‘Orange Is the New Black,’ and How We Talk About Race and Identity


Orange Is the New Black, the original Netflix series created by Weeds showrunner Jenji Kohan, has been acclaimed for its portrayal of a diverse array of Black, transgender, Latina, working-class, and immigrant characters. The series, which is based loosely on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, centers around a character named Piper Chapman as she spends time in a minimum security women’s prison.

In an interview with Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross, Kohan described the Piper character as “my Trojan Horse,” explaining that “really fascinating tales of Black women, Latina women, and old women and criminals” are a “hard sell” for networks. Piper, as the “girl next door, the cool blonde,” is a “very easy access point … relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. [She’s] useful.”

Kohan’s comments raise questions about why the stories of marginalized women once again have to be mediated through a white protagonist, and whether a creator of color would be allowed the same opportunities to create the “fascinating tales” that Orange is the New Black (OITNB) has been praised for. It also raises the issue of how Piper and the cast of characters she’s meant to introduce us to read to viewers who are outside the “certain demographic” networks find most desirable.

Piper

Seven episodes into OITNB, I can’t say that I find Piper particularly relatable. But I do find her and many of OITNB’s characters recognizable—especially their intra- and interracial interactions around the nexus of race, gender, and class.

Piper’s privileged self-absorption, the paternalistic, bigoted preferential treatment Piper gets from white male prison counselor Healy, and the incisive awareness with which Black characters like Taystee Jefferson navigate white supremacy, misogyny, and classism all feel authentic, if occasionally heavy-handed. All these things point to the ways in which mundane interpersonal bigotry supports and perpetuates structural inequity.

From the moment Piper steps foot in Litchfield—OITNB’s fictional prison, which is based on the Danbury women’s prison in Connecticut, where Piper Kerman served time—OITNB makes clear that this is a world where no veneer of polite colorblindness papers over racism and racial prejudice. Piper is rudely awakened to this reality when Lorna Morello, a fellow white inmate, concludes Piper’s orientation with a smiling comment: “We look out for our own.” Piper’s visible horror at this candid statement of racist preference is met with amusement: “Oh, don’t get all PC on me. It’s tribal, not racist.”

Over the next several episodes, we see Piper repeatedly appalled by the candid naming of race and bald declarations of racism and racial allegiances. Piper’s role as “access point” to Litchfield means that overt racism and honest discussions of race alike are framed as jarring and shocking—a reflection of her particular white, middle-class point of view, in which the realities of race and racism are usually shrouded in cultivated ignorance and the vague sentimentalities of liberal tolerance.

Piper is repeatedly confronted with the fact that her race, class, and other privileges make her experience and perspective fundamentally different from most of the women she’s incarcerated with; she is, as Kohan says, “a fish out of water.” Yet Piper is deeply committed to a series of racialized fictions about herself and her social position.

In episode 6 (“WAC Pack”), she responds to her mother’s complaint that Piper’s drug-running ex “stole” a life of upper-class comfort and affluence from her by vehemently declaring that she is “no different from anyone else in here.” Piper clearly sees and intends this as a rejection of her mother’s prejudices, but her next words expose her imagined identification with her fellow inmates as superficial and unempathetic: “I made bad choices. I committed a crime. It is nobody’s fault that I am in here but mine.” In reducing massive racial and economic disparities in incarceration to the product of “bad choices,” Piper reveals herself to be more repulsed by what she sees as political incorrectness than by the reality of structural racism, inequities, and violence.

Indeed, Piper is characterized by a studied refusal to acknowledge this reality, and her place in it. Even when the evidence of her complicity with racism and classism is undeniable, she continues to see and present herself as a safe, friendly, and loyal fellow inmate. A Black inmate known as Watson figures out that Piper took a screwdriver that ultimately led to Watson being sent to solitary confinement (“the SHU”). This realization comes when Watson recognizes that Piper is “acting all sweet” toward her, “like a piece of candy,” when “nobody’s sweet in here except for a reason.” Piper initially lies and pleads ignorance. When she finally admits the truth, she still argues that “technically” Watson was to blame because she “got all up in [correctional officer] Caputo’s face”—a victim-blaming reframing of Watson’s objection to being searched by male corrections officers.

The discrepancy between who Piper is and who she wants to believe herself to be is best summed up in her response to an inmate’s observation that Piper is “in denial” about the considerable privileges she enjoys: “I’m a WASP. [Denial’s] what we do.” Piper repeatedly distances herself from overt expressions of bigotry, but is ultimately content to benefit from less obvious oppression. This is especially so in her interactions with Healy.

Healy

In their first meeting, Healy, the prison counselor, warns Piper to “stay away” from lesbians while in prison and reassures her that she “does not have to have lesbian sex”—not realizing that Piper is incarcerated because of actions she took during a lesbian relationship. Piper is visibly uncomfortable with Healy’s homophobia, yet immediately volunteers that she’s engaged to a man. She does so ostensibly as a preface to asking whether he can visit her, but the timing of this statement implicitly validates Healy’s misrecognition of Piper as being, like him, both straight and a homophobe.

Extrapolating from Piper’s race, class, and gender presentation, Healy expects that her loyalties will be with him over her fellow inmates, and treats her differently than other inmates based on this assumption. In “The Chickening,” Healy harshly punishes Poussey Washington, a Black inmate, for running on prison grounds. Meanwhile, he reassures Piper that he won’t send her to the SHU, despite her role in setting off the very frenzy Poussey was caught up in, because she’s “new” and just “made a mistake.” He warns Piper to avoid exciting the inmates in the future: “They’re not like you and me. They’re less reasonable. Less educated.”

Healy represents the benefits that accrue to white women who ally with “benevolent” white patriarchy, and how this sort of patriarchy relies on hierarchies and divisions between women to maintain its power. In turn, Healy’s preferential treatment of Piper becomes incentive for complicity with his efforts to undermine the agency of other inmates. When Healy asks, “Chapman, we understand each other, don’t we?” she responds, “I think so.”

Healy expects that this understanding means she’ll agree to run as his candidate for the inmates’ Women’s Advisory Council (WAC): “The two of us working together, we could really turn some things around. Or at least, make things a little quieter.” Healy’s response when Piper declines this arrangement also illustrates how shaky and dangerous such alliances can be. He immediately resorts to deception, falsifying the election results so Piper lands on the council against her will (and to exclude the actual winners—women he presumably expects will pose a greater challenge to his authority than Piper).

Immediately following the election, Piper cuts a deal with Healy to find the source of erotic images being sent out of the prison in exchange for reopening Litchfield’s running track. This requires betraying a Latina inmate for whom the secret cell phone that contains the images is a lifeline to her partner on the outside. It’s on her way to delivering this phone that Piper is waylaid by Pennsatucky—a white, anti-choice, aggressively fundamentalist Christian—who pegs Piper as a “Judas Iscariot” and “teacher’s pet” whose educational and class privilege make her entitled and easily exploited. She warns that Healy will cast Piper aside as soon as she’s worn out her usefulness, that ultimately Piper is selling out for nothing.

This proves prophetic: Healy presses Piper for the name of the phone’s owner, and goes back on their deal because she refuses to snitch. Piper finds a way around his blackmail in a chance conversation with Susan, a white, female corrections officer who recognizes Piper from before her incarceration. After reminiscing about how Piper was a regular “pain in the ass” when Susan bagged her groceries in Brooklyn, Susan tells Piper, “As far as I’m concerned, you and me are the same. … The only difference between us is when I made bad decisions in life, I didn’t get caught.” Given the socioeconomic distance between the two women, it’s a striking echo of the themes of sameness, difference, and identity in both Piper’s and Healy’s earlier comments. Through this bonding moment and statement of mutual identification, Piper is able to persuade Susan to have the prison track reopened.

Healy’s furious reaction makes it clear that Piper has made a determined and powerful enemy by defying him. The trouble he’s surely planning for Piper in the second half of the series is foreshadowed in moments when he responds with anger and threats to perceived challenges from her.

Healy embodies the dangers inherent in benevolent patriarchy—in his repeated misperception of who Piper is, his attempts to press her into his service, and how quickly his “benevolence” turns into overt malice when expected loyalties and allegiances are betrayed.

Taystee

In contrast to Piper, many of OITNB’s characters who are working-class and/or people of color recognize and consciously navigate the dangers posed both by white men like Healy, and by white women like Piper. Black characters like Taystee Jefferson, Poussey Washington, and Black Cindy seem especially aware of the ways in which women like Piper support and benefit from white patriarchy and classism, to the disproportionate harm of women like themselves.

An exchange between Piper and Taystee, the Black inmates’ representative on WAC, shows how wildly different the two women’s respective stakes in the council, and as inmates, are. Piper imagines that she can spur dramatic improvements in Litchfield’s health care and educational services through her position on WAC. She’s aghast and offended to learn what Taystee already knows: Healy has no interest in real change, or in sharing power. Taystee’s more modest agenda—better hot sauce in the prison cafeteria and 50 Shades of Grey in the library—is played for laughs, but it reflects her savvy about prison politics, and her focus on getting out as soon as she can. She understands both that the council is purely symbolic and that her membership will reflect well on her as she prepares for a rapidly approaching parole hearing. With the promise of a letter from Healy pleading her case, Taystee says, “I ain’t looking to make waves.” When Piper objects that Taystee is breaking her campaign promises, she concludes, “That’s politics.”

In an earlier scene during the WAC elections, Taystee similarly dismisses the “health care” and “civil rights” campaign platform of Sophia Burset, a fellow Black WAC candidate, as unrealistic “white people politics.” Their debate is one part of three simultaneous conversations in the scene about race and ethnicity. In the white inmates’ section of the cafeteria, Lorna explains what she “know[s]” about “Hispanics”: “They live like 20 people to one apartment, they have more kids than even the Irish … they’re dirty, they’re greasy, and they’re taking our jobs.” At one of the Latina tables, a debate concludes with observations that Black people are “smelly, stupid, and lazy, but they ain’t got different bones”—”Except in their pants.” Meanwhile, at the Black table, Taystee and Poussey parody the mindset that embodies “white people politics,” deftly skewering white upper-class dilettantism (yoga, sushi, documentaries, and veganism), sexual repression (“quiet sex every night at 9:00″), and affluence (“Did you hear that piece on NPR about hedge funds?”).

The juxtaposition of these conversations arguably invites the conclusion that each of these groups are equally engaged in the same kind of prejudiced stereotyping (and seems to hark back to Lorna’s comment that “looking out for one’s own” is “tribal, not racist”). This framing undermines the insights of the scene into how people talk about race behind closed doors. It elides what’s actually going on within the three groups, implicitly equating the anti-Blackness of the Latina women and anti-Latina racism of the white women with Taystee and Poussey’s conversation—which is not prejudiced and certainly not mythical “reverse racism,” but instead a pitch-perfect meta-satire of the very kind of white femininity that OITNB routinely pokes fun at in Piper. And it comes from a place of knowing what these kinds of white women are like, knowledge demanded under white supremacy for Black survival.

This is reinforced in “Blood Donut”: Taystee’s statement that she can’t afford to “make waves” reflects concerns about anticipating what the disciplinary board wants to see and hear from her—specifically, what presentation of Black femininity they will find sympathetic enough to let her go home. In a mock parole interview, Black Cindy and Poussey advise Taystee that she needs to communicate remorse and having “seen the error of [her] ways”—no matter how unjust she feels her incarceration is—and tell the board she plans to go to college and help “underprivileged youth” learn chess. “Time to get serious,” they continue. “What are you going to do about your hair?”

The politics of Black women’s hair is picked up again in Sophia’s salon, where Taystee, Poussey, Black Cindy and others discuss the merits of mimicking Michelle Obama’s hairstyle (“[But] white folks scared of Obama.”) or “2009 Rihanna” (“Everybody still hating on Chris Brown, maybe they’ll throw me a bone getting back at that fool.”). Obama and Rihanna bookend a debate about which permutations of race, gender, and class identities will make disciplinary board members view Taystee more favorably. Taystee’s assertion that “brothers on the board” mean she’ll be “free at last” is shot down by Black Cindy, who argues that Black male board members will be more invested in proving they’re unbiased; she’s better off with white board members. “Hope for white women,” Poussey says. “They love drinking wine … talking about Black folks don’t get their fair shakes … giving they housekeepers an extra day off and shit.” Sophia concludes that Taystee should aim to “look like the Black best friend in the white girl movie.” In other words: safe, non-threatening, respectable, and knowing her place.

What resonates in these scenes is the depiction of Black women consciously grappling with how to negotiate and mitigate the real, material implications of how Black men and white people see us. They reflect the painful knowledge—which has been a topic of much discussion recently because of popular hashtags like #solidarityisforwhitewomen and #blackpowerisforblackmen—that Black women have no true allies in either of these groups. Black women can neither be certain that Black men will stand up for us, nor can we rely on any true solidarity from white women simply because we share a gender. Poussey sees white women as Taystee’s best bet, but only because of the paternalist pity and guilt of liberal white women towards the women of color whose labor they exploit.

None of this is to say that OITNB gets it all right in its handling of race, class, and gender. The depictions of Black and Latina women constantly threaten to veer into all too familiar tropes and stereotypes, for example. But OITNB does get a lot right about the conversations people of color and white folks have amongst themselves and with each other, and how different identities and experiences shape those interactions.

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Follow T.F. Charlton on twitter: @graceishuman