There are a lot of characters on the path to self-discovery on Netflix’s Dear White People, but perhaps the one with the biggest arc is Colandrea “Coco” Conners, played by Antoinette Robertson.
“She evolves into the Coco that understands that she doesn’t need to be behind anyone,” said Robertson. “She’s powerful and a force on her own, but she had to evolve into that space.”
And one of the most important symbols for Coco is her hair, which goes on its own journey in the first season as well.
“[In a flashback] when you see Young Coco get thrown the doll that’s dark-skinned and she’s being told that that’s ugly, I feel like it’s symbolic the way that the world has a tendency to force Eurocentric ideals of beauty on African American women. She changes her hair completely freshman year to get [Troy’s] attention. The thought process wasn’t that Coco had a problem with her own hair. It was the images she was being fed were telling her she wasn’t good enough.”
Eventually, she and Troy (Brandon P Bell) start to date, and when her weave falls off in bed, she’s humiliated. But when Troy tells her he digs the girl underneath the weave, Coco discovers she didn’t need to do all of those things to get his attention.
“It’s interesting because we all go through paths of self-discovery where we realize what the world expects from us and what our parents expect from us and what we expect from ourselves and we don’t necessarily have to conform to any of them. The most important thing is that we live our truth.”
For the first half of the series, Coco is determined to be Troy’s Jackie O. As a student who tells people she’s from Evanston, Illinois, when she’s really from rougher parts of Chicago, Coco at first sees success as being arm candy.
“Like any girl in college, she doesn’t necessarily know what she wants, but being with the archetype of a Troy is what entices her more than anything. The idea of being that power couple. Because they’re both defined by men, at first glance you think you want to be with that guy because of the idea of success and what it represents and then you realize you’re powerful within your own right and you don’t need him to define you.”
One of the most powerful moments for Coco, and the series as a whole, is when she tells Troy that she’s smarter than him. Typically, rebuffed women in TV and film retreat when scorned, but she rises up, telling him that she expects to be the second black female president in her lifetime.
“She had to reflect and understand. I’m running around trying to get your attention, and I’m better than you. She needed to have that moment where she could walk away from something that didn’t serve her. Why would I subject myself to not being treated properly?”
Coco goes from wanting to be Jackie O to realizing her own power.
“Originally the idea of power means I need to be on this person’s arm, I need to look this way, I need to be this way because that’s what expected of me. And then when women begin to own their power, they start to understand the things that make us unique are what we should be embracing, that’s when you start to own your power and become a force.”
In addition to Troy, someone else Coco clashes with is her one-time friend Sam (Logan Browning). The series examines the rise and fall of their friendship in a heartbreaking episode.
“People gravitate toward each other for different reasons, and I feel like Sam and Coco didn’t quite understand each other. Their viewpoints on things and how they feel about everything was different. It’s just a lack of understanding, attributed to youth sometimes, where you can’t see a perspective outside of your own.”
Coco and Sam’s rivalry highlights uncomfortable truths within black culture, involving light skin versus dark skin.
“Coco is fighting to be seen as a black woman who’s articulate and beautiful and not just a black woman and all the negative stereotypes that come with that. And Sam is fighting to be seen as a woman of color, but if you’re not white and you’re not black and you’re in-between and not being embraced by either community, then you might be more pro-black so that people think you’re down. You might try to appease different communities so that you can feel a part of something.”
When it comes to fighting back, Sam is more vocal, while Coco’s means of survival might be seen as more controversial.
“Everyone wants to feel a part of something. Coco has always had the thought process that survival was the way to create change, and if assimilation is what it is, then that’s her means of survival. If success looks like a weave and Polo clothing, then that’s what it is. I just need to get in the door for people to see what I can and cannot do so I can create lasting change when I get my seat at the table.”
Robertson herself has certainly gotten her seat as a stand-out on the Netflix series, something she knew she could bring to the table with the role.
“We’ve never seen a character like this before, and if it’s done right, it could be legendary.”
Robertson has the distinction of appearing in two of the most talked-about TV series of the last year, including FX’s Atlanta.
“It’s been a whirlwind and a beautiful experience. I’m definitely reaping the blessings of seeds my grandmother sowed so long ago. She prays for me every day at 6 o’clock in the morning. Even now, it’s really surreal, and I’m super grateful because I love, love, love acting. I love creating these characters and bringing people’s truth to life.”
For Robertson, playing Coco has felt like being a kid in a candy store when it comes to opportunities.
“You’re really going to let me do this?” she said between squeals on the phone. “They don’t even know what they did—but they know now!”
Spoken like a true Coco.