It was the one thing I dreaded after people found out where I – that is, my Indian parents – was “really” from.
“Birdy num num,” with a wiggle of the head.
If it wasn’t hilarious the first time, you can imagine it every time my ethnicity came up.
Although, having been born and brought up in Australia, I speak with as Striney an accent as anyone else raised here, that imitation of Peter Sellers in blackface, playing the caricature of a bumbling Indian in The Party was almost as bad as coming straight out and calling me a curry muncher or towelhead.
Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, where, before pioneers like Indira Naidoo or Lee Lin Chin, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me, some of the most popular shows on television were “comedies” like Mind Your Language, a calvacade of racist stereotypes and caricatured accents; or Love Thy Neighbour, in which the black neighbour was regularly called “nig nog”, “Sambo”, “choc-ice” and “King Kong.” Kevin Bloody Wilson’s 1985 album Kev’s Back (Return of the Yobbo), whose hit single Living Next Door to Alan featured lyrics sung in a mock Aboriginal accent, made it the year’s bestselling album, winning the ARIA for Best Comedy Release.
We rightly condemn blackface today, despite a slew of recent blackface scandals, such as Opals basketballer Alice Kunek blacking up as Kanye West or Frankston Bombers and Learmonth Football Club members applying bootpolish to attend fancy dress parties as Aborigines.
But what about blackvoice, where white actors portray non-white characters with the same stereotypical accents?
While white Australian hip-hop performer Iggy Azalea was criticised by many black performers and cultural critics for appropriating a Southern Atlanta “blaccent” as she belted out hits like Fancy, why is it still acceptable that the black character after whom The Cleveland Show is named is voiced by a white actor, Mike Henry?
Or that the entirely white cast of The Simpsons voice characters like the Hispanic Bumblebee Man, the Asian Cookie Kwan, or the Indian Apu Nahasapeemapeliton, rendering all of them cheap, racist stereotypes?
As comedian Hari Kondabulu put it: it’s like ‘a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.’
It’s telling that Hank Azaria, who portrays Apu, recalled that ‘right away [the producers] were like ‘Can you do an Indian accent, and how offensive can you make it?’ Basically, I was like ‘it’s not tremendously accurate. It’s a little, uh, stereotype,’ and they were like “Meh, that’s alright, it’s fine.”’
Watching Azaria “do” the accent live is as confronting as seeing Peter Sellers do it: as comedian Hari Kondabulu put it: it’s like ‘a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.’
Actors like Kal Penn, Kumail Nanjiani and Aziz Ansari have questioned the perpetuation of such stereotypes – especially Ansari in his hit comedy Master of None, which addressed issues of blackface, lack of diversity and “doing the accent” incisively and hilariously, and it’s a question Kondabolu will be asking in the upcoming documentary The Problem with Apu.
The Simpsons is one of my favourite shows ever, and it has skewered many deserving targets, including the network on which it’s shown.
Perhaps, given that it began its record-breaking 28-year run in 1989, Apu – and other such stereotypical caricatures – might be understandable given that such sensitivities weren’t really considered then.
Still, it’s surprising they were only addressed by the show in the recent episode ‘Much Apu About Nothing’ in which Apu’s nephew Jay – actually played by someone of Indian heritage, Utkarsh Ambudkar, sans accent – calls his uncle a ‘stereotype, man. Take a penny, leave a penny. I’m Indian, I do yoga. Why don’t you go back to the Temple of Doom, Dr Jones!’
So why should I be offended by someone like this “doing the accent” when I imitate English, Irish or American accents all the time – and can do a mean impression of my mother – even as, like many people of Subcontinental heritage, I’m ambivalent about “doing” the accent for others’ amusement?
Surely, as some might say – accent or not – it’s a bit hypocritical?
I’ll try to “brownsplain” it.
The reason that blackface and blackvoice are so offensive is because they are freighted with centuries of oppression, discrimination and exploitation.
Blackface recalls the appalling segregation of Jim Crow laws, when black people weren’t permitted to even appear on stage, and their place was taken by white people portraying them in the worst possible way to signify white superiority.
It’s just as insulting to those who suffered such discrimination and fought to overcome it, just as wearing Nazi uniform is to Holocaust survivors and World War Two veterans.
It’s the same for Indians and many other people from the “Third World” – exploited and degraded by colonisation, then marginalised and ridiculed upon immigration. As one 7-11 franchisee so eloquently put it when the company rebranded a number of stores as Kwik E Marts and made Indian workers wear shirts with Apu nametags to promote The Simpsons Movie:
Accepting our portrayal of Apu is nothing less of accepting the images portrayed years ago in the US of black people with very black faces, big lips and white teeth… that image is considered racist so [is] Apu to me.
Many have suggested that the insidious return of blackface – with white actors playing non-white people – is a reaction against “political correctness,” often decried as “madness” by those who’ve often benefited the most from entrenched “political incorrectness” which has marginalised so many.
The best comedy cuts the powerful and bigheaded down to size rather than trampling the rights of the marginalised or powerless.
And it goes right to the heart of what’s wrong with blackvoice.
As Indigenous Australian critic Philip Morrissey points out, many non-white people are often under pressure to produce ‘performative and declaratory forms of dogmatic and static notions’ of ethnicity and authenticity – something, which Miles Franklin-winning author Alexis Wright argues is a myth: ‘a notion held by those least able, and with the least right, to judge. It is a creature of the elite inheritors of our colonial oppressors.’
So what does an “authentic” Indian look or act like? Given that a quarter of the world’s languages are spoken in India, it’s even more difficult than asking who the most “authentic” Englishman or Korean or Australian might be.
Much less people like me, who may look Indian but feel entirely Australian. Being one doesn’t make me less of the other, even if it does seem to reduce me to being The Other.
With calls by many in the industry for greater diversity, and more non-white faces appearing on screen, from Ronnie Chieng to Benjamin Law, Black Comedy to Cleverman – much less Waleed Aly and Chin’s Gold Logie historic nominations and win – showing how far we’ve come, you have to ask: why is Apu – and Bumblebee Guy, and Cookie Kwan, and Luigi, and all those other lazy, hurtful stereotypes like them still here?
There are myriad reasons why birdy num num was always so painful. More than anything, it was a reminder that we weren’t “really from” here and couldn’t ever really be “real” Australians, no matter how hard we tried to be.
That we had to be reminded of our place, as “authentic” Indians, head wobbles and all, behind shop counters and serving in restaurants, even as we and our culture were reduced to tropes of “weirdness” and figures of “fun,” rather than real people with real feelings, deserving of the same respect everyone else around us took as a matter of fact.
The best comedy cuts the powerful and bigheaded down to size rather than trampling the rights of the marginalised or powerless. It challenges and changes perceptions, rather than confirming or exploiting prejudices. It enables us to laugh at ourselves, and appreciate our universal humanity, rather than laughing at others as depersonalised objects of ridicule for no other reason than they look or speak or come from somewhere different to us.
And it’s heartening that shows like Fresh Off the Boat, Black Comedy, The Mindy Project andThe Family Law have been so acclaimed by critics and audiences alike for offering such fresh, personal and different perspectives on the same universal problems of growing up and finding love and our own identity in such funny, insightful and moving ways.
They prove not only that white people don’t need to speak for non-white people, but that audiences love these distinctive voices – voices that were always here but not always heard.
There’s no justification or excuse for blackface. So what’s blackvoice’s?