The Racism on “Orange is the New Black” Makes It Traumatic to Watch

This article includes some general plot description of season four of Orange is the New Black

Racism is a constant presence in my life. Through time, war, Oprah, and Obama, it’s always been there. It’s been at least ten years since someone has called me a “nigger” to my face but mere days since my intelligence has been questioned, my attractiveness qualified, and my personal space violated by a stranger with deep curiosity about my hair. I want to scream out, at least once a week, “Let me live! I’m a good person!” But I don’t. These are things I live with, and you know, I make it just fine. I make jokes, I commiserate, I eat cookies. Having brown skin of any race grants us a special kind of resilience that helps us keep our heads up.

To maintain that level of resilience, I require a fair amount of down time away from humans. Some call it “self-care.” I call it “watching a lot of TV and drinking bubble water.” I have a full DVR, a Netflix account, a remote that I speak into and, like magic, show options appear. After a very fun week of vacation with my friends, I settled in to watch the new season of Orange is the New Black. This show has been lauded, rightly, as a vehicle for telling stories about women we don’t get to hear or see very often. The plight of women in prison is fascinating, and the tales of how they got there are engrossing. Over the last three seasons, I’ve seen so many Black and Latina women take their star turns on this show. They get screen time and storylines with depth and chances to win Hollywood establishment awards. They won Emmys! It has been wonderful to watch and support the show as part of the renaissance of meaty roles for women of color in the last few years of television.

But this season of Orange is the New Black has changed my desire to watch the show, no matter the amount of good it has done. This season has brought racism into my house, a place it is not generally allowed.

Piper Chapman, the show’s protagonist, rallies all of the white people in prison and “accidentally” starts a race war over panties. Yup. She runs a panty mafia selling stank underpants to people online. The Latinas want to start their own side hustle involving underpants, and Piper aligns with the guards and the other white prisoners to keep a watch on the others’ “gang activity.” It devolved from there along racial lines and did not relent. The people of color are no longer allowed to congregate. Guards search the Latina prisoners forcefully and daily to look for contraband. They are thrown against walls and called racial slurs, and one prisoner is forced to swallow a live, newborn rat.

The white prisoners and guards also use racial slurs constantly, in every episode. Slurs like ape, brownies, darkies, and the aforementioned nigger. The words are spoken with such flourish that I could almost feel the writer’s glee as she pounded on the keyboard writing dialogue, screen glowing back at her face. I turned the show off for good when one prisoner said to another, “Remember apes are fast. They swing from vines.”

Those words were bullets that cut through me like they were spoken directly at me. I wanted to know who wrote them and why.

One image, shared in a tweet, explained my hurt and frustration completely: The Orange is the New Black writers room is full of white people. Reporters at Fusion crunched the numbers from the show’s credits listed on IMDB and found that of the show’s 16 credited writers, 14 are white, one is Asian-American, one is Latino, and none are Black. To be sure, white people can write for people of color. They’ve been doing it forever. But to be in a room where few people of color can say “that’s going too far” might mean trouble for viewers and fans of the show. Having a show with such vicious racism written by an almost-all-white crew changes the way I view it.

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It felt like white people scripted slurs, some I’ve never heard until watching this show, and torpedoed them into my living room, and they resonate in my head. I’m left wondering if those slurs have been sitting on their hearts, waiting to be written. Did those writers grow up using those words or around people who did? Are they liberals who never say those words in public but have been waiting to use them in this show starring a majority of women of color? Did they have to Google “best slurs to use on Blacks and Latinas?” I obviously won’t get any answers, but I want them to know that with a large medium like television, their writing wields the power to dehumanize me by choice. I feel a sting every time I am reminded of what white people secretly think of me.

Of course, the hard-to-hear lines are intentional. One of Orange is the New Black’s goals is to provoke viewers to think about things that don’t get enough attention in our society. It focuses on some hard situations many people would rather look away from, like the prison-industrial complex, sexual assault, and, yes, racism. But as a person of color watching the show, it felt traumatic. I already know about and experience racism. Watching such visceral racist acts in every episode didn’t feel enlightening, it felt exhausting.

The show should have come with a warning, not just for adult themes but for racial violence. I don’t need to hear, once again, that if a group of people like me are congregating, white people will view us as dangerous.

Thanks for the lesson, Orange is the New Black, but you are now dangerous to me.  

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by Karol Collymore
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7 Comments Have Been Posted

Mixed feelings about this

Mixed feelings about this article. I completely understand that you were upset by the racism in the show. I think it would be impossible to watch it and not feel some sort of distress or disgust or something, regardless of the colour of your skin. While many of the characters said things that went too far, one must consider that it was intended to invoke emotion. Additionally, just because the writers are predominantly white does not mean that they do not consult with anyone on the outside. There is a chance that we don't need to be totally alarmed by white people's disturbing knowledge of the worst racist slurs to use.

I think the writer is saying

I think the writer is saying she chooses not to watch the show anymore because the racism depicted doesn't add anything to her life. It doesn't enlighten her because she lives as a woman of color and therefore has experienced racism first-hand.

I think many of us make choices like this in the television we chose to consume. For example, I don't watch Game of Thrones even though it is very popular because I know the violence (sexual and otherwise) would be very upsetting for me, and I like to watch television for fun, not to be upset. That's not to say there isn't a place for television to evoke emotion (I watched the most recent Roots reboot and felt very disturbed by what I saw.) But it's also ok to say that something have scenes that are too shocking and choose not to watch.

I don't watch OITNB. I am

I don't watch OITNB. I am white. I am appalled at what is apparently on this show. That said, the author almost reaches a rationale for this disgusting racism in her article here. Perhaps this is a way to demonstrate a POC's reality for insulated white people. The author mentions that the show tells many stories that too often aren't, or have never been, told. I hope to heaven that's why, because, though I've never watched, I sure would have had the same response as the author. It is certainly very suspect to have this kind of content coming from almost all white writers.

Thank you

I appreciate knowing what I am in for if I watch Season Four of OITNB. Any chance at all these writers want to start a dialogue about the use of racial power structures and their role as a predominantly white writing staff in identifying that trend in prisons? Thank you for sharing the ways this is problematic.

Thank you for sharing

First off, thank you for sharing this.

I found this season of OITNB emotionally exhausting. So much racism, transphobia, and homophobia. At first I felt it was a good thing, because the show's bringing light to the issues some people choose to ignore (because their privilege allows them to). After a while, I started to question why so many racial, transphobic, and homophobic slurs were being thrown out. At first I dismissed it thinking it brought awareness, then it became validation for using this hurtful, traumatic language.

How did the actors of color feel when they got the script? Were they allowed to feel uncomfortable? Did they have agency in the writing of the show? Or were they handed the script by white writers and forced to (directly or indirectly) act it out regardless, as they are contracted to do so? These women of color were acting very traumatic scenes, and memorized every line - do these lines trigger previous traumatic experiences which play endlessly in their heads? Am I the only one thinking all this?

Thank you for sharing

First off, thank you for sharing this.

I found this season of OITNB emotionally exhausting. So much racism, transphobia, and homophobia. At first I felt it was a good thing, because the show's bringing light to the issues some people choose to ignore (because their privilege allows them to). After a while, I started to question why so many racial, transphobic, and homophobic slurs were being thrown out. At first I dismissed it thinking it brought awareness, then it became validation for using this hurtful, traumatic language.

How did the actors of color feel when they got the script? Were they allowed to feel uncomfortable? Did they have agency in the writing of the show? Or were they handed the script by white writers and forced to (directly or indirectly) act it out regardless, as they are contracted to do so? These women of color were acting very traumatic scenes, and memorized every line - do these lines trigger previous traumatic experiences which play endlessly in their heads? Am I the only one thinking all this?

RU white?

Haley are you white? Be honest.

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