CNN misses the point of the 7-Eleven Apu Simpsons controversy

Update: Thanks to tstorm for the YouTube video!

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

I tuned in last night to watch the Paula Zahn Now segment on the Simpsons movie promotion in which they are turning 7-Elevens into Kwik-E-Marts, and was very disappointed.

They basically decided to play it for laughs. I tried to find a video online but couldn’t (if anyone finds one, please post a link in the comments) but you can read the transcript here, it starts about halfway down the page.

However, the transcript doesn’t capture the chirpy tone of the entire segment. From Paula Zahn’s Cheshire Cat-like grin as she introduced it, to Allan Chernoff’s overly-jaunty tone in the voice-over, it was clear that the message was: these hypersensitive desis need to lighten the fuck up.

I’m surprised they restrained themselves from adding some comical, farty tuba tune in the background. You know, the kind of music they play on reality shows whenever someone is about to do or say something really stupid.

It’s great that they interviewed Manish from the blog Ultrabrown, whose post on 7-Eleven I cross-posted here last week but unfortunately, because this is television news, he was reduced to a single [albeit good] soundbite: “This is a very stereotyped, racist caricature of an Indian-American. And, with the 7-Eleven promotion, it is the first time this has jumped into the real world.”

The segment was followed by a discussion with Laura Flanders, a radio host on Air America; Robert Traynham, a Republican strategist; and Julie Roginsky, a Democratic strategist.

First of all, they couldn’t find a single South Asian activist, academic, writer, or politician to address this issue?

Secondly, the discussion was inane. Everyone basically downplayed the significance of this racist caricature, and Traynham, a black man, summed it up thus: “…it’s one of those things where frankly it just makes me feel uneasy, but I’m not Indian-American.”

In other words, racism that is not directed against him is not his problem.

Everyone on the show missed the point. The reason Apu and other racist caricatures are so troubling is because they reduce people to two-dimensional stereotypes, denying them their humanity.

If a gunman holds up a 7-Eleven store and sees a South Asian man behind the counter, and thinks of him as “just an Apu” instead of an actual human being with friends and family and hopes and dreams and feelings, it makes it that much easier to pull the trigger, doesn’t it?

Using racist stereotypes to dehumanize entire peoples has been an effective political strategy for centuries. If you can engrain these stereotypes into the public consciousness using popular culture and the media, even better. Exhibit A: giant Negroes. Exhibit B: rat-eating Chinamen.