Many may recognize Penn as the titular “Kumar” from the “Harold and Kumar” film series. Others might know him as a Dr. Lawrence Kutner from “House.” Current TV heads know him as Seth Wright, the White House press secretary on ABC’s “Designated Survivor.”
A few in Washington know him as a former White House staffer who spent two years as an associate director in the Office of Public Engagement during the Obama administration.
On Saturday, though, he was just a concerned American citizen — a New Jersey-born son of immigrants attacked on social media like so many others — trying to “turn a negative into a positive.”
When President Trump enacted the travel ban on citizens of seven countries, many were left stranded en route in airports or in foreign lands.
Penn’s friend texted him a story of one of the stranded. The father of his acquaintance, an Iraqi, was turned away at LAX after flying in from Qatar, according to the text message.
“I just thought this just seems so un-American, so I posted a screenshot of it [to Instagram],” Penn told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “It just felt wrong the way the president was talking about these human beings as animals who are out to get us.”
Comments started pouring in, most of them offering support and asking how to help. Among them, though, was the usual online trolling faced especially by people of color, telling Penn he doesn’t belong in America.
Though Penn would normally ignore such a comment, it gave him an idea. “Feeling love from the women’s march” and recalling the adage employed by Michelle Obama, “they go low, we go high,” Penn decided to “turn a negative into a positive.”
He started a fundraising page for the IRC, titled, “Donating to Syrian Refugees in the name of the dude who said I don’t belong in America,” hoping to raise $2,500.
“You have people who just want to get a rise of out of you, and lesson number one is just don’t take the bait,” Penn said. “Now we have a president that is always saying these types of things. And that just seems wrong. The majority of us are so good, we’re such a generous country. … [I thought] maybe even an idiot like me with a small Twitter following, maybe we could raise 2,500 bucks in this guy’s name.”
As of early Thursday morning, he has raised more than $825,000 — and donations are still pouring in.
Calling it a “beautiful thing,” Penn said: “It’s insane. I didn’t do anything. I just put the page up. This whole thing has been generated by people who want to show some love to the refugees who were unfortunately prohibited from coming in.”
Penn is no stranger to the tenuous state of American race relations, both through the more obvious venues — the experience of being Indian American; teaching a class titled “Images of Asian Americans in the Media” at the University of Pennsylvania; working in outreach at the White House — and in his work on screen.
Though the “Harold and Kumar” movies were ostensibly slapstick stoner-comedies, there was racial commentary hiding between the bong jokes. While the first film in the series, “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle,” smartly subverted stereotypes of both Asian and Indian Americans, the blunter satire came in the second when the two are locked in Guantanamo Bay after bringing a pot smoking device on an airplane.
In a particularly on-the-nose scene, the duo’s parents are called in for questioning by the U.S. government. During the interrogation, actor Rob Corddry’s deputy secretary of homeland security confuses Kumar’s Indian American parents for Arabs.
When Harold’s parents answer in English a question asked in Korean, an interpreter played by Ed Helms claims “they’re using some sort of dialect I’ve never heard before, but I’m pretty sure he said something about going on the offensive.”
Politically, Penn has always worked toward what he called the “new normal,” a set of beliefs he thinks “are certain things that everyone under 35 believes,” regardless of political affiliation: that civil rights are non-negotiable, that the government should subsidize education, etc.
We all want the same thing things, Penn thinks, even if “we disagree on the size of the government needed to achieve them.”
“I think the weirder part is playing a fictional press secretary on TV while the real one lies,” he said. “In writing the character on the show, in description 101, we share with the writers is rule number one of a press secretary is you just don’t lie. It’s just weird when reality is stranger than your fictional TV world.”
But for the most part, he’s staying positive.
“There are some things that just can’t be undone,” he said, referring to some of the Obama administration’s accomplishments such as bringing “the economy back from the brink of another great depression,” creating several million jobs and repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
And perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a man capable of finding humor in Guantanamo Bay can find hope in the seemingly endless protests occurring on American soil, but that’s exactly what he’s done.
“I’ve seen an uptick in people asking really interesting questions about the consequences of the election,” he told The Post, before relating the story of a friend, a “UVA lacrosse player,” a “fraternity bro,” who sent Penn a Snapchat from a protest in Washington Square Park in New York. He had never protested anything before, but he “felt he needed to.”
Penn, whose own unique path to the White House shows the power of outsiders in politics, hopes everyone will find inspiration in that.
“Don’t be afraid of having the chance to get your voice heard,” he said. “Don’t be scared to show up to some of these things. Bring your friends.”
Added Penn, “There is a strange sort of reassurance in who we are and what we won’t tolerate. It’s the new normal.”
For proof, he simply pointed to the $825,000 and counting in money raised off a single, racist comment.