Sandra Oh recently did a phone interview with Vulture to talk about her new BBC America thriller Killing Eve—but it’s what she said about racism that I cannot seem to get out of my head.
The Q&A begins like most others, giving some backstory on Oh’s scene-stealing role as Dr. Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy and detailing how Killing Eve represents her return to a major television series. Oh discusses her latest character, MI5 officer Eve Porowski, how the script for the show came to her and the opportunities she’s gotten post-Grey‘s. But then, things get incredibly real.
In talking about her motivation to build and shape her career on her own terms, Oh was frank, saying, “not only is shit hard, it’s extremely unfair. And racism exists. Let’s start there.”
For me, that’s the point where the interview becomes essential reading.
To be clear, the 46-year-old actor and I have very little in common aside from the fact that she went to high school in the same Ottawa neighbourhood where I grew up and a few years later, Grey’s Anatomy was a formative TV show for both of us. Her words in Vulture, however, felt like a direct reminder that being a person of colour in media sometimes requires us to speak out about our lived experience. And in the discussion that followed, she demonstrated exactly the impact that can have.
“One thing I will share with you—when I got the script for Killing Eve, I remember I was walking around in Brooklyn and I was on my phone with my agent, Nancy. I was quickly scrolling down the script, and I can’t really tell you what I was looking for. So I’m like, ‘So Nancy, I don’t understand, what’s the part?’ And Nancy goes ‘Sweetheart, it’s Eve, it’s Eve.’ In that moment, I did not assume the offer was for Eve. I think about that moment a lot,” Oh told Vulture reporter“It’s like, how does racism define your work? Oh my goodness, I didn’t even assume when being offered something that I would be one of the central storytellers. Why? And this is me talking, right? After being told to see things a certain way for decades, you realize, ‘Oh my god! They brainwashed me!’ I was brainwashed! So that was a revelation to me.”
The moment that Oh describes is why I have to keep reading this passage over and over. I was never raised to view my skin colour or cultural background as a barrier. I could do anything I wanted. But as I started my career as a journalist and began thinking more critically about diversity and inclusion, I realized that in some instances, I’ve still been seen as the “Indian writer.” Like Oh, I’ve had to do a lot of unlearning, reflecting on my experiences and realizing that many weren’t normal, but a product of a system where I am situated as a minority. It’s for these reasons that I find myself clicking on pieces that discuss inclusion, diversity and racism—topics that I am still trying to truly understand within my own life.
Oh’s interview is particularly timely given the recent discussions in Canadian politics about whether systemic racism exists in Canada (spoiler alert: it does). As Bustle put it, the actor’s quote is a heartbreaking reminder that internalize racism is real.
The interview is also a poignant moment between a Korean-Canadian actress and a Korean-American journalist. Jung later tweeted that the moment that Oh shared with him made him burst into tears—and tbh, that made me catch feels all over again.
— E. Alex Jung (@e_alexjung) April 9, 2018
But in true Cristina Yang fashion, now that Oh has realized just how much she had internalized messages about who gets to be the star versus who is only supporting role-worthy, she’s now working to unlearn those lessons.
“I felt it, and I have felt it deeply. And I’m extremely fortunate. So I’m not going to not say that it’s not there, because it is,” says Oh. “But it’s changing the mindset that being an actor of colour, person of colour, that you’re at a disadvantage in the creative life. That you don’t have opportunity. It’s all how you see the opportunity.”
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