower court accepted Thind’s “scientific” arguments and granted him citizenship, a major development for the 6,400 Asian Indians in the United States by 1920. But the Supreme Court overturned the ruling in 1923 as part of a series of landmark decisions that discarded “scientific evidence” for determining who was White and instead relied on “common knowledge.” Dozens of South Asians were denaturalized. In 1936, Thind belatedly became a U.S. citizen through a new law that naturalized U.S. Army veterans regardless of race.

Ironically, Azaria’s own family’s history shows how Sephardic Jews became ensnarled by the same legal regimes as South Asians such as Thind. When Sephardic Jews arrived from the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) – when Azaria’s grandparents fled their native Salonika (Thessaloniki, in today’s Greece) – U.S. immigration authorities debated how to classify the newcomers, who numbered about 60,000 by 1924. In contrast, Ashkenazi Jews from Central or Eastern Europe didn’t face questions about their eligibility for naturalization. (Although they did become targets of immigration restriction, discrimination and claims that they weren’t White, in other domains.)

As descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, most Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, a Spanish-based hybrid language written in Hebrew letters; some also spoke French, Greek or Arabic. None spoke Yiddish nor did they have names, customs or appearances associated with mainstream American Jews.

U.S. officials classified Azaria’s grandparents as “Hebrews” by race and “Turks” by nationality. But others were classified by race as Turks, Greeks, Mexicans or Syrians. Their varied appearances also made them difficult to categorize, as a social worker noted in 1937: “While many of these people have finely chiseled faces and creamy complexions, others are as dark-skinned as Negroes but do not have their broad features. Some resemble the Arabs while others look exactly like East Indians.”

Those from the Ottoman Empire – a liminal zone in the eastern Mediterranean that traversed the geographic borders between Europe, Asia and Africa – tested the precarious boundaries between “White” and “not White.” The Dillingham Commission in 1911 had classified “Turks” as “Asiatic” rather than White.

When “Turkish Jews,” such as the Azarias, entered New York’s garment industry, commentators decried an “invasion” from “Western Asiatic countries.” Obstacles notwithstanding, Azaria’s grandfather, Haim Azaria, became a dress manufacturer and a founder of the Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America.

An Ottoman national, Haim Azaria applied for U.S. naturalization in 1922. In 1923, New York’s Ladino weekly announced his marriage to Sarina Corkidi, from Izmir. Shortly after the wedding, however, Haim’s naturalization petition was denied on the grounds that he was “not well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States.”

Naturalization officials deployed this justification at their whim to exclude bootleggers, communists, pacifists, “enemy aliens,” those who did not pay parking tickets and others, including some from Turkey, an alleged hotbed of “Oriental despotism” antithetical to American values and a country with which the United States did not have diplomatic relations (1917-1927).

After moving to the Bronx, he finally became naturalized in 1936 – the same year as Thind.

Many from the Ottoman Empire sought to secure their position in the United States by distancing themselves from Turks, the Orient and Islam. Armenians and Syrians claimed that their status as Christians rendered them legally White. Even Turkish-speaking Muslims posed as Armenians, whereas South Asians sometimes tried to pass as “Turks.” Sephardic Jews recast themselves not as “Turkish,” “Levantine” or “Oriental” but rather “Spanish” Jews, to plant themselves in Europe, to claim status as White and to make themselves seem legible in American society.

For the purposes of naturalization, racial classifications lost some legal weight after 1952 when racial prerequisites ended. Already by 1946, Indians and Chinese became eligible for naturalization as the United States sought to court allies against Japan. As the Cold War escalated, the United States tried to position itself as an “open” country in contrast to the Soviet Union, leading to the 1965 Immigration Act, which ended nationality quotas.

The new laws did not upend the distinction between “desirable” and “undesirable” immigrants, but rather changed the criteria by prioritizing visas for “qualified immigrants,” especially those in “the professions,” such as science and medicine. This change provided unprecedented opportunities for the well-educated from around the world – including from India – while barring “unskilled” laborers. Kondabolu’s parents, a botanist and a physician, probably benefited from the new system to enter the United States in 1978.

U.S. policies and culture continue to shape racial categories, which remain fluid and subject to change over time. Both “Jewish” and “Hindu” have moved from racial to religious designations. Yet the character of Apu on “The Simpsons” represents just one of myriad ways in which the racialization of South Asians continues.

As a subgroup, Sephardic Jews have also remained somewhat racially unrecognized by American culture. The late-night television host Larry King expressed shock upon learning that Azaria was Jewish. During the Apu controversy, Jewish media commentary did not notice Azaria’s Sephardic background. And Indian American Mindy Kaling’s sitcom even featured a scene at a Jewish camp where Mindy is assumed to be “Sephardic.”

This ambiguity has also fed Sephardic actors’ ability to play “ethnic” roles. Azaria channeled his Sephardic grandmother to play a Guatemalan butler in “The Birdcage.” Shelley Morrison (nee Rachel Mitrani) played the Salvadoran maid on “Will and Grace.” And Brian George played the Pakistani restaurateur in “Seinfeld.” The audience has no idea of the actors’ backgrounds.

This context doesn’t justify Azaria doing “brown voice” for Apu, nor does it suggest that Azaria should not be considered White. He is White and there is more to the story – a story both about shifting racial categories and the performance of racial identities.

The vortex of American whiteness has absorbed many communities whose racial status was once questioned (even as antisemites and white nationalists would not accept White Jews, such as Azaria, as White).

Today it is difficult to imagine a time when some of those communities might not have been considered White and to anticipate which groups might be coaxed to join next. Was, to paraphrase James Baldwin, the “price of whiteness” for Sephardic Jews their own erasure? Could the reclamation of a consciousness as “other” inspire the creation of the first Sephardic American protagonist on the screen – and prevent the making of future Apus?

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Devin E. Naar  PHOTO: courtesy The Washington Post

Devin E. Naar is an associate professor of Jewish studies and history and founder and chair of the Sephardic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. His first book, “Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Modern Greece,” won a National Jewish Book Award.



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