In a culture where the internet and social media is an all consuming entity that documents the highs and lows of human life as it is happening, and as it has happened before, encountering disagreeable, problematic, and even traumatizing content on a daily basis is not something that is unusual. The manifestation of this content and the resulting pain that it sustains is rooted in many things, from the politics of exterior consumability in the form of concealing or denying parts of oneself in order to present an acceptable image, to the denial of individual autonomy as it pertains to the portrayal of one’s body and, inherently, existence, by way of unchecked manipulation of the experiences of Others. These kinds of practices silence voices and erase identities for the sake of consumability and, by way, profit— and whether the profit is gained monetarily or socially it translates the same way, power.
And as the dominating authority of white supremacy reigns, the methodology that aids in expanding and sustaining its power is the circulation, fetishization, and monetization of the black body, specifically through the enticing of black trauma.
When my white peers talk to me about how “sad it must have been” that our fruit swung lifeless from trees, how “ridiculous it is” that Saartjie Baartman didn’t know peace until 161 years after her death, that they “can’t believe” that groups mobilized by silence and systematic support could ever remove the idea of humanity so far from a body that they could unapologetically maim and murder another human, I do not engage in conversation. I do not watch videos of strangers, who look just like the people I’m surrounded by, spewing racial epithets at “ghetto” black girls or making black jokes towards or at the expense of their tokenized friend. I always closed my eyes as reenactments of sustained physical abuse against the colonized were projected in my classrooms in place of critically engaging in discourse or literature— because they couldn’t even be bothered to just say that the most important thing we can stand to learn from our history of colonialism and slavery will be revealed in the suffering of the dehumanized. I scroll past all the videos that circulate on Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat of black bodies being abused, or of intraracial violence being cheered on or politicized. I have not seen Rodney King being beaten and I did not watch Eric Garner die.
This is all very much on purpose, that I refuse to allow myself to be exposed to the constant tremors of violence against people of color. Basely, I believe that the empathy that comes naturally with any possession of humanity prevents me from watching or enjoying the suffering and decimation of other human beings. Furthermore, the nature of and by which these types of media are consumed, somewhat routinely, is dehumanizing in its fetishization and devaluing in its oppression. Watching yourself being beaten and murdered repeatedly is not something that anyone should be subjected to. I want no more trauma than I already have to bear witness or experience to. And that decision is something that I own, that I have a right to protect and control.
Which brings me to the spark that lit the flame that provided this be written. After faithfully watching Orange Is the New Black (OITNB) for three years, despite its many pitfalls and the *potentially unavoidable* centralization of a static, uninteresting main character, watching the newest season has determined that this is the end of my faithful viewership.
At first I was relatively impressed with the new season. In part because I found the last season to be lackluster and so it was a comparative improvement, and also in part because I thought that the show was doing a good job of not only portraying the dangerous political and social structures that exist within prison (even more specifically— the exploitation of marginalized people for profit by way of the prison industrial complex, as communicated through the fictional prison’s take over by a private corporation), but by using current and historical subtexts and events in order to clearly illustrate how the prison reflects the climate of the United States as it pertains to race, class, and gender. Additionally, the show seemed to be trending towards discussions on ableism, specifically pertaining to severe and persistent mental illnesses (SPMIs), islamophobia, and “diversifying diversity” by expanding the racial narrative past black/white. But at the same time, right in the first episode Black Cindy said something that contradicted her usually unapologetic blackness, and bothered me because of how false, and reflective of internalized principles of white supremacy and self-dismissal it was, “black people can be racist [against white people] too.” And despite the fact that a good portion of us know that this assertion is not true, the “progressive” writers of the show deemed it necessary to impose this uninformed piece of dialogue on a black character, immediately reducing what little autonomy she had into tokenism. Despite this, I continued to watch whiteness work, as I do in day to day life; dismissing Black Cindy’s statement, and all of the questionable dialogue and events that followed, as some kind of attempt at political satire or social commentary. But as Ashleigh Shackelford remarked in her piece discussing how OITNB is “trauma porn for white viewers,” the show utilizes “every trick in the white supremacist handbook to exploit and gain attention with the pain of [black] bodies and experiences while utilizing satire and ‘true life’ plots to disguise it.” Microaggressions and acts of violence committed against marginalized characters, in turn targeted marginalized viewers by upholding oppression and perpetuating violence through the circulation of our bodies, manipulated for entertainment, and the enabling of oppressive structures using white centralization in order to conjure white sympathy. And then it all came to a traumatic head.
In the second to last episode, the closing scene is a peaceful protest against the cruel, militarized punishment that the prisoners are facing under a new regime. The scene ends with Poussey, a black, queer woman, being suffocated by an officer while she was attempting to save another black, queer woman with a SPMI. The scene pans out as her best friend, another black woman, escapes the clutches of a different officer to run and collapse at her side in anguished mourning. The entire season, which revolved around the fetishization of marginalized bodies, ended with a spectacularization of the destruction of a black, queer woman for shock’s sake. And while the fetishization, monetization, and politicalization of the black body was enough to incite anger, the stake was driven deeper when it was realized that the people who “manufactured” this moment for the entertainment of their audience didn’t even own it.
A few days, and a few episodes ago, I happened upon a tweet posted by the OITNB writers in which they were all pictured wearing orange for National Gun Violence Awareness Day.
This picture explained the entire season— the entire series. Not only was their staff nearly entirely white, the staff photograph was absent of even a single black person. So lacking general diversity, lacking even a token to abate accusations of poor writing, the OITNB writers effectively took a deeply traumatizing event, and manipulated it in order to politicized it for entertainment and for their profit— monetarily, and socially. The mostly white writers reasserted their position of power and authority.
And so, yet another staple of “progressive” millennial culture is corrupted by its dedication to upholding principles of white supremacy. Another decent try is for naught because cultural desire for change is only surface level, if even that. And so the necessity for autonomous visibility persists, because oppressive systems of power continue to be held up through every effort for progressive change if the people who own the knowledge and experience do not get to tell their stories. So listen.