“Can’t we have a race war? It’ll be fun!” Cindy—everyone’s favorite Afro-puff enthusiast—exclaims in the premiere of season 4 of Orange Is the New Black. Be careful what you wish for; this entire season is a study in what happens when microaggressions go macro. Frankly, I wasn’t ready. If you’ve yet to watch the new season, you’re not ready, either. Spoilers abound below.
Admittedly, I started my OITNB binge-watching a few days late this season, so I had a spoiler of my own, having seen the tweet above prior to my personal viewing party. Since past seasons have relied on a liberal use of stereotypes, I can’t say I was surprised by the predominance of whiteness in this picture, but holy lack of representation, Batman! In a show centered on women, it’s interesting that the writing staff is almost half male. But in a show featuring so many black primary characters, it’s inexcusable that there are more dogs in the writing room than black people, particularly given the intensity of the issues the show attempts to address this season. Maybe someone was out sick on picture day?
So, if this season of OITNB was more triggering than entertaining, does the blame lie solely in the lack of diversity in the “whiters’ room”—an actual verbal gaffe I made while discussing this story with my editor—or is the harsh reality of race in America something we simply can’t escape from, even for 13 episodes of television? Aside from the epithets that were so freely flung about, let’s revisit how season 4 of OITNB might have kept it a little too real when it came to race:
You always hurt the ones you love, don’t you? This season, Poussey finally gets the love she deserves, via an unexpected romance with earnest activist Brook Soso, an Asian American. But in episode 3, the well-meaning Brook shows her true colors when she tells Poussey’s hero (Judy King) that Poussey is the child of a “crack whore”—a statement based solely on her own racist assumptions, and far from the truth. Anyone who’s been in an interracial relationship knows the risk of being racially fetishized. But this storyline is particularly poignant because it presumptively equates blackness with dysfunction and criminality—which is ironic, given that both partners in this relationship are in prison.
2. When Piper Hit “Peak Whiteness”
After four seasons, it appears that the writers have finally accepted that Piper, the central character of OITNB, is also widely regarded as the least likable. (I can’t help wondering if the real Piper is as entitled and insufferable as the character she inspired.) In season 4 she repeatedly uses her well-established privilege as an educated WASP to undermine her professional rivals—who happen to be Latinas—by insinuating that they are a prison gang. It’s the type of racist microaggression many of us are all too familiar with offscreen. On-screen, it predictably sparks not only aggressive and humiliating racial profiling by the almost all-white correctional staff, but also the prison-sanctioned formation of “the Litchfield Safety Task Force,” an all-white assemblage of inmates led by—you guessed it—Piper.
To the surprise of absolutely no one (except Piper, who is eventually literally branded a racist), the Litchfield Safety Task Force instantly becomes a haven for the most virulent racists on campus. It’s worth noting here that a group of white women is considered a “task force,” while a group of brown women is automatically a “gang”—despite the fact that said task force is intent on claiming “turf” and “white power.” But most significant is the willful ignorance of the group’s members—a clear parallel to the masses of Americans who have abandoned critical thinking in favor of prejudice and hero worship (*cough* Trump supporters). As one member of the LSTF tellingly asks in defense of maintaining her intentional illiteracy, “What if other people are having these experiences that are different from mine but still totally legit? And what if I’m supposed to think about that before I start judging their lives?” God forbid.
One of the standouts this season is Judy King, a Martha Stewart-meets-Paula Deen maven who is fairly unabashed in embracing her privilege, even to the point of referring to herself as “the friendliest racist that you’re ever gonna meet.” In one of the funnier plotlines, it’s revealed that she once made a blatantly racist series of videos featuring minstrel-inspired puppets named “Chitlin Joe” and “Watermelon Sam.” With encouragement from her bleeding-heart-liberal roommate, Yoga Jones, she becomes convinced that this decades-old transgression makes her a present target for the black inmates. It’s a classic case of white victimhood when the oppressor feels threatened by the oppressed, and it’s aptly articulated by Poussey, who asks, “Did it ever occur to you that it’s racist to think that black people are gonna beat you up for being racist?” Food for thought.
Talk about triggering: When Crystal Burset turns up on Warden Caputo’s doorstep to advocate for Sophia, her unfairly confined transgender spouse (played by Laverne Cox), new girlfriend Linda threatens Crystal with a gun, on the grounds that she’s trespassing. It’s a clear nod to the circumstances that led to the death of Renisha McBride (and Trayvon Martin before her). I could barely get through the scene as I braced myself for the same outcome. Crystal thankfully escapes without harm, but the ensuing sexual excitement that Caputo and Linda get from this power play was even more revolting to watch, since it demonstrated the ease with which black lives are often disregarded.
In a single episode, OITNB managed not only to kill off one of its most beloved characters but also to invoke some of the most high-profile incidents of police brutality in the past two years, including Dajerria Becton, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Michael Brown. What begins as a peaceful silent protest—a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement—quickly escalates into a confrontation that results in Poussey being crushed to death beneath the knee of an overzealous correction officer. Once again, we’re reminded of how often black bodies are regarded as inanimate objects, as well as of the blind power that seems to come with wearing a badge. It’s a horrifying scene, heartbreaking in its basis in reality.
It could be argued that as provocative as this season of OITNB is, it’s also the result of lazy writing, since its plotlines were repeatedly ripped from the headlines of some of the most high-profile racial incidents in recent years. To be fair, so were the plots of much-beloved shows like The Good Wife, Being Mary Jane and the entire Law & Order franchise. Is it a simple case of art imitating life? Or is it, as writer Ashleigh Shackelford suggests, “trauma porn written for white people”—and can we really expect much more from a show written largely by white people?
As was no doubt intended, I keep thinking about Poussey’s death. Specifically, I wonder if or how it might have been scripted differently, were there more diversity on the OITNB writing staff. There’s inarguably a need for the representation in that room to better reflect the cast, but was the story told badly? Or would I just prefer knowing that the next Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay or Ryan Coogler had written it? After all, did this scene play out much differently from the portrayal of Oscar Grant’s death in Fruitvale Station?
In an era when we increasingly urge “white allies” to educate and inform their people on the ways that their privilege and complacency function to support and perpetuate racism, can we entirely write off the efforts of this season of OITNB? Does who tells our stories supersede the value of the stories being told? Or might it be worth allowing our so-called white allies to make the attempt, potentially fail, and get called on it if and when they do? Isn’t that a necessary part of the education, too? As Samira Wiley, who portrayed Poussey, says:
At the end of the day, I honestly feel pretty honored to be able to be the person or the character or the actor they entrusted with the responsibility of bringing this story to light and bringing this story to a bunch of people in whatever parts of America or whatever parts of the world where this hasn’t really permeated their world yet.
And it’s true: For those who would remain willfully oblivious to anything outside of their own myopic experience, this season of OITNB literally brings the point home. Unfortunately, for those of us still trying to convince the world that black lives matter as much as anyone else’s, it painfully hits us where we live.
Maiysha Kai is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, fashion model, devoted auntie and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, single black bombshell who recently strutted into her 40s. She is also an expert at oversharing who chronicles her attempts at dating—and adulting—on 40onFleek.