Commentary Media

‘Orange Is the New Black,’ and How We Talk About Race and Identity

T.F. Charlton

OITNB isn't perfect in its handling of race, class, and gender, but the series does get a lot right about the conversations people of color and white folks have amongst themselves and with each other, and how different identities and experiences shape those interactions.

Orange Is the New Black, the original Netflix series created by Weeds showrunner Jenji Kohan, has been acclaimed for its portrayal of a diverse array of Black, transgender, Latina, working-class, and immigrant characters. The series, which is based loosely on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, centers around a character named Piper Chapman as she spends time in a minimum security women’s prison.

In an interview with Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross, Kohan described the Piper character as “my Trojan Horse,” explaining that “really fascinating tales of Black women, Latina women, and old women and criminals” are a “hard sell” for networks. Piper, as the “girl next door, the cool blonde,” is a “very easy access point … relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. [She’s] useful.”

Kohan’s comments raise questions about why the stories of marginalized women once again have to be mediated through a white protagonist, and whether a creator of color would be allowed the same opportunities to create the “fascinating tales” that Orange is the New Black (OITNB) has been praised for. It also raises the issue of how Piper and the cast of characters she’s meant to introduce us to read to viewers who are outside the “certain demographic” networks find most desirable.

Piper

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Seven episodes into OITNB, I can’t say that I find Piper particularly relatable. But I do find her and many of OITNB’s characters recognizable—especially their intra- and interracial interactions around the nexus of race, gender, and class.

Piper’s privileged self-absorption, the paternalistic, bigoted preferential treatment Piper gets from white male prison counselor Healy, and the incisive awareness with which Black characters like Taystee Jefferson navigate white supremacy, misogyny, and classism all feel authentic, if occasionally heavy-handed. All these things point to the ways in which mundane interpersonal bigotry supports and perpetuates structural inequity.

From the moment Piper steps foot in Litchfield—OITNB’s fictional prison, which is based on the Danbury women’s prison in Connecticut, where Piper Kerman served time—OITNB makes clear that this is a world where no veneer of polite colorblindness papers over racism and racial prejudice. Piper is rudely awakened to this reality when Lorna Morello, a fellow white inmate, concludes Piper’s orientation with a smiling comment: “We look out for our own.” Piper’s visible horror at this candid statement of racist preference is met with amusement: “Oh, don’t get all PC on me. It’s tribal, not racist.”

Over the next several episodes, we see Piper repeatedly appalled by the candid naming of race and bald declarations of racism and racial allegiances. Piper’s role as “access point” to Litchfield means that overt racism and honest discussions of race alike are framed as jarring and shocking—a reflection of her particular white, middle-class point of view, in which the realities of race and racism are usually shrouded in cultivated ignorance and the vague sentimentalities of liberal tolerance.

Piper is repeatedly confronted with the fact that her race, class, and other privileges make her experience and perspective fundamentally different from most of the women she’s incarcerated with; she is, as Kohan says, “a fish out of water.” Yet Piper is deeply committed to a series of racialized fictions about herself and her social position.

In episode 6 (“WAC Pack”), she responds to her mother’s complaint that Piper’s drug-running ex “stole” a life of upper-class comfort and affluence from her by vehemently declaring that she is “no different from anyone else in here.” Piper clearly sees and intends this as a rejection of her mother’s prejudices, but her next words expose her imagined identification with her fellow inmates as superficial and unempathetic: “I made bad choices. I committed a crime. It is nobody’s fault that I am in here but mine.” In reducing massive racial and economic disparities in incarceration to the product of “bad choices,” Piper reveals herself to be more repulsed by what she sees as political incorrectness than by the reality of structural racism, inequities, and violence.

Indeed, Piper is characterized by a studied refusal to acknowledge this reality, and her place in it. Even when the evidence of her complicity with racism and classism is undeniable, she continues to see and present herself as a safe, friendly, and loyal fellow inmate. A Black inmate known as Watson figures out that Piper took a screwdriver that ultimately led to Watson being sent to solitary confinement (“the SHU”). This realization comes when Watson recognizes that Piper is “acting all sweet” toward her, “like a piece of candy,” when “nobody’s sweet in here except for a reason.” Piper initially lies and pleads ignorance. When she finally admits the truth, she still argues that “technically” Watson was to blame because she “got all up in [correctional officer] Caputo’s face”—a victim-blaming reframing of Watson’s objection to being searched by male corrections officers.

The discrepancy between who Piper is and who she wants to believe herself to be is best summed up in her response to an inmate’s observation that Piper is “in denial” about the considerable privileges she enjoys: “I’m a WASP. [Denial’s] what we do.” Piper repeatedly distances herself from overt expressions of bigotry, but is ultimately content to benefit from less obvious oppression. This is especially so in her interactions with Healy.

Healy

In their first meeting, Healy, the prison counselor, warns Piper to “stay away” from lesbians while in prison and reassures her that she “does not have to have lesbian sex”—not realizing that Piper is incarcerated because of actions she took during a lesbian relationship. Piper is visibly uncomfortable with Healy’s homophobia, yet immediately volunteers that she’s engaged to a man. She does so ostensibly as a preface to asking whether he can visit her, but the timing of this statement implicitly validates Healy’s misrecognition of Piper as being, like him, both straight and a homophobe.

Extrapolating from Piper’s race, class, and gender presentation, Healy expects that her loyalties will be with him over her fellow inmates, and treats her differently than other inmates based on this assumption. In “The Chickening,” Healy harshly punishes Poussey Washington, a Black inmate, for running on prison grounds. Meanwhile, he reassures Piper that he won’t send her to the SHU, despite her role in setting off the very frenzy Poussey was caught up in, because she’s “new” and just “made a mistake.” He warns Piper to avoid exciting the inmates in the future: “They’re not like you and me. They’re less reasonable. Less educated.”

Healy represents the benefits that accrue to white women who ally with “benevolent” white patriarchy, and how this sort of patriarchy relies on hierarchies and divisions between women to maintain its power. In turn, Healy’s preferential treatment of Piper becomes incentive for complicity with his efforts to undermine the agency of other inmates. When Healy asks, “Chapman, we understand each other, don’t we?” she responds, “I think so.”

Healy expects that this understanding means she’ll agree to run as his candidate for the inmates’ Women’s Advisory Council (WAC): “The two of us working together, we could really turn some things around. Or at least, make things a little quieter.” Healy’s response when Piper declines this arrangement also illustrates how shaky and dangerous such alliances can be. He immediately resorts to deception, falsifying the election results so Piper lands on the council against her will (and to exclude the actual winners—women he presumably expects will pose a greater challenge to his authority than Piper).

Immediately following the election, Piper cuts a deal with Healy to find the source of erotic images being sent out of the prison in exchange for reopening Litchfield’s running track. This requires betraying a Latina inmate for whom the secret cell phone that contains the images is a lifeline to her partner on the outside. It’s on her way to delivering this phone that Piper is waylaid by Pennsatucky—a white, anti-choice, aggressively fundamentalist Christian—who pegs Piper as a “Judas Iscariot” and “teacher’s pet” whose educational and class privilege make her entitled and easily exploited. She warns that Healy will cast Piper aside as soon as she’s worn out her usefulness, that ultimately Piper is selling out for nothing.

This proves prophetic: Healy presses Piper for the name of the phone’s owner, and goes back on their deal because she refuses to snitch. Piper finds a way around his blackmail in a chance conversation with Susan, a white, female corrections officer who recognizes Piper from before her incarceration. After reminiscing about how Piper was a regular “pain in the ass” when Susan bagged her groceries in Brooklyn, Susan tells Piper, “As far as I’m concerned, you and me are the same. … The only difference between us is when I made bad decisions in life, I didn’t get caught.” Given the socioeconomic distance between the two women, it’s a striking echo of the themes of sameness, difference, and identity in both Piper’s and Healy’s earlier comments. Through this bonding moment and statement of mutual identification, Piper is able to persuade Susan to have the prison track reopened.

Healy’s furious reaction makes it clear that Piper has made a determined and powerful enemy by defying him. The trouble he’s surely planning for Piper in the second half of the series is foreshadowed in moments when he responds with anger and threats to perceived challenges from her.

Healy embodies the dangers inherent in benevolent patriarchy—in his repeated misperception of who Piper is, his attempts to press her into his service, and how quickly his “benevolence” turns into overt malice when expected loyalties and allegiances are betrayed.

Taystee

In contrast to Piper, many of OITNB’s characters who are working-class and/or people of color recognize and consciously navigate the dangers posed both by white men like Healy, and by white women like Piper. Black characters like Taystee Jefferson, Poussey Washington, and Black Cindy seem especially aware of the ways in which women like Piper support and benefit from white patriarchy and classism, to the disproportionate harm of women like themselves.

An exchange between Piper and Taystee, the Black inmates’ representative on WAC, shows how wildly different the two women’s respective stakes in the council, and as inmates, are. Piper imagines that she can spur dramatic improvements in Litchfield’s health care and educational services through her position on WAC. She’s aghast and offended to learn what Taystee already knows: Healy has no interest in real change, or in sharing power. Taystee’s more modest agenda—better hot sauce in the prison cafeteria and 50 Shades of Grey in the library—is played for laughs, but it reflects her savvy about prison politics, and her focus on getting out as soon as she can. She understands both that the council is purely symbolic and that her membership will reflect well on her as she prepares for a rapidly approaching parole hearing. With the promise of a letter from Healy pleading her case, Taystee says, “I ain’t looking to make waves.” When Piper objects that Taystee is breaking her campaign promises, she concludes, “That’s politics.”

In an earlier scene during the WAC elections, Taystee similarly dismisses the “health care” and “civil rights” campaign platform of Sophia Burset, a fellow Black WAC candidate, as unrealistic “white people politics.” Their debate is one part of three simultaneous conversations in the scene about race and ethnicity. In the white inmates’ section of the cafeteria, Lorna explains what she “know[s]” about “Hispanics”: “They live like 20 people to one apartment, they have more kids than even the Irish … they’re dirty, they’re greasy, and they’re taking our jobs.” At one of the Latina tables, a debate concludes with observations that Black people are “smelly, stupid, and lazy, but they ain’t got different bones”—”Except in their pants.” Meanwhile, at the Black table, Taystee and Poussey parody the mindset that embodies “white people politics,” deftly skewering white upper-class dilettantism (yoga, sushi, documentaries, and veganism), sexual repression (“quiet sex every night at 9:00″), and affluence (“Did you hear that piece on NPR about hedge funds?”).

The juxtaposition of these conversations arguably invites the conclusion that each of these groups are equally engaged in the same kind of prejudiced stereotyping (and seems to hark back to Lorna’s comment that “looking out for one’s own” is “tribal, not racist”). This framing undermines the insights of the scene into how people talk about race behind closed doors. It elides what’s actually going on within the three groups, implicitly equating the anti-Blackness of the Latina women and anti-Latina racism of the white women with Taystee and Poussey’s conversation—which is not prejudiced and certainly not mythical “reverse racism,” but instead a pitch-perfect meta-satire of the very kind of white femininity that OITNB routinely pokes fun at in Piper. And it comes from a place of knowing what these kinds of white women are like, knowledge demanded under white supremacy for Black survival.

This is reinforced in “Blood Donut”: Taystee’s statement that she can’t afford to “make waves” reflects concerns about anticipating what the disciplinary board wants to see and hear from her—specifically, what presentation of Black femininity they will find sympathetic enough to let her go home. In a mock parole interview, Black Cindy and Poussey advise Taystee that she needs to communicate remorse and having “seen the error of [her] ways”—no matter how unjust she feels her incarceration is—and tell the board she plans to go to college and help “underprivileged youth” learn chess. “Time to get serious,” they continue. “What are you going to do about your hair?”

The politics of Black women’s hair is picked up again in Sophia’s salon, where Taystee, Poussey, Black Cindy and others discuss the merits of mimicking Michelle Obama’s hairstyle (“[But] white folks scared of Obama.”) or “2009 Rihanna” (“Everybody still hating on Chris Brown, maybe they’ll throw me a bone getting back at that fool.”). Obama and Rihanna bookend a debate about which permutations of race, gender, and class identities will make disciplinary board members view Taystee more favorably. Taystee’s assertion that “brothers on the board” mean she’ll be “free at last” is shot down by Black Cindy, who argues that Black male board members will be more invested in proving they’re unbiased; she’s better off with white board members. “Hope for white women,” Poussey says. “They love drinking wine … talking about Black folks don’t get their fair shakes … giving they housekeepers an extra day off and shit.” Sophia concludes that Taystee should aim to “look like the Black best friend in the white girl movie.” In other words: safe, non-threatening, respectable, and knowing her place.

What resonates in these scenes is the depiction of Black women consciously grappling with how to negotiate and mitigate the real, material implications of how Black men and white people see us. They reflect the painful knowledge—which has been a topic of much discussion recently because of popular hashtags like #solidarityisforwhitewomen and #blackpowerisforblackmen—that Black women have no true allies in either of these groups. Black women can neither be certain that Black men will stand up for us, nor can we rely on any true solidarity from white women simply because we share a gender. Poussey sees white women as Taystee’s best bet, but only because of the paternalist pity and guilt of liberal white women towards the women of color whose labor they exploit.

None of this is to say that OITNB gets it all right in its handling of race, class, and gender. The depictions of Black and Latina women constantly threaten to veer into all too familiar tropes and stereotypes, for example. But OITNB does get a lot right about the conversations people of color and white folks have amongst themselves and with each other, and how different identities and experiences shape those interactions.

Commentary Sexuality

Auntie Conversations: Black Women Talk Sex, Self-Care, and Illness

Charmaine Lang

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

“You’re just being nosy,” one of my aunts said, after I asked her if she enjoyed having sex with her husband. I assured her this was all part of a research project on the intimate lives of Black women. She relented a bit, but still gave me the side-eye.

I’ve been engaged in archival research for the last year. While the personal letters of Black women writer-activists and the newspapers of the Third World Women’s Alliance are remarkable and informative, they provide little insight into the intimate lives and sexual desires of Black women. After all, sex improves our mood and alleviates stress: That immediate gratification of pleasure and release is a way to practice self-care.

So on a recent trip home to Los Angeles, I asked my aunties to share their stories with me at a little gathering they threw in my honor.

And they did.

I asked them: “What’s your sex life like?” “Do you want to have sex?” “Are you and your husband intimate?” “You know … does he kiss you and hold your hand?” And I learned that contrary to tropes that present us as either asexual mammies or hypersexual jezebels, the Black women in my life are vulnerable and wanting love and loving partners, at all stages of life.

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Between 1952 and 1969, my maternal grandmother had six daughters and one son. All of them grew up in South Central Los Angeles, witnessing white flight, the Watts riot of 1965, and the crack epidemic. At the same time, the women have kept the family intact. They are the ones who always plan big dinners for the holidays and organize food drives for their churches. And they arranged care of their mother toward the end of her life. I’ve always wondered how they were able to prioritize family and their own desires for intimacy.

So I asked.

My 57-year-old aunt who is a retired customer service representative living in Pomona, California, told me: “My lifetime of sex consisted of first starting off with getting to know the person, communicating, establishing companionship. Once that was done, the sex and intimacy followed. When you’re younger, you have no frets. You experiment all the time.”

I wanted to know more.

“You’re not just trying to get in our business? You’re actually going to write something, right?” was my mother’s response.

When asked about the state of her sex life, my 59-year-old aunt, a social worker, said: “I am a married woman without a physical sex life with my husband. His illness has a lot to do with this, along with the aging process.”

My Pomona aunt went into more detail about how as we get older our ability and desire changes.

“You try to keep pace with pleasing your partner, and he tries to please you. But it is hard when you are a full-time worker, wife, and mother, and you commute to work. You’re tired. Hear me: You’re tired; they are not. You grow older, gain weight, and get sicker. You start to take medicine, and all that affects your ability and desire to perform.”

“For me, in a nutshell, [sexual activity] feels like work: I don’t feel excited. When it happens, it happens,” she said.

I learned the combination of energy spent on wage work, domestic labor, and mothering is draining, dissipating the mood for sex or intimacy. A husband who does not have the same domestic responsibilities has more energy for sex. The unbalanced load equates to differences in desire.

I wondered: Did my aunts talk to their partners about this?

Illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer, can cause anxiety, depression, and fatigue, which interrupt lovemaking. Talking to a partner can help to create a new normal in the relationship.

However, as my social worker aunt made clear, “It takes two to talk openly and honestly, which I find very difficult most of the time.”

“To be vulnerable is hard because I do not want to get hurt emotionally, so I protect my heart from harm,” she explained. “[My husband and I] can be harsh and curt to each other at times, which leads to me shutting down and not expressing my true feelings. My husband can be prideful and unwilling to admit there are issues within the relationship.”

Aunt April, a 47-year-old Los Angeles teacher, had some things to share too. “My love life is complicated. After suffering an overwhelming and devastating loss in 2011 of my husband and mate of nearly 20 years, I’m very hesitant to fully try again.”

She hasn’t dated since 1991. After much counseling, grieving, and encouragement from her 12-year-old daughter, she decided to give it a try.

“I have been seeing someone, but I have a lot of fear that if I relinquish my heart to him, he will die. So, I think about sabotaging the relationship so that I don’t have to get to know him and start worrying about his well-being and wondering if he feels the same way I do. In my mind, it’s easier to be casual and not give too much of my heart,” she said.

Intimacy, then, is also about being vulnerable in communicating how one feels—and open to all possibilities, even hurt.

As a 34-year-old queer Black woman figuring out my dating life, my aunt’s words about communication struck me. At times I can be guarded, too, fearful of letting someone get close. I started to ask myself: “What’s my sex life like?” and “What role does intimacy play in my life as I juggle a job and doctoral studies?”

These auntie conversations were just as much about me as they were about my aunts and mama. I really want to know what to expect, what to anticipate, and perhaps, even, what not to do as I age and grow in relationships so that I, too, can have a fulfilling and healthy partnership.

“I enjoy sex more now then I did before,” my mama, Jackie, said. Now 55, she remarried in 2013. She lives in Gilbert, Arizona, and works in the accounting and human resource field. “My husband loves me unconditionally; with him, I’m more comfortable. It’s more relaxing.”

My mama expressed her ability to enjoy herself with her husband because of the work she put into loving herself and prioritizing her needs.

I always talk to my mama about my dating life: heartbreaks and goals. She always says, “Learn to love yourself first.” It really isn’t what I want to hear, but it’s the truth. Self-love is important and central to the success of any relationship, especially the one with ourselves. My social worker aunt often takes trips to the spa and movies, and my aunt April is an avid concertgoer. They have found ways to have intimacy in their lives that is not informed by their relationship status.

The journey to self-love can be arduous at times as we discover parts of ourselves that we don’t like and want to transform. But with much compassion and patience, we can learn to be generous with the deepest parts of ourselves and each other. And isn’t that a necessary part of intimacy and sex?

The stories shared by my womenfolk reveal a side of Black women not often seen in pop culture. That is, Black women older than 45 learning how to date after the loss of a partner, and finding love and being intimate after 50. Neither mammies nor jezebels, these Black women, much like the Black women activists of the 1960s and 1970s I study, desire full lives, tenderness, and love. My aunts’ stories reassure me that Black women activists from decades past and present have intimate relationships, even if not explicit in the body of literature about them.

The stories of everyday Black women are essential in disrupting dehumanizing stereotypes so that we can begin to see representations of Black women that truly reflect our experiences and dynamic being.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

What ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Missed About the Obstacles Faced After Prison

Victoria Law

Whether or not they meant to do so, the writers of Orange Is the New Black have sent viewers the message that prison is preferable to life on the outside.

“You’re getting out early.” Those words are music to the ears of anyone behind bars. But on Orange Is the New Black, the women at Litchfield Penitentiary tend to see release as a bogeyman rather than welcome news.

In Season four of the Netflix series, Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) learns that she’s eligible for early release. At first, this is hopeful news: Being out of prison means that she can start the process of getting her children and newly born granddaughter out of foster care. But then reality sets in: She’s leaving prison without an education or skills that will help her find a job. Even worse, she now has a criminal record. “Sure, people love to hire ex-cons,” she snaps.

This is not the first time that the show has treated release and reentry as something to be feared rather than welcomed. In the first season, Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) is released on parole. Once out, she’s faced with the realities of no housing, no support system, and no job opportunities. Though the show never specifies what she did, Taystee is sent back to prison, where she tells Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) that she deliberately violated her parole so that she could return to Litchfield.

Whether or not they meant to do so, the writers of Orange Is the New Black have sent viewers the message that prison is preferable to life on the outside. And in doing so, the show suggests that the very real systemic obstacles that formerly incarcerated people face upon release, especially where employment is concerned, are impossible to overcome—rather than drawing attention to the importance of dismantling those barriers, and the organizing being done around the country to do so.

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Over 650,000 people leave state and federal prisons each year. For many, finding stable employment is one of the first steps to surviving (and hopefully thriving) outside of prison. It’s frequently a prerequisite to finding their own housing and reuniting their families. For those on probation or parole, being gainfully employed is also a condition of staying out of prison. But finding a job isn’t easy, especially with a gap in employment history and a prison record.

Advocates, however, including formerly incarcerated people, have been working to eliminate one of the most obvious barriers: the question about past felony convictions on an initial job application, popularly known as the “Box.” In many cities, they are succeeding. More than 100 cities have passed “Ban the Box” legislation, which ends that practice of asking about previous convictions on initial applications. In 2015, the federal government also jumped on the Ban the Box wagon with Obama ordering federal agencies to delay inquiries into past felonies during the hiring process.

Ban the Box doesn’t mean that the question of criminal records never comes up. What it does is give job seekers a chance to be considered on their merits and not on their previous actions. If an applicant seems qualified for the job, they will go through the rest of the hiring process like every other applicant does. The question of past convictions may come up at some point during that process, but by then, the person has demonstrated their skills and qualifications for the job before having to explain past mistakes (as well as steps they’ve taken to ensure that they won’t land in a similar situation again).

Ban the Box has been shown to increase employment among formerly incarcerated job seekers. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, between 2004 and 2006, for example, the city hired less than 6 percent of applicants with convictions. Once it passed its version of Ban the Box, however, that percentage jumped to nearly 58 percent. Similarly, in Durham, North Carolina, the number of people hired for municipal jobs increased nearly sevenfold after it passed similar protections in 2011.

However, Ban the Box isn’t enough to ensure that formerly incarcerated job seekers are given a chance. Legislation needs to go hand-in-hand with a cultural shift toward people coming home from prison. Maria C., who returned to New York City in 2011 after a two-year incarceration for drugs, knows this firsthand. In 2015, New York City banned the box. But even before it did so, city law prohibited employers from making decisions based on convictions unrelated to the job being sought.

On paper, that should have meant that Maria should not have encountered discrimination from prospective employers. As Maria explained to Rewire in an interview, in reality, she still struggled to find work, although it is difficult to say how much her prior conviction and imprisonment weighed in prospective employers’ decision-making processes.

She applied for a job at a national wholesale chain. “Their website said they were ex-con friendly,” she recounted. Maria was called in for an interview, tested negative for drugs, and was told that the company would conduct a background check. After the background check, however, she was told that she did not get the job. She applied to other stores and supermarkets; from those, she received no response at all.

Finally, through an employment program of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit which helps people with reintegration after their release from prison, she found a job at a laundromat.

One afternoon, two months into her new job, she told her boss that she had to leave work early to see her parole officer. “After that, they started getting picky with me,” she told Rewire. Shortly after, she was let go.

The Fortune Society helped her find a second job at a warehouse. But a few months after she was hired, she said that the boss told her, “We’ll call you when we need you.” She never received a call.

At both jobs, Maria says she was asked about her record. She explained the circumstances of her arrest and incarceration as well as what she had accomplished since that time. That’s why she’s puzzled as to why she was let go after a few months. Maria spent five years in New York City; with the exception of the handful of months at the laundromat and warehouse, she remained unemployed.

Maria now lives in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a city that takes up 4.2 square miles and has a population of about 25,000 people. Lebanon and the surrounding county have a median household income of $56,000 and fewer than 3,000 employers. However, Lebanon also has a work release program, through which people in the local jail system are allowed to work in the community during the day before returning to the jail for the night. The presence of the work release program—especially in a comparatively small community—means that employers are almost certainly more accustomed to job seekers and employees who have criminal records. Within a week of arriving, Maria found work through a temp agency at a food factory where she packs croutons, chocolate, and mashed potatoes.

New York state also has a work release program; in 2010, nearly 2,000 people participated. Even so, the same willingness to hire formerly incarcerated people hasn’t seemed to manifest on a wide scale. Maria knows that the only way formerly incarcerated people like her will find jobs is if there’s a shift in culture and perceptions. Employers “should give people a chance to be able to succeed,” she said. “But employers don’t want to give them a chance.”

As Maria’s experience shows, part of this shift involves policies that create incentives to hire formerly incarcerated people. Some of these policies, like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, already exist. New York City itself has promoted the Fair Chance Act, its version of Ban the Box, even placing ads on the subway informing formerly incarcerated New Yorkers and their potential employers of this new protection. Local and federal agencies should take similar measures to promote existing opportunities.

Or, for example, consider the model of the Johns Hopkins Health System (JHHS) in Baltimore, Maryland, the state’s largest employer of formerly incarcerated people. In 2014 alone, the hospital hired more than 120 people with past prison records and, between 2009 to 2012, 430 formerly incarcerated people overall. “With 9,000 incarcerated people returning to Baltimore each year, the JHHS wanted to contribute to community re-integration efforts by providing employment opportunities,” Yariela Kerr-Donovan, the director of Johns Hopkins’ Department of Human Resources, stated in an interview with the nonprofit Senate Presidents’ Forum. To do so, they sought a Department of Justice training grant and partnered with community colleges and a training firm specifically to train people for positions inside the health system. This is a model that other large businesses can—and should—emulate.

The real-life job market is already stacked against women of color. As late as 2013, women of all races and ethnicities earned only 78 percent of what men earned. For many women of color, the wage gap widens—Black women were paid 64 percent of their white male counterparts. For Latinas, that wage gap widened to 54 percent and for Native Americans to 59 percent. (Surprisingly, Asian-American women showed the smallest wage gap, earning 90 percent of their white male counterparts. I’d like to know which Asian-American women’s incomes were surveyed and how many were members of underpaid and largely invisible workforces, such as domestic service or beauty industries, across the country.)

Now add in the disproportionate conviction and incarceration of women of color, which often exacerbates a lack of marketable skills, and you can see why efforts like Ban the Box are a necessary first step. Without a shift, however, in the ways that formerly incarcerated people are viewed—as potential workers, neighbors, and members of society—Ban the Box won’t be enough.

One show won’t make the sweeping changes necessary to overcome decades of institutional discrimination. But it can change individual hearts, minds, and hiring practices. Through Aleida’s release, Orange Is the New Black now has a storyline that could address some of the obstacles women face upon release, including employment discrimination and wage inequality. It remains to be seen whether the next season will make good on that opportunity.