“____ is the new Black” : On Filling in the Blank

This summer we are confronted yet again with the “____ is the new Black” cliche that is most recognizable in trendster conversation about the newest consumer fad. Anyone can fill in the blank with a buzzword and we can deduce arbitrary aimless meaning from its final output (think: “Class is the new Race” affirmative action rally cry, Sex-Positivism is the new Feminism, Pomosexuality is the new Sexual Identity, Technology is the Future, etc.) Most commonly the saying is employed to announce a new consumer or lifestyle trend, the current “little black dress,” the wardrobe staple (according to the fashion guru’s, black is always highly fashionable.) These bite-size, simple equations are readily consumable, yet hardly add anything to the conversations without explicit explanation.

Clichés rob language of its depth and complexity, reducing it to a series of superficial observations that really don’t tell you anything about their subject.

As of late, I’m hearing a lot about the Netflix original series Orange is the new Black based on Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison. Curious about it’s content, I have watched a few episodes. I hoped, as the title may suggest, that the show would address how the color orange, symbolizing here incarceration, has become a new form of institutionalized racism against people of color. Will it highlight narratives of people of color to transform them into individuals for a consuming culture hooked on racial stereotypes and stock characters? Not exactly.

According to Heavy.com, the show’s title carries a very different, less serious meaning.

Piper Chapman, the main character is a pretty, white affluent New Yorker. Her type would be in circles that use the phrase “___ is the new black” and the title reflects the contrast of her persona to those of the other women in the prison since well, Orange (jumpsuits) is (are) the New Black, at least for her. She will no longer be occupied with questions of high fashion, but of how to survive prison.

The thing is, can we blame the author for that empty analysis? After all, the saying “[insert here] is the new Black” has become so ubiquitous that it carries little to no meaning at all. The show’s first couple of episodes don’t provide much for us to work with other than occasionally giving voice to a transgender woman and queering white women. Piper’s Orange jumpsuit becomes her new temporary lifestyle phase, an identity she is merely trying on for a year. Presented as the most “normal” character (white, cis-gender, college-educated), Piper’s jail stint is presented as transient and just a 13-month phase. Piper is displayed over a backdrop of more permanent members of the prison, those who are transgender, women of color, immigrants and lesbians. To those, orange is just… well, orange.

The thoughtlessness or lack of intention behind the show’s title reveals its noncommittal attitude towards addressing representation of people of color, queer women, monogamism, monosexism and sexual assault. The show problematizes the differential treatment of white prisoners, such as Piper, while still centering the show around sympathizing with the white inmates Alex, Nicky, Yael and Tiffany. The show makes it easy for the (white) American public to sympathize with the individual story of a cute blonde girl smuggling high quality drugs across an expensive border than to acknowledge the institutionalized mass incarceration of young black men and men of color for petty nonviolent drug crimes.

At moments for character development, Piper is confronted by her privilege. This behavior is always in contrast to the other inmates, which is very much on trend with current dialogue surrounding identity politics in which people of privilege are asked to confess and ask for forgiveness for the power they hold over others. Piper’s story plays into this fad of critical thought in which it seems that “Confessing Privilege is the new Black.” These confessions do not lead to any action and, ironically, reinforce the very structures being denounced.

This is not much different from the way that people reinvent (or perhaps, re-brand) identities, when often the identities do not belong to the people doing the reinventing. For example, let’s look at the re-phrasing of “We Are All Trayvon” to, the more popularized sentiment “We Are Not Trayvon.” These catch-phrases against law sanctioned violence against people of color are in solidarity with each other, despite their antithetical rhetorical devices. Cries of “We Are All Trayvon,” proposed by people of color, have been washed out by the the re-framing of the movement by the “We Are Not Trayvon” tumblr movement in which white users are given a space to acknowledge their privilege. Arguably, this has drawn the attention away from the original voices of people of color living the daily reality of racial profiling. “We Are Not Trayvon”-ers have distinctly “other”-ed themselves, partially monopolizing the conversation.

Andrea Smith, feminist and anti-violence activist, writes in “The Problem with ‘Privilege’“:

“The politics of privilege have made the important contribution of signaling how the structures of oppression constitute who we are as persons. However, as the rituals of confessing privilege have evolved, they have shifted our focus from building social movements for global transformation to individual self-improvement. Furthermore, they rest on a white supremacist-settler-colonialist notion of a subject that can constitute itself over and against others through self-reflexivity.”

The danger of these confessions of privilege and insubstantial slogans is that they continue a cycle of granting voice and attention towards those already in power, each time further diluting the experiences of those directly affected by the drug war, the prison system and racial profiling. At the same time, these seemingly brief or incomplete slogans are also used in ways that empower many people. Short and sweet phrases fit on protest signs, are easily remembered and invite many voices to rallies, discussions and activities.

And so, a real question becomes how can movements engage a lot of people on important issues without diluting the messaging? How can activists make sure to effectively communicate core issues without having to package them as fads to appear sexy enough for the limited attention of consumer culture?

Because right now it appears that by being assigned the ephemeral, disinterested language of commercial culture, important issues will only continue to be treated as such.

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