Slave narratives became most fashionable among abolitionist circles in the mid-nineteenth century. These narratives remain deeply powerful, yet each one is framed by a white introduction, which authenticates the black experience. The white practice of verifying the lives of black fugitives who were skillfully plotting their own liberation has changed in circumstance and in medium—but the role of white people at its center has not. Today, its latest manifestation is playing out in the Netflix hit series, Orange Is the New Black.
I first saw a poster for the new series on a subway platform. The word “black” plastered near women of all colors in prison jumpsuits made me shake my head in disappointment, but I soon forgot about it along with all the other racist images I’m surrounded by daily. The next time I saw a reference to Orange Is the New Black was on a giant video billboard during the massive march in New York following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in connection with the killing of Trayvon Martin. As thousands of people took to the streets against white supremacy, there was an intense irony about a fictionalized depiction of black women cheering on a prison fight as a very blond white woman stood there, shocked with horror. I crudely tweeted, “Racist shit playing W 35 and 6th. It never ends. Neither do we. #HoodiesUp,” with a looping vine to illustrate my disappointment.
Since that time, many a friend and colleague has taken the time to explain to me that I was wrong about my gut reaction to Orange Is the New Black. They point out that the series is based on a book, whose author, Piper Kerman, spent time in prison. I answer that Assata Shakur wrote a brilliant book titled Assata: An Autobiography that includes details about her time as the only woman in an all-men’s prison—yet I’ve not seen it developed into a series. It would be timely to do so now that Shakur is the first woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list.
Orange Is the New Black defenders repeatedly tell me that Kerman is invested in prison reform. She very well might be. But the problem here lies in the fact that her investment in the issue has been repaid through a very different kind of investment in her by book publishers and budding media empires like Netflix. I don’t necessarily doubt that Kerman wants to see a change in the criminal justice system—just like I don’t doubt that she’s made a cottage industry for herself doing so. This started about a decade ago, when Kerman began selling “Free Piper” T-shirts through Paypal. As a bestselling author who’s sold the rights to stories of women that aren’t even hers, she’s profited from the criminalization of black and brown women who are disproportionately targeted for prison cages.
But most often, Orange Is the New Black fans tell me I need to give the series a real chance. If I can just get through the first two episodes, I’ll be content by episode three. And so I watched and cringed through six whole episodes, called it quits and hope to never again see another one in my entire life. With very little exception, I saw wildly racist tropes: black women who, aside from fanaticizing about fried chicken, are called monkeys and Crazy Eyes; a Boricua mother who connives with her daughter for the sexual attentions of a white prison guard; an Asian woman who never speaks; and a crazy Latina woman who tucks away in a bathroom stall to photograph her vagina (the pornographic image is indiscriminately paraded throughout an entire episode).
Support The Nation With A digital subscription
This, it turns out, is what some of my friends and colleagues are gorging themselves on. I reject that it’s a guilty pleasure. If we’re addicted to Orange Is the New Black, then we’re strung out on the drug of spectacle—jonesing for hateful, racist images created by a white imagination for profit and fame. What most bothers me about this is that so many people have told me they hated the advertising posters and the ridiculous Facebook photos, and they always repeat that they wanted to turn Orange Is the New Black off during the first couple of episodes but kept watching—going against inclination, and buying into the garbage that keeps our eyes glued to something we know we shouldn’t be enjoying to begin with.
I will acknowledge that Orange Is the New Black has created a credible role for a trans black woman, played by Laverne Cox, an actual trans black woman. And I can’t deny that the series has created a payroll for many actors of color. But again, just like the practice 150 years ago during the height of the slave narrative era, those experiences are first authenticated by a white person—in this case, a white woman whose prison stint can never be a substitute for the violence institutionally carried out against women of color in the criminal justice system. It’s 2013, not 1861, and we don’t need Piper Kerman or anyone like her to substantiate what we already know.