Popular Netflix show, ‘Orange is the New Black’ is often viewed as being progressive, in its radical portrayal of gender, races, and sexuality. Therefore, I believe that the show is a good example of contemporary African American representation, especially for black women, by presenting a variety of characters with different backgrounds and personalities.
The ideas of separatism and assimilation are continually represented in ‘Orange is the New Black’, as when the protagonist, Piper, is first introduced to the prison community, the divide between prisoners is clear, with cell blocks being segregated and named “The Ghetto”, “The Suburbs” etc. according to the races of prisoners in said blocks. Separatism between races is also clear during cafeteria scenes, in which there is a clear divide, with the black women sitting together at one table, the Hispanic women at another, etc. Furthermore, throughout the series, there are conflicts between said racial groups, which only emphasises the division of them. An example of this would be the introduction of Vee to the prison, a black woman who takes control of the ‘Black Girls’ clique, and manipulates others, especially Suzanne, getting her to attack others, and further separate the African American prisoners from others during the second season. This is not to say that the black women are being completely forced into this separate community, as on several occasions, we see members of the ‘Black Girls’ clique mocking white culture, such as Poussey and Taystee doing impersonations of privileged white females, and talking about “yoga workshops”, “wine-tasting classes”, and veganism, suggesting the division is mutual.
In terms of assimilation, it can be argued that some African American women in the show may be deemed separate from the ‘Black Girls’ clique, through their personalities and interactions with white women. One prime example of this would be Sophia, a black transgender female prisoner, who regularly styles the hair of other prisoners. Sophia isn’t associated with the ‘Black Girls’ clique, and is seen interacting with white prisoners, especially Piper, more than the likes of Suzanne and Taystee. In this way, it can be argued that Sophia’s character helps to lessen the separatism between races in ‘Orange is the New Black’, although not completely.
Another interesting aspect to this representation of African American women in the show would be in considering the aspects of the characters, which are separate from their race, and how this contributes to the idea of the separatism between themselves and other characters. For example, Sophia’s transgender nature is always controversial, but is brought to the forefront in season 3, and the transphobia which Sophia continually faces only acts to further her status as a minority in this community, leading to her being attacked by a number of inmates, and facing literal separation by being thrown in SHU, to “protect” her. In a similar way, Suzanne is introduced to the show as a lesbian who almost stalks Piper, making her seem intimidating, but also a comical character in the way she acts, being nicknamed ‘Crazy Eyes’. Later, when it becomes clear that Suzanne has a mental illness, this also seems to further her separation, not only from white and Hispanic prisoners, but even the ‘Black Girls’ clique, as they don’t seem to understand or sympathise with her, especially after she is manipulated by Vee. There are countless other examples, such as Cindy converting to Judaism, and Poussey’s sexuality.
Therefore, I believe that the racial separatism within the prison is clear throughout the series ‘Orange is the New Black’, and is only furthered by other forms of separatism, caused by issues of identity, mental health, religion, sexuality etc.