This Ain’t The Help? OITNB’s White Savior Industrial Complex
Christina Belcher / University of Southern California

Brook Soso

Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) on her first day in prison.

Intending to turn viewers into advocates, online prison reform campaign #humanityisthenewblack emerged with the second season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. With the New York Civil Liberties Union at the helm, the campaign shifts attention from the conditions of overflowing sewage and overuse of solitary confinement in the show’s fictional Litchfield Prison to the very real and detestable conditions at the jail in Riverhead, New York, where crews filmed parts of the second season. In addition to this type of effort by organizations hoping to gain support as a result of the show’s popularity, OITNB itself initiates a conversation about who can or should be an activist and/or ally in the fight for improved conditions in American prisons, and what methods they might use. (( Various authors have considered the efficacy of #HashtagActivism. One piece I found particularly engaging is Michael Holtzman’s, which you can read here. ))

If Season 1 fixated on Piper Chapman “[finding] herself” behind bars, Season 2 features numerous cast members with shifting moral compasses and character arcs that rival Chapman’s. (( The show’s promotional advertising for the first season featured a double entendre about Piper Chapman’s “journey” in prison: “This July… a provocative new series… about finding yourself… behind bars.” Chapman’s journey was certainly the show’s focus. While Season 2 developed characters that were previously secondary, letting Chapman take a back seat to the season’s central tensions, this is not the trajectory that all of the supporting characters follow, and some follow an opposite trajectory. For example, other critics have commented on Sophia Burset’s transition from a character with depth and history to a stock transgender character who exists only “as a mouthpiece for what the show clearly identifies as the correct and progressive political line on sexuality and gender politics” on Season 2 (Nair). See Yasmin Nair, “The Reign of Whitey Is Never Over.” In These Times. 11 June 2014. )) The most consequential shift between seasons occurs when these characters decide to take action against the injustices within the prison, a concept that was virtually absent from Season 1. But as OITNB becomes more nuanced in its representation of prison activism, the show also takes its place in a long history of white benevolence on screen, from Mississippi Burning (1988) to Dangerous Minds (1995) to The Blind Side (2009). White inmates advocate for themselves and others, while inmates of color are too distracted by personal ambition to bother with the collective battles being waged behind bars, such as the hunger strike in protest of solitary confinement, unsanitary living conditions, and “compassionate” release for the elderly. (( My critique of the show’s characterization of prison reform and the characters chosen to pursue it is not meant to denigrate the work that many of the show’s actresses are doing. Laverne Cox, Samira Wiley, Alysia Reiner, Kate Mulgrew, Uzo Aduba, and certainly memoir author Piper Kerman have spoken out in support of prison reform. Other critics have claimed that Piper Kerman’s activist work is part of a “white savior industrial complex” through which she profits off the stories of the women of color with whom she was incarcerated. You can read a version of that critique here. )) With the exception of progressive-yet-naïve Brook Soso—who has Litchfield’s symbol of white privilege (a toothbrush at intake) bestowed upon her by Lorna Morello because “[she doesn’t] look full Asian”—OITNB portrays white saviors, in the form of sympathetic white correctional officers and selfless white prisoners, as the only legitimate forces in a fight for reform.

According to OITNB, women of color impede the reform work of white women. After black inmate Janae Watson returns from her latest stint in solitary confinement, her white friend Yoga Jones crosses Litchfield’s increasingly regulated racial lines in order to offer comfort, and to tell Watson that the arbitrary use of solitary “got [her] motivated to join the hunger strike.” Watson does not respond with the gratitude that Jones expects. Instead, she tells Jones, “I’m not here to make you feel good about yourself, alright? You got guilt about something, that’s not my problem.” Like many of the show’s potentially instructive confrontations between white women and women of color, the scene quickly shifts from a critique of white benevolence to a critique of black ingratitude, undermining the legitimacy of Watson’s accusations. As Watson tells Jones not to talk to her anymore, ending a friendship that formed in one of the first season’s most evocative moments, viewers are not permitted to linger with Watson, who has been brutalized by SHU over and over again across the show’s brief timespan. Instead, her face appears blurred on the edge of the frame while the camera rests on a close-up shot of Jones in disbelief. The scene ends with a white woman in tears, slighted by an angry black woman who is unwilling to accept an invitation to fight for justice and advocate for herself.

Jones and Watson

Erica “Yoga” Jones (Constance Shulman) after being slighted by Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy)

Jones returns to fellow strikers Soso and Ingalls, and white tweakers Leanne and Angie join them. Unlike Jones and Ingalls, the show portrays Leanne and Angie as inauthentic, particularly through the irony that their hunger strike demands involve the cafeteria food. When guards tempt the women with pizza, a tactic that prison officials actually use to break strikes, Leanne and Angie cave and eat to the delight of Ingalls, who reminds the more “respectable” strikers, “We don’t need them. They confuse our message.” (( See descriptions of tactics used against strikers in the most recent California prison strike )) OITNB pushes an activist ideal, and it doesn’t include women of color, drug addicts, or the poor: the majority of women serving time in America. (( According to The Sentencing Project, 1 in 111 white women will be sentenced to prison in her lifetime, whereas 1 in 18 black women and 1 in 45 Latina women will be incarcerated. ))

Unlike Soso, Ingalls, and Jones, Piper Chapman’s entrance into the fight for prisoners’ rights at Litchfield is purely self-motivated. When journalist Andrew Yance visits Chapman to build his case against Natalie Figueroa’s embezzlement, Chapman refuses to help him. Although she claims to be an advocate for all of the programs that the prison has de-funded, she won’t risk her own release date for the good of the inmate population. Chapman’s determination to end Figueroa’s career comes at the heels of her furlough, when she convinces herself that Figueroa planned her transfer to a Virginia prison as a result of Healy granting her leave to visit her sick grandmother. By this logic, her white privilege is a burden, and she rides these delusions of victimhood into the fight against corruption.

No one—not Nance who schools her on the real ways that the prison system is failing, nor Sophia or Poussey who each tell heartbreaking stories of lock-up without furlough when their parents passed—can convince Chapman that she does not deserve to be furloughed for her grandmother’s hospitalization. At a moment when the efficacy of “call-out culture” is being debated across social media, it fails utterly on OITNB. (( The recent debate about “call out culture” originated with Jack Halberstam’s post on Bully Bloggers, You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma. Various writers have responded to Halberstam. )) Piper’s privilege is called out repeatedly, and her response, after she becomes the first known Litchfield inmate to be granted furlough, smacks of privilege-denial, white guilt, and downright disrespect: “Yes, I am white. We have established that. And I got furlough too. I guess white privilege wins again. And as a speaker for the entire white race, I would like to say I’m sorry you guys got the raw deal. But I love my fucking grandmother. And yeah, she may be a whitey too, but she’s a fucking person. And she’s sick and she needs me. So shut the fuck up.”

Warren throws cake at Champan

Suzanne Warren throws cake at Chapman after her “white privilege” speech in the cafeteria.

Ironically, Chapman is the woman ultimately responsible for ending corruption at Litchfield.

Suddenly flooded with white guilt that does nothing to change the reality of her privilege, Chapman rushes to Healy’s office, wishing to give her furlough back because there are people “more needy” than herself. Healy absolves Chapman of her guilt as he assures her that her whiteness did not motivate him; rather, he acted only in innocent kindness. So when Chapman becomes the inmate to dismantle corruption at Litchfield— rather than, say, Janae Watson—OITNB becomes yet another representation of whiteness stepping up and saving the day, this time for a prison populated mostly by women of color who are written out of the stories of their own struggles against oppression.


Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), delivering some of Litchfield’s most astute social commentary.

In his personal transition from heartless to bleeding heart, Officer Joe Caputo undergoes the most dramatic change of all. In Season 1, Caputo shows newly hired guard Susan Fischer the ropes; or rather, he shows her how to tighten them. His advice on how to maintain authority as a prison guard: “It helps if you don’t use their names. Just say “inmate,” like they’re all the same to you. It reminds them they’re not really people.” In Season 2, the same Caputo complains to counselor Sam Healy that “[he] would really like to report to someone who gave a shit about these women who [they] are supposed to be taking care of.”

Chapman helps Caputo bring Figueroa down, and by season’s end the show assures viewers that the human rights abuses are over. Sure, Caputo might have a few headaches in his new position as executive assistant to the warden, but as Chapman reminds him from her cell in a segregated block (where he put her), “You’re a good person. And Miss Figueroa, she isn’t.” For Chapman it’s that simple: trade bad administrator for good administrator, and Litchfield can become a functional correctional facility.

Nick Sandow as Joe Caputo

New Executive Assistant to the Warden, Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow)

On the final episode of the season, Soso tells Chapman, “I don’t think I’m going to be the same when I get out.” Still wedded to her oft repeated, politically correct but incredibly misguided sentiment that she is “no different from anybody else in [prison],” Chapman suggests that, “maybe that’s ok.” For Chapman, prison is a place to improve herself and to “read all of the books on [her] Amazon wishlist.” Thankfully, Soso’s abbreviated response puts Piper’s delusions about prison’s efficacy to rest: “No, it’s not fucking ok.” She’s right. It’s not.

American media outlets inundate viewers with prison “entertainment,” from OITNB to Beyond Scared Straight to MSNBC’s marathon broadcastings of Locked Up. (( A recent episode of John Oliver’s HBO talk-show Last Week Tonight focused on the prevalence of prison in American entertainment and lives, to such an extent that PBS’s Sesame Street was compelled to explain prison to a vast population of children who have incarcerated adults in their lives. You can find a video of this segment here. )) Meanwhile, the prison system itself is broken and dysfunctional, and we must start demanding that #humanityisthenewblack in the face of its atrocities. We can hope that the show inspires prison reform movements and prison abolition. But we must also hope that the actions of those non-incarcerated and/or white allies against this system of oppression take forms foreign to those of the white savior industrial complex played out on Orange is the New Black. (( Many writers/activists have contributed blog posts and editorials about the proper and productive role of allies in the wake of the Michael Brown murder in Ferguson, MO. Because the ideas she outlines apply to becoming an ally in the fight for prison reform, I suggest reading Janee Woods’ “Becoming a White Ally to Black People in the Aftermath of the Michael Brown Murder” for alternatives to #HashtagActivism, and to the portrayal of justice work on Orange is the New Black. ))

Image Credits:
1. Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) on her first day in prison.
2. Erica “Yoga” Jones (Constance Shulman) after being slighted by Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy). From Author’s Private Collection: Season 2 Episode 11, “Take a Break from your Values,” 6 June 2014, Dir. by Constantine Makris.
3. Suzanne Warren throws cake at Chapman after her “white privilege” speech in the cafeteria.
4. Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), delivering some of Litchfield’s most astute social commentary.
5. New Executive Assistant to the Warden, Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow).

Please feel free to comment.

The Reign of Whitey is Over?
Christina Belcher / University of Southern California

Kate Mulgrew as Red

Kate Mulgrew as Galina ‘Red’ Reznikov

There are three types of “mothers” on the second season of Orange is the New Black. The first protects her family at all costs, maintains her business ventures behind the prison’s walls, and deals in lipgloss and Jolly Ranchers. She refuses to sell more lucrative, dangerous contraband like cigarettes and matchbooks. The second type of mother claims that her daughter’s rape by a prison guard (or two) was the best thing that ever happened to her because she could sue the government for putting her in harm’s way, and simultaneously collect child support and extortion money from her rapists. In return, she wants only to be remembered when the checks start rolling in. The third type seduces and sleeps with her “son,” then sends him onto the street to die by the hand of a crooked cop. This kingpin mama ensnares all of her “children” in a prison heroin trade and provides a mother’s comfort after they’ve returned from the SHU, punished for involvement in her dealings. Even on OITNB, a show applauded for its diverse and developed cast of characters, it is easy to guess which of these “mothers” is white, and which are women of color.

With Pennsatucky defeated and defanged—quite literally, since her new teeth diffuse her power to provoke—the torch of villainy must be passed to another character. Viewers meet the worst of the mothers and second season’s villain when police incarcerate Vee Parker for her role in a drug trade that preys upon dispossessed children to work distribution. Considering its progressive, purportedly anti-racist ethos, it is surprising that the villain role shifts from white to black between seasons. (( In my first Flow TV column, I claimed that the first season’s villain needed to be white in accordance to the show’s participation in an American fantasy of fair, just, and diverse inequality. You can find the column here. )) But when an affable, middle class, whip-smart black queer—Poussey—emerges from the background to become the season’s romantic hero, whose objective is to save Taystee—the damsel in distress—from evil Vee, the racial grounds of the show shift to allow for black villainy without appearing blatantly racist. (( Critics have recently commented upon the black anti-hero, such as Don Cheadle in Showtime’s House of Lies, and they ways that show in particular represents at inroad for black actors beyond the “noble Negro” stock character that makes up many supposedly positive representations of blackness on screen. Unlike Cheadle’s Marty Kahn, Vee is no anti-hero: despite her drive and ambition to lead her girls to power in the prison, she is most certainly the season’s villain. For a summary of show runner Matthew Carnahan’s approach to the black anti-hero on House of Lies, see June Thomas’ “Why isn’t House of Lies awesome?” at Slate. Also see Hampton Stevens’ “Don Cheadle plays TV’s first black antihero in Showtime’s ‘House of Lies’” in The Washington Times. ))

Lorraine Toussaint as Vee

Lorraine Toussaint as Yvonne ‘Vee’ Parker

And yet the show’s portrayal of black female ambition is nothing short of that critique. (( In Yasmin Nair’s In These Times review of the Season 2, she claims that black female ambition is the catalyst for Vee’s downfall: “Vee’s comeuppance is swift, violent, and comic, thus even more devastating than what happened to Pennsatucky. Vee gets no sympathy; we are to laugh as the arch-villain is meted justice. It’s not that she should have been drawn sympathetically; the show has plenty of sympathetic Black women. The problem is that Orange cannot sustain a powerful, Black woman without softening her with a sad story or cutting her down.” )) Vee Parker embodies many of the terrifyingly destructive slurs that white supremacist culture hurls at black women, and particularly black mothers. Physically, psychologically, and sexually abusive, Vee uses her “children” to earn a buck, she has no moral objection to abandoning them. She also causes white misery, since the white women in Litchfield seemed to have no access to heroin for a clean stretch before her return. The show reminds viewers on several occasions that Vee is homophobic, as she pushes an anti-gay agenda in order to gain Taystee’s loyalty over Poussey. In an interview with investigators after Vee has “slocked” Red in a turf battle, white inmate Lorna Morello sums Vee up: “[S]he’s the one that made things hardcore. It’s not like prison was summer camp, but we all sort of got along. At least nobody was trying to kill each other. Now it’s like Serbo-Croatia up in here.”

Yael Stone as Morello

Yael Stone as Lorna Morello

If season one pitted progressive hero, WASP Piper, against villainous Jesus freak Pennsatucky in a battle of epically white proportions, how is the second season’s black hero qualified to fight the good fight against Vee? OITNB continues to wage class warfare, and Poussey wins.

The difference between Poussey and the other black women behind Litchfield’s walls is class, and with higher class, the redemptive power of education. (( In conversation, my colleague Tom Sapsford suggested that class is metonymic with education on the show. The show insists that the library is a sanctuary (its books deemed worth saving from a storm, even when the inmates are not); Chapman is persistent in her desire to revive the GED program in Season 1, and her Season 2 noble endeavors include the prison newsletter, which is one of the only mechanisms by which the women forge a sense of community. I appreciate his insights in helping me to clarify my argument about the distinctions the show makes between Poussey and other black women in Litchfield, which are not only based on class, but also education. )) While not nearly as privileged as Piper Chapman, Poussey Washington’s flashback reveals a worldly kid with a frohawk, a fluency in German, and a family who supports her as a queer teen in an interracial relationship. Her hardships are unlike those of her girls, Cindy and Taystee, whose early lives involved teen pregnancy, absent parents, and abuse. Poussey’s visibly queer performance of blackness certainly had more to do with her landing in jail than the low-level criminal activities in which she was engaged. Poussey’s crime—selling marijuana—is hardly deserving of the six years she was sentenced, and her flashback shows the crimes committed against her—homophobic in nature—are more harmful than her own dope dealing. (( The show implies that Poussey has the potential to commit a violent crime when she attempts to pull a gun on her girlfriend’s homophobic father. However, her own father intervenes, ultimately protecting her from the consequences of shooting a German military officer. This thwarted “crime of passion” is entirely out of character for Poussey, who is not one of the characters inclined toward violence in Litchfield. However, her father’s intervention further substantiates her position within a functional and traditional family, the emblem of middle class normalcy. ))

Samira Wiley as Poussey Washington

Samira Wiley as Poussey Washington, a heartbroken teen smoking by her bedroom window

We see the class distinction most clearly in Season 1, when Taystee cycles back into prison after only having been out for a few weeks. Taystee explains her non-existent safety net to Poussey, who is incredulous and angry with Taystee for re-offending, never having personally experienced a lack of support on the outside.

In Season 2, after they re-establish the friendship that Vee tore apart, Poussey wants to talk about their journey. Taystee claims that because she “never learned all that,” the discussion of feelings makes her “want to jump out of [her] skin.” Class-based coping mechanisms aside, what Taystee and Poussey share is humor, and later in the final episode, they take on the voices of their WASP alter egos—MacKenzie and Amanda—in order that Taystee can comfortably discuss the reasons why she fell back under Vee’s spell. Imitating the voice and affectation of an upper-class white woman, Taystee jokes that “Amanda has a theory: that it’s all the cycle of poverty, and the bad schools and the government cheese, and because I’m brown and my mom was on crack.” Then her affect changes back to Taystee, and she distances herself from WASP “Amanda,” explaining, “But I think I was just being an asshole.”

Danielle Brooks as Taystee

Danielle Brooks as Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson, explaining her experience upon release from prison to Poussey

Poussey reveals her own class privilege, aligned with her alter ego MacKenzie, when she explains, “MacKenzie thinks its repressed frustration cause you ain’t never been to Paris.” While her humorous reasoning pokes fun at a Gwyneth Paltrowesque excuse for Taystee’s recent trip down criminal lane, Poussey’s vocabulary and accent are her own. She is marked—by her lack of understanding of the cycle of poverty, the skills she learned as a member of the black middle class, and her refusal to run drugs in the prison—as other to Taystee and the crew. In contrast, Taystee’s imitation of white girl Amanda is only that—an imitation—while Poussey falls upon a particular intersection of race, class, and sexuality that primes her for OITNB heroism. In the hierarchy of blackness on OITNB, Poussey is the middle class, queer hero, Taystee is the downtrodden damsel primed for redemption, and Vee is the black dragon, slain at season’s close with no remorse.

Despite the ethic of multiculturalism that pervades OITNB, there is no expectation that viewers sympathize with Vee. Never given the justificatory flashback that the show afforded even Pennsatucky, viewers cannot understand Vee’s violent ambition to control the market. She is a financially motivated black woman, but she is not the rightful recipient of capitalist incentives. (( My last Flow TV column was in conversation with Jodi Melamed’s work on racial liberalism, which she describes as a cultural model of racism in which both blackness and whiteness can take on stigmatized forms if they do not adhere to normative cultural criteria. Over the course of Season 2, Vee transgresses nearly all of these normative criteria, as she sells hard drugs, devalues diversity (through expressions of homophobia), and commits the taboo of incest, making her a representative of stigmatized blackness (although criminality obviously marks all of the black women in Litchfield). Despite her stigmas, Vee believes that the marketplace can make her equal or superior to the white inmates. However, her stigmas preclude her from taking legitimate part in the building of capitalist wealth. As Melamed explains, “Race continues to fuse technologies of racial domination with liberal freedoms to represent people who are exploited for or cut off from the capitalist wealth as outsiders to liberal subjectivity for whom life can be disallowed to the point of death” (Melamed 2). Jodi Melamed, “The Spirit of Neoliberalism: From Racial Liberalism to Neoliberal Multiculturalism,” Social Text 89.24 (2006): 1-24. ))

According to neoliberal logics, the marketplace is the great equalizer. Vee participates in this fantasy, and believes that she has as much right and access to the market as Red, the white woman who has run Litchfield’s contraband trade for years. Yet Vee is wrong to think that the market exists for her. Returning to Angela Davis’s essay that I referenced in my last column: “With the dismantling of the welfare state… the institution of the prison – which is itself an important product marketed through global capitalism – becomes the privileged site into which surplus impoverished populations are deposited.” (( Angela Davis, “Locked up: racism in the era of neoliberalism,” The Drum, 19 March 2008. )) Cindy, once one of Vee’s enthusiastic supporters, fails to understand her role as a deposit, not a capitalist player, within this equation: “Drugs in a prison ain’t the craziest thing that could happen. I’ll tell you what is though. [Red] opening a road and saying only white people can drive on it. Uh-uh. This America. The bathrooms may be segregated, but the market be free.”

Cindy is wrong. The market is not free for illegitimate trade if the trader is not white. Season 1’s white male guard, George “Pornstache” Mendez, operated his drug trade without consequence, but black women behaving so badly would never go unpunished. (( Mendez’s drug dealing kills an inmate—Trisha, in Season 1—but he is able to manipulate the situation to such a degree that Red ultimately goes down for his transgressions. )) The irony of the lines that Cindy delivers lies in the fact that Vee, Taystee, Suzanne, Watson, and Cindy herself all have a stake in them. As they gain financial power, each woman relishes in the respect they garner from the other inmates who once forced them to sit toward the back of the movie room, before “the reign of Whitey [was] over.” But each of the black women will pay for their transgressions against the racial order of things, with Vee in particular bearing the brunt of the violence.

If Season 1 used a poor white woman as a scapegoat for the myriad systemic issues that wreaked havoc on the women inside, Season 2 vilifies blackness and the prison system itself. As for the prison, the message through Season 2 is that “it gets better,” and there are various (white) forces working against the corruption and unfairness of Litchfield. Stigmatized forms of blackness, on the other hand, are irreparable, committing crimes against diversity, the market, and the spirit of sisterhood that show so often invokes. Meanwhile, as Poussey and Vee battle for Taystee’s loyalty in a struggle between proper and improper forms of blackness, Piper Chapman fights her own heroic battle to finally take down corrupt prison administrator, Natalie Figueroa. Although the focus of OITNB shifts to make room for the women of color who took a back seat to blondey in Season 1, Piper saves something much more important than one wayward “corner girl”: she saves the whole damned prison. The reign of whitey is not over.

Image Credits:

1. Kate Mulgrew as ‘Red’ Reznikov
2. Lorraine Toussaint as Vee Parker
3. Yael Stone as Lorna Morello
4. Samira Wiley as Poussey Washington, a heartbroken teen smoking by her bedroom window
5. Danielle Brooks as Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson, explaining her experience upon release from prison to Poussey

Please feel free to comment.

White Trash is the New Black
Christina Belcher / University of Southern California

Season One, Episode 13: “Can’t Fix Crazy”

Taryn Manning as Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett

“You believe in Hussein Obama? Electric cars, and Shakespeare books, and do you go out to eat at restaurants? I don’t have any of that, okay: all I have is Him.” Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett—Litchfield Prison’s white trash, Christian fundamentalist, and the first true villain of Netflix Original Orange is the New Black—paints a vivid picture of white liberalism when she confronts Piper Chapman, the show’s protagonist and (tragic) hero, for shaking her belief in God. Chapman stakes her claim in secularism, which Pennsatucky sees as the religion of liberal whiteness. Despite (or perhaps because of) her lack of religion, Piper Chapman, not Pennsatucky, is the moral compass of Orange is the New Black.

The show’s moral imperative—and a guiding value of liberal America—is multiculturalism. This also happens to be the value that Pennsatucky most lacks. Multiculturalism is a by-product of racial liberalism: the system of privilege that arose in mid-twentieth century US national culture and replaced a biological model of racism with a cultural one. Within this cultural model, both whiteness and blackness can assume privileged or stigmatized forms based on their adherence to normative cultural criteria (i.e. the heterosexual family unit, a middle-class income, patriotism). According to Jodi Melamed, this cultural model “promoted an idea of a racially inclusive U.S. national culture as the key to achieving America’s manifest destiny and proof of American exceptionalism.” (( Jodi Melamed, “The Spirit of Neoliberalism: From Racial Liberalism to Neoliberal Multiculturalism,” Social Text
89.24 (2006): 7. )) Under such a national culture of inclusivity, wealth and resources can be legitimately denied to those who do not value diversity. Piper Chapman, arguably the best representation of the white liberal America in contemporary programming, becomes the most deserving and felicitous American citizen on the grounds of her anti-racism.

While Chapman commits privileged faux-pas throughout the first season, we know from her discomfort with the prison’s racial segregation that she values diversity, just as the show itself values its multicultural cast of characters. After the rude awakening of the prison’s intake process, Chapman is treated well by Morello, another white inmate, who provides her with tissues and a toothbrush. Morello needs no “thank you” for this kindness because “we [white inmates] take care of our own.” Visibly stunned, Chapman questions “our own,” and Morello jovially schools her: “Oh, don’t get all PC on me. It’s tribal, not racist.” Piper looks disgusted at Morello’s “tribalism,” and is clocked by a black inmate who understands that no benevolent white woman will be providing her with comforts like tissues and a toothbrush on her first night in prison.

Chapman’s multiculturalist ideals prove ineffective when Officer Healy rigs the election of the Women’s Advisory Council to make her a representative. Chapman advocates for preventative healthcare, reviving the broken GED program, re-opening the running track, and providing legal counseling. In her role as “a nice white lady” (which she names as her life’s ambition on several occasions), Chapman wants to address the problems that plague inmate populations, while the representatives of color want nothing more than a better brand of hot sauce in the cafeteria. But the joke is on her, as black representative Taystee scoffs, “Don’t be gettin’ all Amistad on me Chapman. Healy look like he gunnin’ for change?” Chapman is too naïve to understand that she cannot change Litchfield Prison, a lesson that the inmates of color learned long ago.

Season One, Episode 3: “Lesbian Request Denied”

Piper Chapman in lunch line

Still, viewers identify with Chapman’s disgust, and when the initial reviews emerged, critics were enamored by the show’s commitment to diversity, progressive appeal, and potential for moving the conversation about the broken criminal justice system forward. (( Riese, “How ‘Real’ Is ‘Orange Is The New Black’? Comparing The Show To The Memoir To The Numbers,” Autostraddle, 4 August 2013. )) But the first season’s focus on one character undercuts any potential it might have for a transformational politics of prison abolition or even reform: Pennsatucky.

One of the best pieces of criticism to emerge amidst buzz about the first season, is Yasmin Nair’s “White Chick Behind Bars,” with the subtitle, “Netflix’s Orange is the New Black gets an ‘A’ on queer issues, a ‘C’ on race and an ‘F’ on class.” While Nair gives the show an F on class because of its failure to address the structural inequalities that affect the relationship between prisons and queers, people of color, and the poor, she ends her piece with Pennsatucky: “We have no way to explain or address a world of relentless poverty that also breeds hatred towards every other kind of minority, and our best choice is to render the people in it as arch villains, beyond hope and redemption.” (( Yasmin Nair, “White Chick Behind Bars,” In These Times, 18 July 2013. )) Pennsatucky’s world, one that was bred of poverty and likewise breeds hatred toward all minorities, is absolutely necessary to the maintenance of the show’s multiculturalist ethos, and it is this ethos that prevents the show from doing any real work toward moving the conversation about the state of US criminal justice forward.

White poverty in America—associated with blind and blinding religious fundamentalism, racism, and homophobia—seems the natural enemy of liberal whiteness and its multiculturalism. If Americans stigmatize forms of blackness that fail to adhere to an idealized national culture, giving cause to black inequality, we likewise pathologize abject forms of whiteness. Pathologizing whiteness is what allows black inequality to appear fair and legitimate, rather than as a fact of racial power. White trash Pennsatucky captures this failure of adherence to an idealized American national culture. She does so most explicitly when her naked body flanks her boyfriend’s as they smoke cigarettes and discuss her upcoming abortion: a procedure necessary to keep her out of jail for endangering the fetus with her drug use. The young man asks her to keep it because “you show ‘em a baby, you get good money from the government” (ep 12).

Still, the show gets a lot right. The dehumanization of the prison population, physical and sexual assault by guards, the horrors of SHU (solitary confinement), the lack of legitimate mental and preventative healthcare. But the show’s central conflict is not around these issues that plague prisons and the communities of color that are funneled into them. Rather, the central conflict takes place between the upwardly mobile, sexually fluid white protagonist and the downwardly mobile, fundamentalist white hick. Pennsatucky’s poor white ilk becomes the natural enemy of a middle class white woman, who is simply trying to oppose the prison’s injustices. While Chapman’s privilege is played for comic relief, there is never an indication that her middle class whiteness as the national cultural standard has anything to do with the incarceration of the queers and women of color who surround her. Orange is the New Black will never be able to critique the US criminal justice system by accepting Pennsatucky as the natural enemy of multiculturalism and “the cool WASP, privileged white girl” as its hero. (( Radish, Christina. “Creator Jenji Kohan Talks ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, Her Research Into Prison Life, and Graphic Sex Scenes.” The Collider . ))

Pennsatucky as villain distracts viewers from a woman whose administrative violence terrorizes Litchfield prison to a degree unimaginable by the comparatively powerless Pennsatucky. Natalie Figueroa is the prison administrator with whom Chapman casts her lot at the first season’s close. Dropping her good liberal commitment to prison reform, Chapman uses her position as an upwardly mobile white woman with a media-connected boyfriend to strike a public relations deal with Figueroa. “Fig” bargains with Chapman for public immunity, clearing her to continue embezzling money from the prison to fund her teeth bleaching and new Mercedes, the actions that are responsible for the prison’s shrinking budget and lack of resources. Yet when Chapman beats Pennsatucky to a pulp at the conclusion of the first season, multiculturalist justice prevails: the white liberal prevails over white trash.

Season One, Episode 12: “Fool Me Once”

Pennsatucky discussing her abortion with her boyfriend

This is the portrait of white pathology. It guarantees the continuation of the myth central to the spirit of multiculturalism: that America is an exceptional meritocracy. White or black, those who are deserving will prosper, and those who are not will fail. An empty commitment to multiculturalism fuels this skewed system of stigma. It lets more systemic forms of violence against queers and women of color off the hook, while further deprivileging the economically disadvantaged figure of “white trash.” Most telling is that the Pennsatucky character in Piper Kerman’s memoir was not a Christian fundamentalist bent on reigning hellfire on the heads of minorities and queers, but rather part of a group Kerman called the “Eminemlettes”: “Caucasian girls from the wrong side of the tracks with big mouths and big attitudes, who weren’t taking shit from anyone (except the men in their lives). They had thinly plucked eyebrows, corn-rowed hair, hip-hop vocabularies, and baby daddies…” (( Piper Kerman, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010. 137. )) Among the changes Kohan made to craft Chapman’s story from Piper Kerman’s memoir was to cleanse Pennsatucky of any African American comportment: the hip-hop vocabulary, the corn-rows, the baby daddy. The show needs a villain, and that villain needs to be unwaveringly white. She needs to be the worst kind of white.

Actress Taylor Schilling with Author Piper Kerman

Actress Taylor Schilling, left, poses with Piper Kerman, author of the book Orange Is the New Black, now a Netflix series

In “Locked up: racism in the era of neoliberalism,” Angela Davis claims that today, the freedom of the capitalist market stands in for freedom itself. Morally legitimate multiculturalist world citizens deserve this market freedom, and those poor and oppressed peoples—those who end up cycled through the criminal justice system—are solely responsible for their plight. They cause their own criminalization just as they are to blame for their economic failure. (( Angela Davis, “Locked up: racism in the era of neoliberalism,” The Drum, 19 March 2008. )) The poor white woman who finds herself on the wrong side of the multiculturalist tracks legitimates this neoliberal brand of freedom: she had the choice to make between fundamentalist Christian bigotry and liberal open-mindedness, and for her crimes against diversity, she must pay.

And she should be held accountable for her racism and homophobia, no matter how and where it was bred. We abhor Pennsatucky for her WAC campaign promise of a “whites only bathroom” and her impulse to alert the guards to “lesbian activity” when she witnesses acts of tenderness pass between women within the prison’s walls. We should critique the immense and powerful Christian “moral majorities” of America that convince poor white folks that people of color and queers are trampling their livelihoods and civil liberties. The combination of poverty and fundamentalism that engenders Pennsatucky’s racist, homophobic zealotry does not excuse it. Still, in relishing the attack that ends the first season, with our mouths agape, finally satisfied that Piper Chapman has beaten Pennsatucky, we cheer for liberal whiteness and excuse an empty multiculturalism that pits these two women against one another in the first place. Chapman and Pennsatucky are actually two sides of the same coin, two differently oppressive and hegemonic forms of whiteness that perpetuate the prison as home to the women and queers of color for whom the title is true: orange is the new black.

Image Credits:

1. Taryn Manning as Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett
2. Piper Chapman in lunch line
3. Pennsatucky with her boyfriend
4. Actress Taylor Schilling with Author Piper Kerman

Please feel free to comment.