Jenji Kohan has a knack for representing racism when it comes to the populations of prison: white, black, Latina, and others. While many of the remarks made are based on stereotypes, several characters validate as well as invalidate these generalizations. To illustrate the racial divide (white, black Hispanic, golden girls & others), the Women’s Advisory Council, which is whack, separates the women by race and forces the women to pick a leader or spokesperson for their group. While it has the potential to benefit the whole of the prison by giving each group a say in the “changes” counselor Healy “promises” to make in the prison, WAC forces the women to band together by race and rage against the others. Nicky Nichols tells Piper: “Just pretend you’re in the 1950s. It makes it easier to understand.” While it may be easy for us to believe that this is an antiquated mentality, the fact is that these attitudes persist.
Upon entering Litchfield, Lorna Morello gives Piper a toothbrush and teaches her the ropes: “We look out for our own.” When Piper questions her, Morello clarifies: “It’s tribal, not racist” (101). No matter how you look at it, the tribes are nearly all based on race, and inmates tend to “stick to their own.” When inmates of different tribes converse, there’s bound to be a comment thrown in about race, education, or status. When Piper approaches Sophia Burset in the salon about getting cocoa butter, Taystee tells her: “J Crews is around the corner” (102). Someone called Piper “Taylor Swift,” which Nicky saw as being “racist” (104), and when referring to a white woman, the Hispanic women often refer to them as “blanca” (meaning white).
When the women are contemplating the WAC elections and campaigning strategies, Sophia Burset expresses her desire to make positive changes to “healthcare [and promote] basic human rights,” to which Taystee Jefferson and Poussey Washington have something to say about. Jefferson says: “You ain’t never gonna change that shit. That’s white people politics.” The two go on to make fun of white women, adopting a “white accent.” Taystee begins:
“Let’s talk about healthcare, Mackenzie.”
Poussey: “Oh, Amanda, I’d rather not. It’s not polite.”
Jefferson: “Well, did you see that wonderful new documentary about the best sushi in the world? Of course now that I went vegan, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I might have before.”
Poussey: “You know, I just don’t have the time. Chad and I have our yoga workshop, then wine tasting class, and then we have to have really quiet sex. Every night at nine.”
Jefferson: “Well, did you hear that piece on NPR about hedge funds?”
Poussey: “Amanda, let me ask you. What do you think about my bangs these days? I mean, do you like ‘em straight down, or should I be doing more of a sweep to the side?”
Jefferson: “Sweep to the side.”
Among comments on physical appearance are socioeconomical critiques, which were discussed in the treatment about the circle of incarceration. Much reverse racism toward the whites focuses on economics and social class. When Janae Watson gets mad at Yoga Jones, she tells her: “Go on back to the suburbs, String cheese” (107). Even the most minor comments highlight the tribal divide and bitterness between the races.
Janae Watson is “welcomed” to Litchfield by a generalization from Caputo, who tells her that she’s not allowed to wear “baggy hip-hop pants” (102). Clearly offended, Watson latter lashes out at Luschek in the electrical department, scoffing over the minimal wage ($0.11 an hour). She scoffs: “I ain’t pickin’ cotton,” to which Luschek becomes exasperated: “God, you’re one of them” (104). Watson rightfully retorts: “You betcher ass I am.” Luschek’s racism continues and intensifies over the course of the day; when Janae proves that she can lend tools to inmates, he calls her a monkey and makes incredibly offensive monkey noises and gestures at her. Luschek’s remarks horrifyingly echo the treatment of pre-Civil War black Americans, which persisted through the late 20th century and that which still even lingers today: the attitude that blacks were “less-than” human.
Non-physical racist remarks are made by Red: “Black girls hear about a chicken? Of course this will happen.” Piper asks: “Why, because all black people love chicken?” to which Red ironically responds: “Don’t be racist. Because they’re all on heroin…” (105). Despite the fact that we don’t want to be racist, and are quick to correct others for being politically incorrect, we are all guilty of being racist at one time or another, whether or not we realize it.
Black Cindy doubts Taystee’s abilities in the real world and teases her: “What you gonna major in, ebonics?” (107). Surprisingly, her doubt reflects other races’ attitudes toward their own, highlighting how racism often creates self-fulfilling prophecies and damages the psyche of those oppressed and belittled.
Once again, we return to the antiquated mentality that proves to be contemporary: while giving her speech to run for WAC, Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Dogget suggests that “we should have a whites-only bathroom,” to which her methhead followers cheer. Taystee Jefferson reminds Pennsatucky that “this ain’t the fuckin’ Help, bitch. But you will eat my shit” (106).
The most direct example of how racism affects the black women of Litchfield is provided when Taystee goes to Sophia in the salon to have her hair done for her appeal. How she presents herself to the board is crucial to whether or not she will be released from prison. If the board is white, Taystee wants to appear as “white” as possible; however, someone points out that if she appears “black,” a white board member would have to accept her appeal so they aren’t seen as racist. Jefferson points out that if “there be brothers on the board, I’ll be free at last, yo, because ain’t no black man gonna let a fine black woman such as me (remain) in jail.” Black Cindy highlights that “brothers gonna be harder on you to show he got no bias. You better hope for the whiteys.” Poussey advises that “you hope for white women. Ya’ll know how they love drinkin’ wine with they friends, talkin’ ‘bout how sad it is black folks ain’t got they fair shakes. Givin’ they housekeepers an extra day off and shit. Ya’ll know what I’m sayin’.” To settle the dilemma, Sophia suggests that Taystee present herself as “the black best friend in the white girl movie” (107).
Just as individuals refer to different tribes by their race, Poussey refers to Daya Diaz’s mother as “Spanish Mami” (105), as if her name is not worth or impossible to remember. As if they are all one, Lorna Morello asserts that she knows what Hispanic people want: “They all want to come to America.” Nicky Nichols highlights that Lorna’s “entire world-view is based on West Side Story,” commenting on how misconceptions and stereotypes originate from pop culture and the media. Morello claims that she knows this generalization to be true because “my neighborhood is near them. They live like 20 to one apartment; they have more kids than even the Irish; the men like their women with big titties, big asses; they’re dirty; they’re greasy; their food smells nasty, and they’re taking all our jobs” (106).
Along the lines of economics and jobs, Nicky walks into Red’s kitchen, newly taken over by Gloria Mendoza and her “people,” as she says, announcing: “Immigration! Hands where I can see them!” (113), which visibly annoys the Hispanic women. The fact that Caputo places a Hispanic woman in charge of the kitchen comments on his character and the common understanding that all kitchens are run by the Spanish. Red bitterly comments on this phenomenon: “They all work in kitchens now, don’t they? They pop out of a trunk of a car and … God Bless America.”
Generalizations are made in regard to Hispanic customs, especially when others feel threatened by them. Red says that “the Spanish probably won’t even eat [the chicken on the loose.] They’ll just cut her throat and drink her blood, or something else superstitious” (105). Gloria Mendoza validates this stereotype, however, when she brews Daya a potion to supposedly abort her child. Even though she was pretending to have studied with her aunt, who was a santera, and claims to have “dabbled” in Santeria, we do not know the truth (109). However, because Daya buys into Gloria’s lie, we see that stereotypes are bought into by members of that race.
Regardless of which tribe the racist remarks originate from, and to whom they are directed, they share the quality of the fear of the unknown, or of the idea that one race is superior to another. At one time or another, members of every race have claimed that members of one particular group “all look alike” (104). Regardless of what is held against one race – drug use, the love of chicken – these very qualities or afflictions are found throughout every single race, even though they are attributed to particular groups. It’s not just the blacks or Russians that love chicken – all races love chicken; blacks don’t all use heroin, but members of every other race partake in using.
Racism focuses on looks and actions; despite what we choose or are conditioned to think and believe, “they ain’t got different bones” (106), as Mama Diaz explains. Race is skin-deep; humanity is bad to the bone.