By SEAN McCANN
White oblivion about… privilege acts as a psychological prison system that costs white people heavily in terms of preventing human development. Walking obliviously through our own racial experience may perpetuate the imprisonment of the heart and the intelligence… White supremacy damages the civic health and balance of the soul.
– Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege, Color, and Crime: A Personal Account”
If there was one silver lining to this whole mess, it was the reminder of my family’s greatness.
– Piper Kerman, Orange is the New Black
A riot breaks out in the climactic scenes of the fourth season of Orange is the New Black, the popular Netflix series set in the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility for women. Across the preceding 12 episodes of the season, the program’s creators have patiently set up the conditions that make the conflagration seem both surprising and entirely fateful. Like actually existing prisons across the United States, the Litchfield facility of OitNB is a cruelly mismanaged warehouse for the most vulnerable and oppressed members of an unjust society. Operated by a private corporation driven solely by the pursuit of profit, the prison is overcrowded and dehumanizing. Its population is divided along racial lines that grow increasingly tense as conditions degrade. Its fragile order is maintained by an insufficient staff of undertrained, poorly paid, and mismanaged correctional officers who fall increasingly beneath the sway of their most abusive colleagues. Confronted by small acts of resistance, those guards respond with brutal measures that culminate in the death of a prisoner. When that death is predictably trivialized, an uprising breaks out that sweeps up nearly every inhabitant of the facility in a path toward destruction.
Except, that is, for two of the program’s major characters. As the riot approaches its boiling point, we see the nominal protagonist of the series Piper Chapman and her sometime lover and antagonist Alex Vause manage to slip wisely away. The moment neatly dramatizes what may be the central concern of the program. As has been widely noted, the character of Piper Chapman provides Orange is the New Black with the hook that gives the series its clever title. A wealthy and highly educated white woman, Piper has found her happy and prosperous life upended when she is imprisoned for a youthful dalliance in the international drug trade. Her sudden descent into a harsh world primarily reserved for the poor and dark-skinned gives the program its frisson and simultaneously allows Orange is the New Black to depict the lives of people who would not ordinarily be the subjects of an upmarket television series. “Piper was my Trojan Horse,” explains the program’s creator Jenji Kohan. “You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.”
In the conclusion to season four, then, we see that, despite experiences that have changed and marked her, Piper remains a fish out of water. The American prison system, Orange is the New Black reminds us frequently, is an oppressive institution that damages everyone who comes within its orbit. But it does not harm everyone equally. Because she has resources and education and connections that other inmates do not, Piper will manage to survive prison without suffering the injuries and mischances that would prevent her from returning to a life all but unimaginable to her fellow prisoners. When she runs away from rather than toward the riot, we are reminded that her story is not the same as that of the women who surround her.
No feature of Orange is the New Black has earned more enthusiastic approval, or harsher denunciation, than that presumption. For fans of the program, Orange is the New Black is remarkably attuned to social inequality and unusually sensitive in imagining the ethical problems to which structural injustice gives rise. It makes “a stark point about who gets punished and who doesn’t that people in privileged positions need to be reminded of, constantly.” For the program’s critics, precisely the same qualities make Orange is the New Black an exercise in patronizing sentiment. The program is “intent on teaching white people about society,” but “at the cost of black and brown lives.” It makes use of “black lives . . . for the sheer entertainment and education of white people.”
We needn’t take either of these positions, however, to see what is significant about the Netflix drama or about the bestselling memoir by Piper Kerman on which the program is based, and to which in spirit it is quite faithful. (Kerman is an executive consultant on the program.) As countless observers have noted, Orange is the New Black is preoccupied with the ethical problems of privilege. “It’s all about privilege . . . — who benefits and who doesn’t — and it should surprise none of us . . . that our white heroine from Connecticut is the chief recipient.” But rather than seeing the program’s handling of that subject as either admirable or unappealing—sensitive and self-aware or callous and sensational–we might consider what it means to be concerned with privilege in the first place and why the subject appears to immediately raise questions about sentiment and sincerity.
Indeed, to the extent we consider Orange is the New Black to be demonstrating either a genuine or an exploitive interest in the lives of the least fortunate, we are asking a question that, as Kohan’s remarks imply, the program itself aims to foreground. As we’ll see more fully below, moreover, that question is one that contemporary discussions of privilege always demand that we emphasize. Peggy McIntosh, who coined the term “white privilege” in 1988 and who has since witnessed its extraordinary dissemination throughout academic and popular discourse, makes the point time and again. If we are concerned with privilege, McIntosh remarks, we must ask whether we are “truly distressed . . . about unearned race advantage.” Only in that way, she suggests, can we be confident that we are escaping “the imprisonment of the heart and intelligence.”
But, why, we might wonder, does privilege seem an important way to understand the American prison system and its relation to the larger inequalities of American society? And what does it mean to address the problems of injustice and inequality by focusing on the sentiments and state of mind of the wealthy and powerful? To put the point another way, how is it that asking about privilege can lead us to see inequality as a prison both for the fortunate and for the unfortunate?
One way to get a handle on those questions might be to note a quality shared by Orange is the New Black with the broader discourse of privilege. Though deeply interested in systematic injustice and in the hierarchies of class and power, the stance taken by both is not, as it might seem, Marxian. It is, rather, broadly Weberian. Much as Max Weber did a century ago, that is, Orange is the New Black and the contemporary language of privilege each struggle to come to grips with a world of persistent and widening inequality. Each acknowledges the increasing divergence in what Weber memorably defined as the “life chances” of those with and without property and power. But, lacking any great hopes for the political mobilization of the working class or, indeed, for any substantial change to the intractable structures of injustice, each also comes to share a sociological and political view much like that constructed by Weber–one that combines dark fatalism with faint hope for the redemptive possibilities of elite leadership. The wide success of Orange is the New Black suggests that in some quarters that remains a compelling vision today.
From the first pages of her memoir Orange is the New Black, it is clear that Piper Kerman is centrally concerned with her distinctive place in the American social hierarchy. Beginning her narrative with an episode from the brief criminal history that will lead eventually to her imprisonment, Kerman notes that she “probably looked like just another anxious young professional woman” (3). In the book’s final scene, Kerman reminds us of her unusual social position. Describing her exit from prison alongside “a young Spanish guy,” Kerman observes that “homie’s people were waiting directly across the street in an SUV.” Her own fiancé, who does not know the prison system well enough to be familiar with its exit doors, is standing around the corner, causing Kerman to head in the opposite direction from her fellow inmate (295). Between these opening and closing passages, Kerman remarks often on the disparities in background, customs, and resources that mean that she will leave incarceration on a different path from her fellow prisoners. “The most impenetrable barrier in America,” she remarks appropriately, is “social class” (203).
What would it mean to describe Kerman’s view of that barrier as Weberian rather than Marxian? The difference between Marx and Weber is, of course, a classic topic of social theory. It inspired Weber’s friend Georg Lukacs to attempt the synthesis that appeared influentially in History and Class Consciousness, and it served as the occasion for classic considerations by the likes of Karl Lowith, Herbert Marcuse, Anthony Giddens, and many others. The most influential of those discussions, however, were framed in the context of the Cold War or of the demise of the Soviet Union, and they often took the abuses and failures of state socialism and the apparent relative stability of advanced capitalist societies as their most significant background. In the wake of the economic crises and widening inequalities of the current neoliberal era, the comparison may take on new resonance. For, as the more historically and biographically oriented of Weber scholars reveal, his influential theories of rationalization, stratification, and authority were forged in in an era of deepening economic polarization and of intensifying political crisis that in some respects resembles our own recent history. In his famed “Politics as a Vocation” essay, written in 1918, Weber referred to his time as an era on the brink of “a polar night of icy darkness and hardness.”
Despite the later reputation of his sociology as a bourgeois alternative to historical materialism, Weber formed much of that vision in an extended dialogue with Marx. Indeed, as Erik Olin Wright has recently noted, Weber’s model of social stratification overlaps significantly with Marx’s theory of class conflict in ways that familiar accounts of social theory typically neglect. In particular, Wright points out, Weber developed an analysis that, much like Marx’s, understood class, not as a step on a social ladder of endowments or prestige, but above all as an economic category–one that arises as a result of a commercial market organized around private property and motivated primarily by rational self-interest. For Weber, as for Marx before him, class position is a variable and dynamic consequence of economic interactions determined by different relations to private property. Those who possess valuable property have advantages in the market that others do not, and they will use that power to shape transactions to their advantage, so that an ostensibly free market inevitably becomes one in which those with only labor to sell will be increasingly at the mercy of the owners of capital. “It is the most elemental economic fact that the way in which the disposition over material property is distributed among a plurality of people . . . creates specific life chances,” Weber writes. “The law of marginal utility . . . favors the owners . . . and increases, at least generally, their power in the price struggle with those who, being propertyless, have nothing to offer but their labor.”
At least this far, according to Wright, Weber’s theoretical model effectively restates the understanding of class that had already been developed by Marx. Indeed, like Marx, Weber assumed that the relationship to private property shaped people’s economic interests and thus influenced their beliefs and behavior. Though Weber did not share Marx’s conviction that intensifying class consciousness would lead inevitably to revolution, like Marx, he took class conflict to be a powerful engine of historical change. As Reinhard Bendix notes, “Weber certainly followed Marx in seeing history as a history of class struggles.”
But, as Wright points out, Weber departed sharply from Marx in that he did not complement his attention to property and the calculations of self-interest with a concept of exploitation or domination. In the Marxian account, it is not merely the case that owners have greater market power than workers and the incentive to expand that power as far as possible in the effort to reduce labor costs and increase profits. In addition, the ability of owners to demand productive labor from workers, and thus to profit from their investments, depends not merely on bargaining power, but further on their use of extra-contractual coercion—in effect, that is, on the powers of a legal and political system that acts in their favor to enable the control of workers. As Wright notes, for Marx, in the unequal struggle with their workers, owners need to make use of “surveillance, discipline, and control of the labor process,” and workers in turn may seek to resist, counter, evade or even overturn such coercion. In the Marxian view, that is, “the extraction of effort within exploitative relations is . . . always to a greater or lesser extent problematic and precarious, requiring active institutional devices for its reproduction.” Class conflict is not just an economic relation but of necessity a political struggle.
As Wright notes, that view–that class is not merely a consequence of the unequal distribution of property but also a matter of inevitable conflict over power and the control of work–is almost completely absent from Weber’s theory. Instead, adopting the newly predominant marginalist theory of economics, Weber came to see the increasing polarization of class as an inevitable consequence of fundamental laws of calculation and rational self-interest. In keeping with his broader vision of modernization as rationalization, moreover, Weber viewed those laws as ineluctable principles destined to ever more thoroughly dominate an increasingly autonomous and competitive commercial market. As the struggle for survival and advantage drove firms to more efficient methods of production, Weber assumed, the principles of rationalization would increasingly “eliminate[e] from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational and emotional elements which escape calculation.” This “strictly rational organization of work on the basis of rational technology” was, on Weber’s account, “the specific feature of modern capitalism that distinguishes it from . . . ancient forms of capitalist acquisition” and the force that explained the subjugation of workers that Marx had explained through the language of alienation, exploitation, and domination. Owners did not need, in other words, to rely on legal and extra-legal methods to discipline workers. The very force of modernization would act inevitably to reduce workers’ power to a bare minimum. “This inescapable universal bureaucratization,” Weber explained, “is precisely what lies behind one of the most frequently quoted socialist slogans, . . . the ‘separation of the worker from the means of work.’”
In effect, as Wright points out, Weber’s view of management and labor relations was “broadly in line with that of contemporary neoclassical micro-economics.” But, if Weber saw the expropriation of workers as an inevitable effect of the irrevocable laws of economic rationalization, it did not follow that he admired or defended the results he perceived. Rather, the polarization of classes and the political crises that accompanied it, along with the diminishment of human dignity it appeared to entail, seemed to Weber one of the darkly fatal consequences of modernization. “The fact that the maximum of formal rationality in capital accounting is possibly only where the workers are subjected to domination by entrepreneurs,” Weber remarked, was not a glory of economic efficiency, but rather an example of “substantive irrationality in the modern economic order.” As Bryan Turner comments, Weber “implicitly condemns modern capitalism as a heartless machine dominating its human cogs, but he steadfastly refuses to hold out any hope of a more desirable future.”
To the extent that he conceived alternatives to the machinery of capitalist modernization, then, Weber found them in domains that appeared by contrast to be pockets of irrationality. One such alternative lay in the visions of plebiscitary democracy and charismatic leadership that Weber cultivated in the last years of his life. (“Pure charisma,” he assumed, “is specifically foreign to economic considerations” and is “specially irrational in the sense of being foreign to all rules.”) Another, however, existed in what Weber saw as the pluralistic complexity of the existing social order, and, in particular, in the significance of status as a system of social stratification that, in Weber’s view, existed independently from and often in rivalry to the relations of economic class. “In contrast to the purely economically determined ‘class situation,’” Weber wrote, status is determined by “the social estimation of honor.” Though status hierarchies could overlap and interact with those of economic class, in Weber’s understanding they were established according to a different principle–not “the rationally motivated adjustment of interests” that occurred in the commercial market but, rather, “the feeling of the actors that they belong together.”
Distinctions of status were for Weber not determined by property, then, but marked by the fact that “a specific style of life is expected from all those who wish to belong to the circle.” (In the extreme case, he suggested, the “restrictions on social intercourse” that such expectations required were expressed in the ideologies of race and caste.) While status hierarchies might sometimes coincide with class relations, then, they could just as easily cut against them and even interfere with the laws of economic rationalization, with which they were categorically at odds. “The market,” Weber presumes, “knows no personal distinctions. . . . It knows nothing of honor.” The “general effect of the status order,” by comparison, is “the hindrance of the free development of the market.” Status distinctions, Weber implied, were a declining but still vital source of resistance to a world that was increasingly falling beneath the iron laws of calculation.
It is useful to see that implication because doing so helps to clarify Weber’s lasting appeal. This has to do not only with the richness of his scholarship or the subtlety of the theoretical models he may provide, but with the ethical stance he projected–the image of lonely honor contending nobly against the pitiless advance of a cold new world. Weber’s most eminent scholar Wolfgang Mommsen calls this stance the attitude of an avowed “partisan of the liberal bourgeoisie” who, in the face of fading hopes for liberal reform, found himself increasingly drawn to “aristocratic” visions of doomed but heroic resistance. Weber, Mommsen writes, “reflected the crisis of liberalism in exemplary form.”
Amid our own era’s crisis of liberalism, Weber’s thoughts on class and status may be helpful in illuminating the current prominence of the language of privilege. At the very least, Weber’s distinction between class and status clarifies the fact that contemporary discussions of privilege typically invoke precisely what Weber called the “social honor” of status. As Peggy McIntosh vividly describes it in her seminal essay, privilege amounts to the intangible rewards that accrue to a position of social esteem: “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks” that make the journey through life easier than it would otherwise be.
But, we can go further and note that, for McIntosh, much as for Weber, the significance of the special and arbitrary rewards of honor is clarified in particular by their contrast to an economic framework that, by contrast, appears to have the justification of rationality or logical necessity. Thus, for McIntosh, privilege is most fundamentally defined as a collection of “unearned assets.” Discussing how she developed and refined the concept, McIntosh explains, “I asked myself, on a daily basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn? It was like a prayer.”
For McIntosh, much as for Weber, in short, privilege appears an aristocratic and nearly spiritual exception to the economic wealth gained in the marketplace of commercial transactions. Indeed, it may be precisely the impression that privilege amounts to an arbitrary alternative to an otherwise rational system of economic rewards that accounts for the power of the term. On the one hand, such an impression emphasizes the ordinary unfairness and illegitimacy of status advantage. On the other hand, precisely because privilege is conceived as an exceptional, non-economic advantage, it can be readily converted from unfair exclusion to a benevolent source of generosity. It can shift, that is, from appearing a burden on others to a gift that can be bestowed on them.
In McIntosh’s reasoning, in fact, it is just such a presumption that allows for the crucial concept of “allyship,” a term that echoes throughout the contemporary discussion of privilege. “Those of us who are granted privileges based on who we are born,” Frances E. Kendall writes, explaining the concept, often “want to give our privileges back, which we can’t really do.” What we can do instead, Kendall claims, is “become an ally of those on the other side of the privilege seesaw.” The concept of alliance, in other words, allows the privileged to imagine aligning themselves with the less privileged without believing that the two share common interests or a collective mission, but also without anticipating any sacrifice on the part of the privileged of their wealth or advantage. “I can, in my own circumstances,” McIntosh writes, “use power to share power and use unearned privilege to weaken systems of unearned privilege.”
Such a description makes clear just how closely the contemporary language of privilege echoes Weber’s account of status and, by the same token, the implicit alternative it presents to the framework of class. For both Weber and Marx, economic class implied the necessity of zero-sum conflicts. Without the redistribution of property, there would be no way to change economic and political inequality. For McIntosh, by comparison, privilege operates outside the context of economic calculation and thus implicitly beyond the concern for redistribution. Indeed, for McIntosh, as for Kendall, the redistribution of honor appears nearly impossible to imagine, even as its benevolent use does not. Privilege is:
a bank account which I was given at birth, and did not ask for, but which I can spend down in the service of social justice. And because it is white privilege it will automatically refill even after I spend it down. In other words, I do not have much to lose within my own life circumstances, by working against injustice.
Privilege on this description is not a commodity, but something closer to a magical gift which can be given to others without loss. Hence, the great emphasis that the discourse of privilege places on empathy and on the constantly renewed self-awareness necessary to sustain it. If, as McIntosh’s description suggests, privilege is a kind of aristocratic endowment or a superpower that can be used for good or ill, the most important consideration will be the state of mind with which it is employed—whether the gift is used in the service of selfishness or generosity. “The ability to see privilege should be in the mind of all citizens,” McIntosh tells her readers. The consequence of such awareness, she explains, will be to enable the self-aware to imagine bonds that exist, much as Weber’s status affiliations do, outside the calculations of economic distribution. Indeed, echoing Weber’s sense that the pluralistic distribution of social honor might counter the reductive rationality of the market, McIntosh suggests that, when “the idea that we all have both privilege and disadvantage” becomes “commonplace,” it will “produce empathy and understanding that goes against polarization and bifurcated thinking about victims and victimizers.”
The benefit of focusing on privilege, from this perspective, is not merely that it enables us to see the arbitrary distribution of honor, or the way that honor may be used in a spirit of selfishness or generosity, but the fact that by focusing on privilege we can think of social life not in terms of economic exchange or economic inequality but in relation to status affiliations that appear to transcend the market. “In our country,” McIntosh remarks, there is too much “attention to the winner-take-all operations of pecking orders” and not enough to “the action of living cooperatively and symbiotically in relation.” Making the point a different way, she declares, “the key thing” is “to let people testify to their own experience.” Such experience, she says, is “sacred,” precisely to the extent that it exists both within and yet apart from “statistical patterns.” Once the sacral quality of such personal endowments is fully appreciated, McIntosh suggests, consensual rather than competitive relations will prevail. “Then,” people will “stop fighting with each other.”
One way to think about appeal of the language of privilege, then, is that allows us to think about injustice without having to imagine redistribution. More specifically, it provides a way in which the fortunate and wealthy can imagine using their advantages for good purposes without great cost apart from the labor of introspection. It is, notably, the most advantaged on which such thinking focuses. Despite its concern with social inequality, the discourse of privilege virtually by definition does not imagine the disadvantaged– as, say, Marx did—wielding the political power to assert their interests. As in Weber, the focus instead, is on the special capacities and responsibilities of the most advantaged—“those with privilege” are presumed to “have the most power to bring about institutional and societal change”—and on the distinctive spirit with which they resist the call of rational self-interest. To be an ally, Kendall remarks, is “to go against the people who share our privilege status and with whom we are expected to group ourselves.” It is, in short, to be exceptional in every respect.
Something very close to that that exceptional status is precisely the theme of Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black. Like many other recent examples of the genre, Kerman’s memoir is in its most basic outlines the story of a wealthy but misdirected person who comes, through a period of introspection and exotic travel, to the achievement of a new self-possession registered in happiness, health, and spiritual awareness. “A little voice in my head reminded me that I might never see anything like this again,” Kerman remarks about her time in the Federal prison at Danbury. “Immersing myself in my current situation, experiencing it, and learning everything there was to know might be the way to live, now and always” (186). And, indeed, Kerman discovers ways to live in prison, “carv[ing] out some sense of control of my world,” that, in fact, approximate the disciplines of self-care common in the professional class (233). She seeks “freedom” by working out in the gym and on the track (81). She adopts “a completely chemical-free existence” and allows her body to “return to its actual organic state” (120). She discovers a new appreciation for spirituality and practices yoga, discovering “the peace that . . . could only be found within one’s own body” (153). In a climactic moment, she strips naked before a mirror and admires the effects of the transformation she has accomplished. “I looked as though years had fallen away from me” (192).
On the most basic level, then, we might say that Kerman’s narrative depicts her achievement of what McIntosh calls “the civic health and balance of the soul.” Like McIntosh, moreover, Kerman depicts this self-realization as a transformation enabled when she comes to a renewed awareness of the significance of her privilege and when, just as McIntosh might recommend, she calls upon that privilege to ally herself with the less advantaged women around her. As many reviewers have noted, this is the most striking and moving feature of Kerman’s memoir. Entering prison, she does not describe it in the manner of many other prison stories, as a place of domination and brutality, but rather as a rich, cultural milieu in which “remarkable women” from a range of backgrounds befriend Kerman and lead her to a deeper discovery of herself (298). “I had found other women here in prison who could teach me how to be better” (243).
Kerman depicts this realization as the result of moral growth and of political enlightenment. And indeed, her memoir tells not only of her encounters with a cast of vivid and memorable women, but of how her deepening friendships with them help her to endure prison and lead her to reassess her past and her place in a larger unjust society. Seeing people whose lives and communities have been ravaged by drug wars and substance abuse, Kerman comes to regard her history in the drug trade not merely as a personal misstep but as a moral error. “My choices made me complicit in their suffering. I was the accomplice to their addiction” (180). As she becomes familiar with the dehumanizing brutality that characterizes even a minimum-security prison, moreover, and as she comes face-to-face with the women who fall under its control, she gains a new sense of systematic injustice. “Most of the women in the Camp were poor” and “poorly educated,” she notes, “and came from neighborhoods where the mainstream economy was barely present and the narcotics trade provided the most opportunities for employment” (138). The obstacles faced by her prison mates make it impossible for Kerman to neglect her own advantages. She knows that she has connections that few of her fellow prisoners share. She will leave prison with a middle-class lifestyle and employment waiting for her—“a marketing job created just for me at a tech company that was run by a friend” (297). When her fellow prisoners leave incarceration, by contrast, many will be returning “to neighborhoods that were more desperate and dangerous than jails” (249).
But, if Kerman’s time in prison gives her a powerful sense of social inequality, by the same token it reminds her in many ways to cherish her distinctive status. Even the women she befriends in prison, it is important to note, do not appear to her in any way typical. They are on her account unusually beautiful, dignified, and resilient, and they share with her a quality that she describes as far from universal in prison–“a deep reserve of humor, creativity in adverse circumstances, and the will to protect and maintain our own humanity despite the prison system’s imperative to crush it” (292). Her friends, in short, are not the “wackos” who make up a majority of Danbury’s population–people “who couldn’t or wouldn’t exercise much self-control” (126, 185). As Kerman conveys in a number of ways, her allies, rather, are the rightful elites of a small world, and they provide her with models of admirable behavior. “Focusing on the positive was hard,” she explains, “but I knew that I had found the right women at Danbury to help me do it” (186). Her new peers recognize Kerman as an elite in turn. As one mentor makes sure she understands: “We’re not all in the same boat. So just remember that” (141).
If the women Kerman meets in prison teach her how to become a deeper and more aware person, then, they do so in ways that Weber would understand. The prison she depicts is not, as a Marxian framework might suggest, part of a system for disciplining the working class and poor. It is rather a Weberian case study in the unreason of bureaucratic rationality—a place of “chickenshit rules enforced by chickenshit people” (31). Were it only to be redirected by the kinds of charismatic leadership that Weber invoked, Kerman tells us, it might somehow return to the valuable mission of rehabilitation that her own story exemplifies. “Great institutions have great leaders who are proud of what they do, and who engage with everyone who makes up those institutions” she contends. But our prison system suffers from “a leadership vacuum.” The “captain’s chair was vacant, and the wheel was spinning as the sails flapped” (293). In her concluding remarks Kerman thus refers to her own experience to remind her readers that “incredible things can happen in prison,” and she calls on “the people who run” the nation’s carceral institutions to direct them so they “truly serve the public” (299).
The story Kerman tells serves that message because the women she depicts are themselves models of charismatic leadership. They share with her the creativity and will to rise above the institutional constraints that crush others and are “remarkably resilient” (299). By the same token, those characters allow Kerman to tell a story of choosing status affiliation over class position and economic calculation. If Kerman and her friends avoid being crushed by the chickenshit rules of the prison system, they do so, she makes clear, by relying on what Weber called “the style of life” of those who feel that “they belong together.” They are bound into ethnic communities by “tribal ritual” and collected into “little clans” whose hierarchical, yet intimate relations are cemented by the exchange of gifts, favors, stories, and communal meals (49, 131). At least in the minimum-security prison Kerman depicts, racial divisions and prison gangs thus appear not predatory, but rather benevolent mutual self-help communities. As she enters into the customs of this sororal world and becomes skilled in its customs, Kerman is granted recognition of her value and distinction. In one especially poignant moment, she receives birthday cards which remind her “you are an extremely beautiful person inside and out . . . . [Y]ou will soon be home with the people who love & adore you” (208).
And, in truth, the more deeply Kerman enters into her new prison friendships, the more fully does she come to appreciate the status affiliations that bind her to a world outside of prison and to a renewed appreciation of her own little clan. Time and again, she is reminded that she belongs to a “network of people who had both a concern for me and the time and money” to demonstrate their support (79). Those people visit Kerman from locations across the country—Washington, “Pittsburgh, Wyoming, and California” (114). They send her books and magazines. They write to her on “beautiful Louis Vuitton writing paper” (113). The most valuable lesson prison teaches, Kerman explains, is the value of status affiliations she had once taken for granted. “I was not alone. My family, my friends, my coworkers . . . all refused to abandon me. . . . maybe I wasn’t quite as bad as I felt” (29).
For Kerman, as for Weber, moreover, the worth of those status affiliations is heightened by the contrast they implicitly present to an economic realm defined by property and calculating self-interest. That contrast is made most explicit in the moral awakening that leads Kerman to reassess her past in the drug trade—a history that she attributes to a heartless rationality that she sees expressed both in criminal enterprise and in the bureaucratic regime of the prison. “The vilest thing I had located, within myself and within the system that held me prisoner, was an indifference to the suffering of others.” (242)
But, less directly, her narrative as whole is organized by an implicit effort to separate the benevolent features of status from the malevolent context of class. Thus, Kerman casts the tale of her brief experience in the criminal underworld and her subsequent life in prison as a story of downward class mobility and then of a Franklinian commitment to self-improvement. Describing her initial decision not to follow her Smith College classmates down familiar career paths, and thus to set out on the journey that will lead her to crime and prison, Kerman notes, “I was finished with what was required of me by birth and background” (5). When, having realized the error of her ways, she leaves behind her criminal associates and attempts to begin a new career in marketing, Kerman depicts herself as a striver after upward mobility. “I was terrified all the time about money and immediately got two jobs” (16). “I flew all over the country,” producing infomercials, “filming people who wanted to be less fat, less poor, less wrinkled, less lonely or less hairy. . . . I wanted to be less poor, lonely, and hairy too” (17).
Despite her wealthy family and elite education, in short, Kerman describes her criminal history as a way of opting out of the class into which she was born. As Peggy McIntosh might expect, she thereby discovers that, while she can change her economic position, her status privileges are a magic bank account that never empties. More to the point, by imagining her life story as one of downward economic mobility and of a hard-earned rebound back upwards, Kerman implies that the personal resources and status affiliations she rediscovers in prison are not the illegitimate rewards of property but rather the benefits of her dedication to an admirable style of life. Much as she might resemble them in other respects, she is not the mere striver after wealth that her Smith classmates were or the beneficiary of the readily accrued rewards they enjoy, but something far more rare. “My total demonstrated failure at being a good girl,” she concludes, “had been more than matched by the urgency of being a good person” (243).
In effect, by placing it in contrast to mere wealth and calculation, Kerman’s narrative legitimizes status as a gift that, if it is employed in properly self-conscious and benevolent ways, can be rightly enjoyed. The inequalities of wealth and of class, Orange is the New Black meanwhile implies, simply lie beyond our moral or political consideration. As they were for Weber, such injustices appear the consequence of ineluctable laws of rational calculation that one can imagine tempering with the gifts of status and the generosity of empathy, but not otherwise altering.
In the television series inspired by Kerman’s memoir, those themes are explored in dramatic and inventive ways that lead to endless discussions of just how fully self-conscious and benevolent the program is. Does Piper do the right thing with her privileges or is she merely selfish and self-involved? Do the program’s writers and creators lead us to genuinely care about the suffering of the less privileged or do they traffic in misery porn that allow the fortunate to relish their distance from the unfortunate? Are the viewers who enjoy the program “truly distressed” about their unearned advantages or captive to the prison of structural injustice? If the best answer to those questions seems, “yes!” that is because, as Weber might encourage, Orange is the New Black asks not whether injustice can be changed, but in face of its intractability, whether the wealthy and powerful act in admirable ways.
In her memoir, Piper Kerman underscores that theme by telling of two characters who especially demonstrate the implications of status. One of them, Levy–“a French Moroccan Jew who claimed to have been educated at the Sorbonne”–is a foil to Kerman (90). Though she, too, is from a privileged background, unlike Kerman, Levy remains locked within the prison of her advantage and fails to appreciate the beauty and dignity of the women she meets in prison. “Zey have no class,” she sneers (94), and she behaves herself in ways that justify Kerman’s “deep contempt” (228). “She was insufferable, crying daily and complaining loudly and constantly . . . , trying to boss people around, and making appalling and loud statements about other prisoners’ appearance and lack of education” (97). In Kerman’s diagnosis, in short, Levy is a badly behaving elite (and not incidentally, perhaps, an arriviste) who, precisely because she is desperately invested in her class position, fails to be distinctive. “It was too painful, I thought, for Levy and others (especially the middle-class prisoners) to admit that they had been classed as undesirables” (201). She has become, in what may be Kerman’s most damning description, merely a member of a class.
But, if Levy is the foil who makes Kerman’s graciousness and genuine status evident by contrast, it is a poor white woman from western Pennsylvania who most directly gives that privilege validation. Kerman first dubs this woman “Pennsatucky,” describing her as a member of a white working class whose lives are “full of abuse and violence and personal failure”—one of a collection of “Eminemettes” who make up part of the prison’s demographic profile (214). But, Kerman then goes on to complement the hauteur of that judgment with a corresponding act of noblesse oblige. When Pennsatucky has a chance to seek early release, Kerman generously drafts a letter making her case, describing the trying circumstances of Pennsatucky’s past, her struggles with drug addiction, her love for her daughter, and her eagerness to start a new life. “When I handed Pennsatucky the letter, she read it right there. She looked at me, with big wet brown eyes. All she said was: ‘How did you know all this?’” (215).
As Orange is the New Black does as a whole, in short, Pennsatucky tells Piper Kerman that she is possessed of the wisdom and generosity that make her an admirable and rightful elite. She reminds Kerman of what the discourse of privilege always asks its readers to keep in mind. She is exceptional.
 McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege, Color, and Crime: A Personal Account.” Images of Color, Images of Crime, eds. Coramae Richey Mann, Marjorie S. Zatz, Nancy Rodriguez (New York: Oxford Univ Press, 2006), 58; Piper Kerman, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011), 158.
 “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again,” Orange is the New Black, directed by Adam Bernstein, written by Jenji Kohan and Tara Herrmann, Netflix, 2016.
 “’Orange’ Creator Jenji Kohan: ‘Piper Was My Trojan Horse,”’ NPR, August 13, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/08/13/211639989/orange-creator-jenji-kohan-piper-was-my-trojan-horse, accessed January 7, 2017.
 Laurel Raymond in Aria Velazquez, Carimah Townes, Laurel Raymond, “Don’t Buy The Hype: ‘Orange Is The New Black’ Was Always About “Black Lives Matter” Think Progress (June 24, 2016), https://thinkprogress.org/dont-buy-the-hype-orange-is-the-new-black-was-always-about-black-lives-matter-34258118b35c#.ro2pce4zh. Accessed 12/15/16; Nia Hampton, “The Latest Season of Orange is the New Black is for White People,” City Paper (July 5, 2016), http://www.citypaper.com/film/film/bcp-070616-screens-oitnb-20160705-story.html. Accessed 12/15/16.
 Kate Zernicke, “‘Orange Is the New Black’ Recap: Of White Girls and Privilege,” New York Times (July 1, 2014), http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/01/orange-is-the-new-black-recap-of-white-girls-and-privilege/?_r=0. Accessed 12/15/16
 Since 1988, McIntosh remarks, “We have seen an outpouring of work on privilege—articles, books, anthologies, documentary films, websites, chat rooms, blogs, newspaper columns and articles, college courses, and degree programs.” Peggy McIntosh, “Reflections and Future Directions for Privilege Studies,” Journal of Social Issues, 68. 1 (2012), 194.
 Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies,” Working Paper No. 189. (Wellesley Centers for Women, 1988), 8.
 See, e.g., Wolfgang J. Mommsen, The Political and Social Theory of Max Weber: Collected Essays (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 53-73.
 Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. and eds, H.H, Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1958), 128.
 Erik Olin Wright, “The Shadow of Exploitation in Weber’s Class Analysis,” American Sociological Review 67.6 (2002), 832-53.
 Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, ed. Guenther Ross and Claus Wittich (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1978), 927
 Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1962), 481.
 Ob cit. Wright, 846, 845.
 Weber, Economy and Society, 975.
 Max Weber, Political Writings, eds. Peter Lassman and Ronald Speirs (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994), 148, 279, emphasis in original.
 Wright, “Shadow of Exploitation,” 849.
 Weber, Economy and Society, 138, emphasis in original.
 Bryan S. Turner, For Weber: Essays on the Sociology of Fate, 2nd ed. (London: Sage, 1996), 368.
 See, Mommsen, Political and Social Theory, 62-69;
 Weber, Economy and Society, 244.
 Weber, Economy and Society, 932, emphasis in original.
 From Max Weber, 183.
 Weber, Economy and Society, 932, 933.
 Ibid, 936, 937, emphasis in original.
 Wolfgang J. Mommsen, Max Weber and German Politics, 1890-1920, trans. Michael S. Steinberg (Chicago, IL: Univ of Chicago Press, 1984), 432.
 McIntosh “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” 1.
 Ibid, 1.
 McIntosh, qtd in Joshua Rothman, “The Origins of ‘Privilege,’” The New Yorker (May 12, 2014), http//:www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-origins-of-privilege, accessed December 4, 2016.
 Frances E. Kendall, “How to Be An Ally if You are a Person of Privilege,” (2001), http://web.clark.edu/ssendak/WS%20Web%20Stuff/Readings/PersonwithPrivilegeKendall.pdf, accessed Jan. 13, 2017.
 McIntosh, “White Privilege, Color, and Crime,” 5.
 That presumption is especially emphasized by Marx’s understanding of exploitation, according to which, as Wright notes, “the material well-being of exploiters occurs at the expense of the well-being of the exploited.” Wright, “Shadow of Exploitation,” 845, n. 24, emphasis in original.
 McIntosh, “Reflections,” 196.
 Ibid, 195.
 Ibid, 203.
 Ibid, 203.
 McIntosh, qtd. at Rothman, “The Origins of ‘Privilege.’”
 Christine Stoddard, “How To Be An Ally Without Committing Rachel Dolezal’s Mistake,” Huffington Post, June 15, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christine-stoddard/how-to-be-an-ally-without_b_7577454.html, accessed January 13, 2017; Kendall, “How to Be an Ally.”