by Rachel Edelman
The opening credit sequence of Jenji Kohan’s Netflix series Orange is the New Black features a series of close-up shots of women’s faces. The camera locks in on pair after pair of different-colored eyes, lips, and full visages of all races. One after another, we’re confronted with human features with tattoos and other demarcations, faces distinct from one another yet cinematically blurred together to Regina Spektor’s theme song. The image seeks to break through the wall between performers and audience and the wall between incarcerated and free. It illuminates the boundary between a Netflix audience and an ensemble cast of characters diverse in race and sexuality. But this spotlight in the opening credits begins to dim as soon as the narrative constricts around Piper Chapman, Kohan’s protagonist. Piper’s a white, upper-middle class woman whose white privilege and wealth inexorably distinguish her from the other inmates and keep the audience from relating to characters outside of Piper’s norm.
When Piper arrives at Litchfield State Prison to serve a 15-month sentence, the corrections officers and inmates call her out on her elite sensibilities and naïveté while assuming she’s harmless for the same reasons. In one of Piper’s early missteps at Litchfield, she causes a disturbance in the prison yard that sends twenty inmates to their counselors for punishment. While a black inmate gets her visitation privileges revoked for just getting caught up in the scuffle, Piper receives no material punishment at all. Such is life in prison: inconsistent and biased. The punishments dished out depend much more on the perceived identity of the prisoner than on her actions. A few weeks after the scuffle in the yard Piper’s homophobic prison counselor sees her dancing suggestively with another inmate and sends her to the Secure Housing Unit (i.e. solitary). The counselor’s prejudice condemns Piper to a disproportionate punishment similar to those her fellow inmates commonly receive. But in Piper’s case, an authority actually takes notice of the unfairness, especially since her fiancé has just published a New York Times “Modern Love” column about her. “These liberal, wealthy offenders, they’re well-connected,” remarks the warden about Piper’s undue punishment. He insists that Piper be released from SHU immediately, with an institutional sympathy we don’t see expressed for the other inmates. Piper understands she’s treated differently, but she’s still grateful for what her privilege affords.
As a white, bisexual woman, Piper remains on the edge of the intricate web of identity biases woven through the prison; it’s easy for an American audience to relate to her normative race and socio-economic status. This is precisely why Kohan needs her to tell the other characters’ stories. As Kohan said on NPR’s Fresh Air, she wanted to show an environment in which people from different backgrounds meet at a crossroads, and “the girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it's relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic.” Kohan calls Piper her “Trojan Horse,” her protagonist who takes the story into a setting the audience wouldn’t otherwise enter, allowing for interactions across class and racial divides. From there, Kohan broadens her focus to feature the other women’s outside lives in flashbacks, but it is still Piper’s perspective through which the audience relates to incarceration.
Of course, Piper’s privilege isn’t her fault. It was conferred by chance of birth, passed down from parents but obscured from her own sight. Its assumptions and implications are described in Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 paper “White Privilege.” In it, the women’s studies scholar writes that her own white privilege is like “an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” Growing up in Memphis, I observed that blacks were far more likely to live in poverty, but I rejected the conclusion there was an innate social disadvantage to being black and thus an innate advantage to being white. It just didn’t fit with the beloved narrative of American self-determination. As I grew older and less naïve, I learned to recognize moments of distinct privilege and re-examine cultural mythology. I read syllabi full of white authors in college. I got through a few traffic stops by sweet-talking police.
My own experiences are anecdotal evidence in a sea of cultural examples proving that twenty-five years after McIntosh’s paper, whites’ obliviousness to their own privilege is still expected, even encouraged by focusing conversations about racism on people of color while leaving out white people’s implicit assumption of superiority. For people of color a converse obliviousness to racism is not only shocking but dangerous. It’s an inequitable burden received by chance. Post-Civil Rights Era black literature is rife with examples of parents teaching their children exactly how to behave in mixed company, in case they’ve not personally experienced oppression. This education of children in the ways of racial injustice is expertly illustrated in Kiese Laymon’s new novel Long Division. Set in 2013 Mississippi, the protagonist, 14-year-old City, is taught how to behave in front of white people. He is never to speak out or to place himself at the center of their attention. He recounts his mother’s words of wisdom: “She said, ‘Your foolishness impacts not only black folks today, but black folks yet to be born.’” City must control his behavior in front of white people because of the prejudged impression they hold of him as a young black man and their privilege of power. His mother must ensure that her son understands his position as not to forget it and face peril at the hands of white folks. When City speaks out against the obvious racial tokenism in a televised national vocabulary bee, he becomes the subject of ridicule and shame from YouTube viewers, his friends, and even his family.
As City’s acting out demonstrates, the individual pursuit of effective change quickly comes up against structural barriers. White feminists have long understood structural inequality, then advocated processes of self-transformation and acknowledgment of personal privilege, processes that shift the conversation about privilege from structural to personal. Analyzing and acknowledging privilege is important, but its result is often the advancement of guilt “in ways that only lead toward despair, self-hatred, and demobilization.”
In Orange, Kohan knows better than to put Piper through a journey from privileged white woman to downtrodden inmate through any personally-motivated soul searching. Instead she places Piper in conflict after conflict, forcing her to choose between two terrible options: to let others take the blame for her mistakes or face inhumane punishment, to fight or be beaten. Kohan pushes Piper’s daily reality closer to that of her fellow inmates, and Piper loses her privileges one by one. Her mental health goes along with her privilege, leaving her anxiety-ridden and angry. Still, with her strong support network and family wealth, Piper continues to hold a huge advantage over the other women at Litchfield. She doesn’t have to remember her privilege every day like City must remember his oppression. As long as Piper is the protagonist of Kohan’s story, we’ll see her as “morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal” (McIntosh). The other prisoners become, in comparison, aberrant and less relatable and the show ultimately less successful at staring the cycle of poverty and imprisonment in the face.
Rachel Edelman lives in Boulder, CO. She tweets @rachelsedelman.