Orange is the New Black: On being a white anti-racist ally

September 6, 2013 | Dialogue, Diversity & Inclusion

I have no idea whether Piper Kerman considers herself an ally in the struggle against racism, as I do (privileged in every way: White, male, heterosexual, protestant, American). I do know she wrote a memoir, “Orange is the New Black,” about her time in a minimum-security prison, which has recently been turned into a successful Netflix original series. I also know that the series and Piper have been widely criticized for telling the story of American prisons with a white woman at its center.

There are, no doubt, reasons to criticize the show. Depictions of lesbian sex, for example, that were not part of Piper’s prison experience seem unnecessarily eroticized at times, with women’s bodies exploited for the viewers’ pleasure.

And there’s clearly also reason to rail against media outlets that chose to produce this story rather than stories with women of color as main characters instead of perpetually in supporting roles.

However, when the criticism turns to Piper Kerman, the author of her own story about a year in prison, that’s when I have to disagree. One critic writes in the Nation that “she’s profited from the criminalization of black and brown women who are disproportionately targeted for prison cages,” and concludes that “we don’t need Piper Kerman or anyone like her to substantiate what we already know.”

By this logic, a white person could never tell their own story- at least not for profit- if it involves telling the story of anyone who’s not also white and equally privileged.

But here’s the thing, the Netflix show, which credits Kerman as a producer, deals reasonably well with Piper’s privilege and depicts complex and multi-dimensional Black and Latina characters.

A scene depicting a visit to prison by Piper’s mother encapsulates well how “Orange” deals with Piper’s privilege. While her snobbish WASP-y mother tries to convince her she doesn’t belong in prison with “these women,” Piper resists the other-ing impulse. “I’m in here because I made bad choices. I’m no different than anyone else.” As soon as her mother leaves, Piper complains to another White inmate about her mother, who promptly chastises her for whining. “At least you have a mother who visits you,” she says. “Everyone’s shit stinks, but some stinks more than others.” The show’s ability to recognize both the author’s privilege and her common humanity with other prisoners is what saves it from the kind of exploitative profit-seeking its critics would like to believe it embodies.

Piper is constantly portrayed in unflattering ways, for example crusading at the Women’s Advisory Counsel as the naïve white savior who doesn’t see that the system is rigged- because until this moment in her life society’s systems worked for her. Or when she inadvertently confessed that she’d read about prison to prepare for her stay. Or her only somewhat self-conscious statement bemoaning her imprisonment, “I just wanted to be the nice blonde lady.” Embedded in that statement is the awareness that her sentiment represents a privilege others can never have- the ability to be presumed innocent because of her hair and skin color.

And the women of color do embody some typical racist stereotypes: the loud and rambunctious fried-chicken loving Black woman obsessed with hair, the superstitious and sexually promiscuous Latina. But White folks and men are also stereotyped: the “white trash” religious fanatic meth-head, and the relentlessly misogynistic male prison guard. And, as Chimamanda Adiche says, stereotypes are not problematic because they’re untrue (though they may be), but because they’re incomplete.

This is another area where “Orange” shines: complex portrayals of women of color. The Black woman, “Taystee” Jefferson (Daniele Brooks) who loves fried chicken acknowledges it as a stereotype while embracing it. She also finds a passion and pride in working in the library and mastering the Dewey decimal system. The trans-gender woman, Sophia Burset, (played by a trans-gender actress, Laverne Cox) who takes on the injustice of the prison’s health care system, is portrayed in wonderful and heartbreaking complexity as her choice to live as she truly is takes a financial and emotional toll on her and her family. Far from locking characters into these stereotypes, “Orange” lets its characters be individuals, telling their backstories and creating rich and complex emotional lives for them.

Finally, the criticism of the author is misplaced because she has spent her post-prison time advocating for prison reform and raising awareness about female prisoners’ issues. White folks can no more help the fact that they are born into a society that privileges them and their experiences than people of color can help being born into a society that marginalizes theirs. The solution to white privilege is not, as the Nation critic would seem to have it, for White people to keep their mouths shut because we have no place in the struggle for justice and equality. The problem with privilege comes when we are unaware of it, unwilling to acknowledge the unfair advantages we have, and most especially when we opt out of the struggle for creating more just and inclusive communities. Piper Kerman has used her prison experience, not to further marginalize already oppressed people purely for her own financial gain, but instead she is using her privilege to tell stories too often unheard, humanize a group of people that are routinely demonized, and advocate for justice.

Instead of attacking a White woman for daring to tell her own story of her interactions with women different than her, we should celebrate the fact that a privileged White woman is trying to act as an ally in the cause for justice. If she could do better, approach her as an ally, not as an enemy.

White folks in this country have the option of not dealing with race. There are sometimes painful consequences for those who choose to deal with it. While the marginalization of the White anti-racist ally does not equate to the kind of marginalization experienced daily by people of color, it is real and those of us building multi-racial justice movements need to acknowledge it if we want to expand our numbers and not push people away. A movement that has no place for one group because of their skin color- not because of their actions- will ultimately undermine our own cause.

By: Matthew G. Freeman