Piper Kerman — a
blonde yuppiewho went to Smith College — was not a typical inmate when she did time in federal prison, and Redditors were quick to point that out during an
Ask Me Anything sessionWednesday.
Kerman served 11 months for a drug offence at a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., and her memoir “Orange is the New Black” has an outsider’s perspective. Many of the other prisoners in the book are black and Latino and far less educated than she is, as seen in the Netflix series inspired by the book.
“First of all, I have to say that I love that show, and love the book. But I have one big question. Do you think a women of colour at Danbury would have had the opportunity to write a book & turn it into a successful TV show like you did?” a Redditor called kathrynbigelow asked.
Here was Kerman’s response, which didn’t exactly answer the question:
I think inequality and white privilege are one of the big topics of the book. Racism is on stark display in the criminal justice system, whether you are talking about policing, prosecution, sentencing, or what happens to people during incarceration. Andrea James has written a book about her own experience in the same prison I was held in: www.amazon.com/Upper-Bunkies-Unite-Thoughts-Incarceration/dp/0988759306
I also think this is true in terms of how mass media functions in the U.S. [“Orange is the New Black” producer] Jenji Kohan has described the character of Piper Chapman as her “Trojan horse”, saying that she could not have successfully pitched a show about women of colour, old women, poor women to any major media corporation. I’m not an expert on Hollywood, but that’s her POV
It’s my hope that the response to the show, and most especially to the range of characters, is evidence that there is a great deal of interest and appetite for much more diversity in media.
Another Redditor was less kind and apparently balked at a column about Kerman’s prison experience that her husband, Larry Smith, wrote for The New York Times’ Modern Love column.
“How do you feel about including a plotline in which your husband appropriates your story to advance his career, while your entire career relies on appropriating stories of women of colour?” Reddit user Drakeytown wrote.
Here was another uncomfortable question, from Redditor zlooh. “A serious question, and not to be meant in a disrespectful or snide manner: Do you think your story – basically the experience of a woman in prison because of unjust drug laws – would have been published/given attention/turned into a television show if you were not white and from a middle class/upper-middle class background?”
Kerman didn’t answer those last two. While she has brought a ton of attention to flaws in the U.S. prison system, she’s also gotten a bit of flak for being a white person who’s getting so much attention for having done time.
The Nation’s Aura Bogado voiced some of those criticisms in a harsh column called “White is the New White.” Bogado points out that slave narratives became fashionable in the mid-19th century after white people began writing introductions for them.
“The white practice of verifying the lives of black fugitives who were skillfully plotting their own liberation has changed in circumstance and in medium — but the role of white people at its center has not,” she wrote. “Today, its latest manifestation is playing out in the Netflix hit series, Orange Is the New Black.”
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