Mindy Kaling Spent Her Entire Life Trying to “Unlearn” the Model Minority Myth

The actress and writer talks about her success post The Office and what "women supporting women" really means to her.

We will always, in some part of our hearts, know Mindy Kaling as Kelly Kapoor. Her breakout role on The Office—as the chatty, pop-culture-loving employee who sought attention by any means necessary—is what first introduced most of us to Kaling’s comedic talents as both an actress and screenwriter. However, Kaling has done so much since she left in 2012. She produced, wrote, and starred in her FOX TV series The Mindy Project until 2017, held the same credits for the 2019 film Late Night, and is currently the executive producer and co-writer of the Netflix series Never Have I Ever. Kaling’s success over the years demonstrates the growth in both her personal career and the entertainment industry at large.

When she first started working on The Office in 2004, Kaling, now 42, was the only woman of color on the cast as well as the only woman and woman of color in the writers’ room. Talking to HelloGiggles on the phone in August, Kaling says it was a long process to realize that things didn’t have to be this way. “My entire adult life has been trying to unlearn stuff that I learned as a young woman, like the model minority myth, the myth that there can only be one [minority person],” Kaling says. “These are things that get ingrained in you because there are so few of us who get these kinds of jobs.”

Kaling explains that the minority myth was especially hard to unlearn because at the time, it often wasn’t a myth at all, and she feared she would lose her job if another minority person were hired. “That’s the truth for a lot of people,” she says, “Like when there is more than one minority person, they do get fired because [production is] like, ‘Oh, we have our token, we’re fine.'”

While Kaling says she is “so grateful to” the role of Kelly, she says her experience on The Office also made her more committed to becoming an employer who promotes more diversity so that “people can feel safe in their jobs.” She also adds that because Kelly was a side character (one who stole every scene she was in, to be fair), “it’s been great to be able to write women of color who were central to their stories,” in her work since then.

Though many have voiced criticisms for The Mindy Project falling short in the diversity department (both on-screen and in the writers’ room), Never Have I Ever, which has been renewed for a 3rd Season, is a better example of Kaling working toward her own representation goals, casting several women and people of color in both lead and supporting roles. In April 2019, she tweeted out a casting call for the show, which follows a first-generation Indian-American teenager navigating personal trauma and the awkwardness of high school. “ATTENTION DESI LADIES!” she wrote, seeking three South Asian female actors to audition. 15,000 people responded, Kaling reports, and she ended up casting Tamil-Canadian actress Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in the lead role of Devi Vishwakumar.

“The fact that she went from a girl who was a high schooler in Toronto to then on the cover of Time Magazine and Teen Vogue less than two years later is really incredible,” Kaling says, gushing about star Ramakrishnan. “She’s such a natural; she’s so great on the show and such a great collaborator.”

For Kaling, watching young women whose careers she’s supported achieve success, helps her know that she’s doing something right.

“At the end of my career, I can look back and if I can see someone like [Ramakrishnan] who was so clearly bound for such great things, and if it’s her and a couple of other young people that I’ve been able to help launch their careers, I’ll feel like I did a lot of good work,” she says.

Supporting other women of color is one way for Kaling to pass forward the support that she’s also received in her own career. “One of the biggest ways that I’ve been helped by women in my career is that when I started moving over into producing, the women who have given me my biggest breaks have been women of color,” she says. Kaling specifically names Bela Bajaria, the head of global TV at Netflix. “She was the one who green-lit and actually pitched the idea of the show Never Have I Ever,” Kaling explains. “And you know, it seems like it’s this really specific story about an Indian girl and her family, but she sort of saw it as something that could be way more universal, and she was right.”

This idea of women supporting women is also the main draw behind Kaling’s most recent partnership with T.J.Maxx. As part of the company’s The Maxx You Project, T.J.Maxx launched a new pen pal program called The Change Exchange, which is designed to help connect women with each other so they feel supported as they navigate moments of change in their life. Kaling says she was “psyched” that T.J.Maxx wanted to launch this program and she’s already taken advantage of it herself. “I personally have a pen pal and it is really enriched my life and I’m just so excited to let other women know about it,” she says.

With all the personal changes in her own life over the past year and a half, Kaling says the program has had a great impact on her. “I had a son during COVID. I was raising two kids by myself, trying to school one of them while having two full-time jobs basically and there are a lot of frustrations and stress that goes along with that as well as a lot of joys,” she says. “I felt so isolated and it’s just great to be able to communicate with other women and talk about what we’re going through.”

The Change Exchange program, Kaling says, also provides a sense of intimacy between women. “Like, you’re writing letters to other women,” she explains. “It’s so personal and private and, in hearing about other things that my pen pal is going through, it makes me feel better about my situation, and get advice.”

Participants can sign up for free now through September 20th, 2021 to exchange letters physically or digitally. When signing up, participants are asked to complete a short questionnaire so that the program can match them with the right pen pal. In summary, “It’s like writing in a diary that can talk right back to you,” Kaling says.

When it comes to women supporting women, it’s easy for Kaling to think about the lessons she’ll pass on to her 3-year-old daughter, Katherine. Now that she has a 1-year-old son, Spencer, in the mix, however, Kaling is starting to learn what it looks like to support both her children regardless of gender. While her two children are in very different places developmentally, she says, “The one thing they have in common is I don’t want them to feel like there are rigid boundaries based on what their sex is.”

I want my son to feel like he can be artistic and emotional, and I want my daughter to feel like she can be like strong, she continues, noting how her daughter will not take off her Kobe Bryant Lakers jersey.

This openness around gender fluidity wasn’t how Kaling was raised, she admits, but still, she says, “I want to make sure that [my children] feel like they can be kind of whatever they want and don’t have to follow traditional paths ascribed to their genders.”

So, when it comes to rigid gender rules, racial stereotypes, and competition among women, Kaling is working to rewrite the script—whether that’s in her own personal life as a mom, her career, or on a piece of stationary addressed to her pen pal.