On Skype, from two time zones away, interviewing actress and writer Naomi Ko feels a lot more like checking in with an old friend. I’m barely through testing out the audio when she asks to pause.
“Hold on, “ she says, getting up to close the door. “My roommates have this dog, so if it gets too loud, just let me know.”
The very millennial moment (I had shut the door between me and my own roommate, who was in the process of binge-watching a season of “The Legend of Korra” in one sitting) sets the interview’s tone. Ko, in a lot of ways, showcases the best of what millennials have to offer. She’s aware of where she stands, financially and socially, and uses her skills to create her way through it.
She seems to be doing a good job so far. Ko is only in her mid-twenties and already has experience as an actor, writer and director. She creates a lot of her own material. I ask how she manages to balance so many different kinds of work. The answer comes quickly, with a laugh: no sleep.
Even shooting “Dear White People,” Ko’s first feature-length film, was a multi-fronted event. Ko filmed her scenes during the day and was at theater rehearsal for another show at night. I comment on how long her workday must have been, and she casually throws in that she was also preparing for her sister’s wedding.
The concept of multitasking, though, is practically a prerequisite for working as a millennial, a position that Ko finds as liberating as it is constricting. She brings up her parents, both of whom have “stable and safe” government jobs. “[My father’s] going to have a pension. I don’t think that’s what my father wanted to do, but that’s the life we have. No job is going to offer that kind of job security [for me], not even in the federal government. I don’t need to take the safe route because the safe route no longer exists,” Ko says, shrugging. “We have crippling student debt. We have no social security coming in. We’re in debt, and we’re paying — we’re not going to see the fruits of our labor anytime soon. I’m just going to do what I want to do.”
It’s not hard to get her to talk, and she brings current events into her answers—Ferguson, Minnesota politics. Every once in a while, she asks if it’s okay that she’s saying so much, not because she’s afraid of voicing her opinion but because she’s worried she’s not allowing enough room for a conversation.
“I want to know what you think,” she asserts. Even an interview is an opportunity for her to learn.
I quickly find out that Ko is everything that older generations fear from millennials: smart, versatile, aware and opinionated—qualities she shares with her “Dear White People” character, Sungmi.
Sungmi is one of the minor characters in the film, “It was a lot of me standing there looking angry,” Ko laughs, but has a pivotal role: she encourages the Black students to unite with other people of color on campus and protest the campus’s offensive Halloween party.
“People don’t think Asian Americans are capable of assembly and protesting […] that’s part of the whole model minority stereotype: Asians do really well and assimilate and become doctors and pay taxes and vote Republican,” Ko says. She rolls her eyes a little and hits me with a no-nonsense look. “That’s not what we do.”
Asian American characters on screen, like other minorities, often fall into the representation trap, where the majority of the sparse roles offered to minorities fall into stereotypes, creating a catch 22. In order to get work, Asian actors usually end up playing caricatures. Ko brings up Brenda Song’s Veronica on “Dads“ and Matthew Moy’s Han Lee on “2 Broke Girls” as two examples of ridiculously stereotyped Asian roles.
The “Dear White People” script’s deconstruction of racial stereotypes impressed Ko. In Sungmi’s small amount of screen time, Ko recognized that Sungmi dismantles every Asian American stereotype typically seen in film.
“This girl [Sungmi], she’s great. She’s not a math or science major, she hangs out with non-Asian students, she wears a lip ring, she’s not petite—I’m not petite. She’s opinionated—people don’t think that Asian Americans are opinionated,” Ko says.
Sungmi is the only Asian American character in the movie, and Ko pointed out that even that was a conscious decision that subverted a stereotype.
“That’s why I like “Dear White People.” There aren’t a lot of Asian kids walking around. Good. East Asians do well in academia,” Ko says, before quickly pointing out audiences wouldn’t know that by watching Hollywood’s portrayal of colleges.
“Take “Good Will Hunting.” Are you kidding me? You don’t have any Asians at MIT? I don’t believe that,” Ko says, and I can’t help myself—I start laughing, because I’ve seen “Good Will Hunting”more times than I’d like to admit, and it’s something I’ve never thought twice about. My laughter only encourages her to keep going. “Or ‘Big Bang Theory?’” she goes on. “You’ve got one fucking Indian kid at CalTech? Have you seen the racial diversity reports? CalTech is 43% Asian-American. Don’t feed me this bullshit. Or Silicon Valley? Silicon Valley is Asia in California.”
“Dear White People” held a lot of personal significance for Ko. The film shot in her home state at her alma mater, the University of Minnesota, and Ko found that the film’s theme of identity, especially racial identity, led to revelations about her own identity.
“What ‘Dear White People’ made me [realize] was not necessarily what it meant to be a woman, Korean-American, person of color. I’m already confident in that,” says Ko, who remembers being brought up in the “first wave” of Asian American identity. “Like, figuring out what it means to be Korean or American or Korean-American? That annoys me.”
For Ko, the categories worked differently. She didn’t fit into just one—she described learning to “pass,” to work within several racial identities.
“I’ve always been this chameleon,” Ko told me. “Whatever group I’m in, I fit to the rules of that subculture, but while I’ve been trying to survive in these worlds I was trying to occupy—the white world, the Korean world—some things were not okay. There was a part of me that just repressed a lot of my feelings.”
Ko recalled the first time she acted in plays, back in middle and high school, when she and the other minority student always ended up as villain characters. “We would literally play monsters,” Ko told me, “because that’s what happens when you have two minority students in a sea of white.” There was also the time during her freshman year in college, when a person on her floor dressed up as a geisha for Halloween.
“I really need it to stop—the amount of cultural appropriation and racist costumes is just — I’m just done. I’m just done with Halloween, unless you’re going to dress up like a Power Ranger, in which case, good for you, then I support Halloween,” Ko says. She has an excellent live tweet stream of the Power Rangers movie, which I highly recommend. “Working on ‘Dear White People’ five years later, I realized why I was angry. It wasn’t just ‘you’re a dumb fuck’—it was the inherent racism I was seeing.”
Ko is quick to point out that the same millennial qualities that make the generation so creative bleed over into a new type of racism, a subtler, less conscious kind. And no, don’t call it a “microaggression”—she hates that term because it downplays the fact that the acts are still aggressive and racist, regardless of whether the individual performing the act is aware of that fact or not.
“The thing is, in the 60’s, you knew who your friends were,” Ko says. “That’s the problem. My dad was telling me—because my dad served in the U.S. Army—and I remember him and I talking about racism. He said, ‘You didn’t have it bad like I did. Nobody ever called you a chink, gook, or Jap. . . it’s different. Look at me. Look at the cars we drive. Look at, you know, the sports you are able to participate in.”
“Jap” actually did happen, when Ko was in sixth grade and the Pearl Harbor film had just come out. A boy in her class called her the name, and she punched him in the face.
The reason why subterfuge forms of racism is even more of a problem is that it operates on a subconscious level, hitting people in ways they don’t expect. Further, the people proliferating the racist remarks may not be aware that they’re using them.
“Millennials are very smart, and we’re very dangerous in that way because we’re very well educated and talented in many things. That’s how racism is evolving. . .they know how to hit you with racism in a different way that they may not even know they’re consciously doing,” Ko says. “Like Ferguson? You just shot a Black unarmed boy. There’s going to be an immediate repercussion. The accepted form [of racism] is not being blatantly honest anymore.”
Other types of racism don’t have as clear of a definition — and therefore, no prescribed response. Ko recalls working to register voters with the Minnesota Secretary of State and repeatedly getting asked where she was “from,” despite her repeated answer that she was born in Minnesota.
“I realized — they really didn’t care what city I was from,” Ko says. “I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of telling them that my parents immigrated from South Korea.”
Ko, who’s studied in Norway and speaks Norwegian, told them that she was from Norway “just to fuck with them.” Looking back, Ko wishes she’d been more proactive.
“We [millennial women of color] want to show our intelligence by being witty, by being funny but the reality is that they may never know what fucking hit them, and they may never realize it,” Ko says. “If you imply that I am not an American by constantly repeating and asking where I’m from, constantly reminding me that my parents are immigrants, constantly reminding me that my parents don’t have blonde hair and blue eyes, that’s still a form of racism. That’s still a way to tear me down. But guess what? It’s a smart way to tear someone who looks like me down because I don’t notice it right away, and that frustrates me.”
Tongue-in-cheek, “Dear White People” addresses racism for a post-Obama world. Ko loved working on the film because she knew that the entire cast understood the story and had a deep connection to the characters because their situations were so relatable.
“I was excited to work on this film because, you know, I’ve never done onscreen work until “Dear White People,” blah, blah, blah,” Ko says. She briefly recounts her audition process—running into a casting call for “people of color” for “Dear White People,” auditioning for her part in front of writer/director/producer Justin Simien and producer Angel Lopez and getting the part the next day. She quickly pushes aside the self-recognized “fairy tale” parts of her audition process in favor of the larger significance the film held for the cast.
“I’m glad because this work is everything we’ve all been itching to do. There’s this part of it — we’re going to play great roles, roles that are not rooted in type and in stereotypes,” says Ko. “They’re humans first. The fact that all of us have a deep connection to this story, the fact that every single one of us has a deep connection to the characters [. . .] there was never any backlash because everything we saw [our characters] do, we could relate to.”
It’s one hell of an experience for Ko’s first film — professionally and personally.
“Thanks, Justin [Simien]!” she laughs, throwing up her hands. “No, thanks at the same time. Thanks for enlightening, but thanks for making me look back all those years because it used to be very easy for me.”
Ko’s second feature-length film, “The Public Domain,” has just been submitted to several independent film festivals. The film, which is slated for release in 2015, focuses on the connections that develop between four strangers, all survivors of the I35-W Bridge collapse in Minnesota in 2007, who gather in a bar called The Public Domain.
Working on the film was a good experience, Ko tells me, but it wasn’t the atmosphere of “Dear White People.” “Filming ‘Dear White People,’ even though we had such a diverse cast, none of us had to prove ourselves,” Ko says. “It wasn’t that this film was a bad experience at all. It was just a different atmosphere.”
The film’s focus on Minnesota seems to suit Ko, who is the first to bring up Minnesota’s flaws but also has a lot of state pride. Her indirect comments on the state have me rethinking where I want to go for my next vacation, and I’ve spent my entire life in the South.
Not one to stay still, Ko has also just completed a performance in Philadelphia at the 2014 National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival. The mostly-improv show, which Ko co-wrote with Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay and May Lee-Yang, is called FAWK, which stands for Funny Asian Women….K. “We really just wanted it to sound like ‘fuck’,” Ko laughs.
“The root of the problem isn’t [Asian American actors]. It’s the content created for them. That’s why I’m a content creator,” Ko says. “I know the reality of my situation. I have to do it myself.”
“Millennials are so for change. All we want is change. We’re so eager for change, but you have to be willing to change the conversation and to adapt to this new world that we’re living in,” says Ko.
It’s that active and adaptive attitude that drives Ko to keep pursuing her art on so many fronts, an attitude that she hopes becomes a trend among others in her generation.
Naomi Ko is currently working on a series of her own projects with two of her favorite writing partners.
You can catch Ko in Justin Simien’s “Dear White People,” which opens Friday, October 17 in select theatres and Friday, October 24 nationwide. Tickets for the film are now available for pre-purchase and fan gear, including the book inspired by the film and written by Simien can be ordered from the film’s online store.