If you’ve been keeping up with Netflix’s groundbreaking Orange Is the New Black, you’re probably still recovering from some of the most intense, emotionally draining plots and themes the show has delivered in its history. This season leaves no stone unturned. The writers came for America. As the prison becomes crowded with new inmates, the demographics shift—the Dominicans flex their strength in numbers while also dealing with racially motivated stop-and-frisks, the white people deal with how to get rid of a dead body and what to do with all their privilege, and the black women act out a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (I see you, east bunk), debate the relevance of The Wiz, and carry the burden of the Black Lives Matter movement after losing one of their own.
With all this racial exploration in the forefront, it’s disconcerting that the writers' room at Orange Is the New Black is almost entirely white. This week, Twitter has been abuzz trying to figure out if there were any people of color involved in the writers' room. This is what they found.
The origins of that photo are unclear, but the reaction it evoked on social media couldn't have been clearer. Many expressed their indignation at the lack of diversity—read: the complete absence of black voices—on staff.
We took a look at the writer credits for the show listed on IMDb and crunched the numbers.
Of the 16 people who have writing credits on all four seasons of the show, one is Latino and one is Asian.
In this chart, we took a look at how much writers contributed to the show (as in how many episode credits each person had to their name), broken down by race. It should be noted that, although a team of writers works together to hash out the plot of an OITNB episode, usually one or two people actually sit down and hammer out the script and get the writing credit for that specific episode. The rest of the writers are listed as producers for that episode (they're credited based on what level writer they are), and at least on OITNB, the writers take turns penning episodes. We contacted Orange Is the New Black's press office, but unfortunately, they were unable to comment on the diversity of their writers' room at the time of posting.
Sara Hess, a Korean-American writer, has racked up the highest number of producer credits (again, per IMDb), having either co-executive produced or executive produced 52 episodes (the entire show). That’s more producer credits than creator Jenji Kohan herself.
Two Latino men have been credited as a writer and associate producer, respectively, but not a single Latina woman has apparently been part of the writers' room. But the biggest takeaway here is that no black people have been involved in the writing or story development process at all—or at least they haven't been credited for doing so. The writers' room is half female, which is a landmark achievement in and of itself, but given the diversity of the cast, it’s unsettling that so many of these stories are being told by white people.
Two years ago at an “LGBTQ TV” panel at the New Yorker Festival, Kohan criticized Transparent creator Jill Soloway’s endeavor to hire a transwoman writer to work for the show. Soloway explained that she planned on finding a writer with potential and training her. "We’re actually going to be helping make trans women TV writers by teaching them how to write." (Our Lady J got the job.) While Soloway's commitment to authentic storytelling won her praise, Kohan wasn't as impressed. She countered, “I think great writers should write great shows, and I have trouble with, like, what you are in life shouldn’t automatically make you what you do in your art. It doesn’t necessarily translate.”
Watching the new season of Orange Is the New Black, many on Twitter found the absence of black writers to be particularly disturbing in light of the death of the beloved character Poussey (Samira Wiley) in the penultimate episode. Her death at the hands of a correctional officer and its aftermath were screen adaptations inspired by the real-life deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. The reference to the Black Lives Matter movement was painfully clear.
In a recent Lenny Letter, late night writer Robin Thede, who is a black woman, called for more inclusion of minorities and women in writing rooms in television and film. "Look at the world around you," she wrote. "Do you see only white men in it? No, you walk by people of all races, religions, genders, and entertainment interests. Why wouldn't you want a writers' room to reflect the world as it actually exists?"
The OITNB writers have redefined television—both with gender representation and storytelling. They’re smart, hilarious, and have given us something we never see addressed in mainstream media. On top of that, the show has launched the careers of countless talented women of color. You can tell everyone involved in the show is part of a tight-knit family, and there's just as much trust as there is talent between them. But there is nevertheless a profound void in their team—which is perhaps why the show's beautiful, flawed characters of color (which people obsess over, connect with, make GIFs of, and pay money to stream) still feel peripheral to the central white woman. It's important to create room for the voices of women of color, make sure these talented writers have a seat at the table, and let people tell their own stories.