Orange is the New Black is a Study in Why Black/White “Diversity” Is Not Enough

TV Features Orange Is the New Black
Orange is the New Black is a Study in Why Black/White “Diversity” Is Not Enough

The following article contains some mild spoilers from the first four episodes of Orange is the New Black’s fourth season.

At Somerville High School, if you were African-American, you were a minority—but not just among the white students, among the black kids too. “What are you?” is the question you would be asked (almost accusingly), probably everyday, especially if you were light-skinned. During my freshman year, most of the black students were Haitain, and most of the light-skinned people were Latino, Brazilian or Cape Verdean. When I left Somerville and ended up in Cleveland, Ohio, the white students were the minority. Nobody ever tried to speak Creole or Spanish to me—it was always [correctly] assumed that I was just plain ol’ black American. And when my two best friends came to visit from Somerville—one black, one El Salvadorian—I had an impossible time explaining to a couple of guys that the latter was Hispanic, but not Puerto Rican. See, everyone they knew who spoke Spanish—those few in our school—was Puerto Rican. How could she speak Spanish and not be Puerto Rican? If I’m not in Somerville, I’ve discovered that nobody ever knows what I’m talking about when I talk about Cape Verdeans. In college in New York, I became friends with a student from Trinidad, and was shocked to learn from my Haitain friend back in Somerville that [vast generalization ahead] Trinis don’t like Haitains, and vice-a-versa. One summer between semesters I started subletting an apartment in Inwood. I was Dominican. As in, nobody cared what I said about being black, or how much I tried to protest. I looked Dominican, I lived in Inwood, I knew enough Spanish to get around—they baptized me for that summer: you’re Dominican. And then I went back to my school in Bronxville, and got an apartment in the Bronx. There. I was black again.

This is my America, and the America of so many others, which is one reason why Orange is the New Black has always been a powerful series. “Diversity” (also known as normalcy) has never been an issue for the show, but the first few episodes of Season Four are incredibly powerful examples of how so-called diversity can yield eternally fascinating storylines.

Leanne and Angie
“Is Dominicans the ones that wear gold chains and smoke cigars and swim to Florida?”
“Is it the coffee and the coke and ‘Hips Don’t Lie’?”
“No. They talk a lot and they play baseball, and they’re always like, ‘I’m super not black!’ even though Haiti’s the exact same island.”
“Yeah… I hate them.”

Dominicans have come to Litchfield (AKA Glitchfield) Prison, and their presence is creating new unions and new divides among the inmates. Maria’s flashbacks in episode two (“Power Suit”) helps frame the themes of race, racism and nationalism on the show. In the premiere, Black Cindy Tova poses the question that the show seems preoccupied with—can black people be racist? Later we ask the same question about the Puerto Rican characters—can they be racist against the Dominicans?

They sure sound racist. But Daya’s mom explains it pretty well:

She’s not racist. She just says racist shit.

It sounds like a contradiction (and like the general premise of the Republican party right about now), but, as Tova pointed out in her explanation of America (“land of the free, home of the racists”), even though black Americans don’t have access to the power that would allow them to enforce racism, it doesn’t make them incapable of expressing racist thoughts. For the most part, on Orange is the New Black, we’re watching various factions of powerless groups of people in America be “racist” towards each other. That’s been true about the show from the beginning, but it’s more pronounced and specific this year. Maria and her friend are slowly becoming disenchanted with the casual “racism” being thrown their way by the Puerto Rican inmates they used to roll with, and that’s partly because they feel a certain strength in numbers now. The Dominican Pride that Maria rejected all those years ago is starting to look more and more appealing.

But Maria’s story is just one thread in a larger collection. We also have Litchfield’s celebrity inmate Judy King—part Martha Stewart, mostly Paula Deen. Her exchange with Soso in represents another new approach to handling racism on TV. Soso claims that Poussey gets nervous around Judy because of institutionalized racism and—oh yeah—her crackhead mom. In a way, it makes her an even more offensive character than Judy. Nobody is more well-meaning than Soso and the fact that she automatically assumed that her would-be girlfriend was the product of drugs and poverty, is proof of how infuriating and dangerous well-meaning people can be, especially when it comes to race (Poussey, by the way, speaks three languages and comes from a fairly privileged background, raised by two well-educated parents).

Even Judy’s rivalry with Yoga Jones invokes an interesting issue—where one white woman (who teaches yoga) believes she is at odds with another white woman (who’s asked to teach a cooking class). Yoga Jones is constantly trying to prove that she isn’t a Judy King—one of those white women over there, but these early episodes of the show seek to align them. This alignment troubles Yoga Jones because, well, what if they are more alike—as two white women with a certain amount of privilege—than she wants to believe?

Black Cindy Tova and Crazy Eyes
Look at Obama.
He got to be President, so the rest of us get to to be—
—in prison.

In the dialogue, in the typically outrageous jokes and political references and in the plot, Orange is the New Black is proving that—just like anything else—race and racism in America goes beyond “black and white.” The answer to the diversity issues in film and TV is not and has never been to simply throw about more black characters, or to input a black actor in a role originally written for a white actor. And yes, TV consistently does better to bring about these non-white American narratives that so many of us crave, but we still have a ways to go before, for example, a Haitain family gets the ABC sitcom they deserve, and a Cape Verdean character takes the lead in a new HBO drama. As far as pop culture goes, Trinis have Nicki Minaj (and it’s exciting to think about what her sitcom is going to look like), but that’s not near enough.

With all these TV shows set in New York (and Brooklyn, no less), it’s shocking that OITNB remains an anomaly. And it’s even more shocking that a show already celebrated for what it accomplishes by merely introducing all these characters of color, still continues to evolve. Would that all TV shows embraced such change—change in tone, change in context and change in the actual content of the show. Orange is the New Black (in front of and behind the camera) is continuing to embrace such change and—as a result—the great Netflix series brings shame to all those shows still struggling to add even a splash of color or culture to the stories they tell.

Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin