In “Dear White People” -- a film that takes an unflinching look at race in America -- Naomi Ko is the most visible Asian American in a story focusing largely on White and Black Americans. And though she appears on-screen infrequently, her very presence casts her as a kind of unifier.
In the movie’s central event--where Whites have a party to do the “Black thing” for Halloween -- Ko, as the character Sungmi, chimes in to organize the protest against it. At her suggestion, the Asian-American and Latino students on campus rally together, against the party.
Ko saw the role as an opportunity to break an important stereotype.
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“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 told reporter Kylee McIntyre for the Visibility Project. “(Protest), that’s not what we do.”
Korean-American Ko and Sungmi are actually a lot alike, the actress said.
“Working on ‘Dear White People’ five years later, I realized why I was angry...It was the inherent racism I was seeing.”
“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 told McIntyre.
The film was shot at Ko’s alma mater, the University of Minnesota. Working there reminded her of an incident during her freshman year, when a fellow student dressed up as a geisha for Halloween.
“Working on ‘Dear White People’ five years later, I realized why I was angry," said Ko. "It was the inherent racism I was seeing.”
“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 said.