Of White Supremacists and Corrupt Prison Guards: a look at OITNB’s social commentary

By now we know that Orange is the New Black loves to give its viewers a social commentary. It’s not exactly a shock either that a lot of that social commentary focuses upon racial tensions, making Litchfield Prison a little microcosm for the events happening in America right now, drawing its audience’s attention to problems they might not even be aware of. Kohan and her team of writers do a great job at humanising the characters in the show, making us realise that they’re far more than just prisoners; we sympathise with them, we love them, we hate them, but we all look at the way they’re treated, whether it be by guards or by each other and think, “wow, that’s pretty fucked up”. What we need to do now is consider how these story lines apply to real life, and what the writers are implying about these problems. (Warning: major spoilers ahead.)

Piper Chapman is a woman who has grown up in a very privileged environment; she has an ignorance that makes her unaware of what impact her actions can have on other people – and the major mistake she made this season was trying to wipe out her Latina rivals in the dirty panty business. Through this rivalry, we see Piper manipulate her position as a ‘trusted’ prisoner to have Captain Piscatella stop and search the Latinas for stolen panties. This leads to the guards racially profiling the prisoners, and use this as an opportunity to molest the women. Furthermore, Piper is given the privilege to start up the ‘community carers’ to help crack down on gangs in the prison, which ends up becoming a white supremacist group. Does she do anything to subdue this? Not really, no. She uses it to her advantage to protect herself from Maria and Co., and doesn’t actually stop until she’s branded with a swastika.

So what does this tell us about racial relations in America?

We see Piper as hugely selfish for using the white supremacists to protect her – she doesn’t share their ideas of ‘white shame’ and ‘white lives matter’; all she really wants is to take back (what she believes is) her dominance in the prison panty business.

If we’re applying this situation to real life, there’s a reference to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, and how the whites in the prison feel excluded from it because it doesn’t directly address them; in real life, people aren’t so direct by stating ‘white lives matter’, but instead say ‘all lives matter’ to appear more… ‘inclusive’ of other races. The issue with speaking over the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has been addressed time and time again – we already know all lives matter, and by altering the name of the movement to make it far more general ignores the major issue within the US right now. People should have caught onto the fact that police brutality is particularly directed towards African-Americans, and whilst it is difficult to gather official statistics on this, an article written in September 2015 by the Taking Note blog on the New York Times has said this:

ProPublica, found that black males aged 15 to 19 were 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white males in that age group. And The Washington Post reports that unarmed black men were seven times more likely to be killed by police this year than unarmed white men.

What the writers of Orange is the New Black are telling us is to stop being so damn self-centred. It’s great to know that you think your own life matters, and that everyone else’s does too – a big round of applause to you. But think about how racism still impacts our society today, and how it’s still leading to the unjustified murders of black people across the USA. If all lives really do matter, then it shouldn’t be that difficult to acknowledge that black lives are particularly suffering right now. So, it should be really easy to accept that the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is an extremely necessary cause.

As for the focus on hostility from the white supremacists towards the Latinas this season, this identifies the mixed – but mostly negative – attitudes in America towards Latin Americans currently. The point of this focus was to 1) remind us of the racism they still face in today’s society, and 2) inform us all that not all Latinos are Mexican – hence the focus on Maria’s Dominican pride background. A study by the Pew Research Center in September 2015 found this:

Americans are more likely to say the impact of Latin American immigrants on U.S. society is mostly negative (37%) than to say it is mostly positive (26%). An additional 35% say the impact of Latin American immigrants on U.S. society is neither positive nor negative.

My knowledge of attitudes towards Latin Americans in the USA isn’t particularly extensive, so the fact that Orange is the New Black draws attention to these issues through their diverse cast encourages me to learn more about them, and have a greater understanding of what their lives are like outside of how they’re portrayed in the media. It opens my eyes to affairs I should be concerned about, and shouldn’t turn a blind eye to just because it doesn’t affect me. Orange is the New Black teaches me not to be a Piper Chapman.

The acceptance of the ‘community carers’ frighteningly racist ideologies from both Piper and the prison guards portrays a wider concern across America right now: the adaptation of the KKK and their survival in today’s age. It’s disturbing how a hate group are still able to operate in this day and age, but they’ve done it. They’re no longer a unified group, meaning each chapter may promote their own personalised doctrine – there are those who take advantage of the new technology that wasn’t around during the group’s existence in the 19th and 20th centuries, spreading the message of white supremacy to a potentially larger audience than what was previously available to them in that time.

In season 4, we see the new guards in Litchfield abuse and humiliate the prisoners for their own entertainment. Turning a blind eye to the promotion of white supremacy is just another form of this dehumanisation, only instead of feeling them up or forcing them to eat a live baby mouse, they let the prisoners destroy each other through racial hatred. Clearly the message here is an obvious one: racism is poisonous, and creates dangerous divisions within society that only leads to disorder. Instead of yelling at each other all the time and claiming that one group is better than the other, we need to shut up, listen, and compromise with each other, or we’ll just end up in a constant cycle of destruction.

Kohan and the Orange is the New Black team want us to do more than just sit down and binge-watch their show – they want us to sit down and binge-watch their show, then get off our asses and educate ourselves on the social issues addressed in their writing. Instead of being like Piper and riding high on the white waves of privilege and doing nothing in our positions to speak out against the injustices we see around us and then using them to our advantage, we need to learn, inform, and then act on our concerns. To prevent the breakdown of our society, we need to listen to the voices of the troubled, and we need to do something to help them.

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