What Orange Is The New Black Made Me Realize About My Own Cultural Identity

I am a huge OITNB fan. Screw your vampire dramas and the girls who gossip. This is real life sh*t. I identify with these people….ok, that sounds a bit weird seeing as how they’re all criminals, but that is part of why I felt a strong urge to write this post, and you will soon see why. So strong, in fact, that I paused my binge-watching sesh of the new season to write this post.

After watching episode 2 (don’t worry-no spoilers here), it got me thinking about how I grew up, and what group of people I feel most comfortable with. Surprisingly (to outsiders, not to myself), my own race is not the answer. Although I am a blonde haired, blue-eyed white girl with a white smile, it does not mean anything to my cultural identity. No, I’m not talking about proper academic sociology here, or saying that I personally identify as another race (no super dark tan claiming to be African American for me). I’m simply saying that if I was at a party, in a room full of diverse groups of Americans, I would gravitate towards some groups stronger than others. Before you even have the chance to think it, I am fully aware that racism and white privilege exist and am not arguing against them. The point of this post is to share my personal experiences and how the show helped me realize something about my past and present.  I’ll explain what I mean, but first, some personal background information about myself.

I am warning you all now, I am throwing political correctness right out the window in this post, so get ready.

I grew up as a minority in my neighborhood. Yes, you did read that correctly above; I’m white. In the area I am from, there were more Latinos and Blacks than white people, and the white people that did live there were mostly of the trashy kind you would imagine would live in trailer parks with southern flags hanging on the front porch. I looked like them, but didn’t really like the way they thought about other people (read: racist), so I stayed marching to the beat of my own drum. My mom had me when she was very young, not to mention the fact that she was a first generation American from an immigrant family (from what was Yugoslavia, now Croatia, if you’re curious) who came here in the 70s during the political conflicts of the time. Not only did my mom have the challenge of being a first generation American with parents who barely spoke English, along with having a baby at the ripe age of barely-legal 18, she also was doing it alone. That should give you a pretty good idea of our socio-economic status for a point of reference for the rest of the story.

In those important formation years of my childhood, I had friends of all shades and sizes. I celebrated birthdays with homemade tamales and mariachi music, refreshed myself public-poolside with Kool-Aid I only knew the flavor as the name of the color, and at a young age learned how to dance like the girls in the rap videos with the extended families and older siblings of my friends in their auntie’s open garage with all the neighbors on a Friday night to music I didn’t understand the meaning of, but I liked. I had a great mix of everything, from rock music, hip-hop dancing, to Mexican food (not all at the same time, obviously…although, that would be a fun experiment). Experiencing this, I also saw the other side of it, with racial slurs, and awful hateful things towards me as well as my friends. I gained an understanding of some of the struggles different groups of people go through, which I think has made me more culturally aware, naturally.
Now, growing up, my family was as white as it gets. Although we have Croatian roots, we adapted to American culture and somewhere along the adaptation process, lost all the culture we ever had the chance of knowing. Vanilla. Not French Vanilla, or the one with the little brown speckles that gives it some flavor; I’m talking straight up, milk white, dollar store vanilla.

I saw the opposite when I was with my friends, and their cultures each in some way were subconsciously absorbed by me. My mom was doing everything she could to support us, which I will never fault her for. She worked hard and did the right thing, but we were definitely poor. Living in environments like I had lived in, I saw a lot of things children should never have to see, and learned from a young age how to handle myself and other people.
As I got older, I realized the world I was living in was not what the rest of the world was like. By the time I started high school, my mom and step dad were doing well enough to buy a house on the other side of town…the side where more people looked like me. Don’t get me wrong, I was always aware I was white. I was in no way confused, but I just felt more comfortable where I look like I don’t belong.

I had a rude awakening when I started high school. I immediately felt like an outsider when my first instinct to bond with a potential new friend was asking “Ayyy, where the party at?!” in the tune of Jagged Edge, which was immediately followed by blank and confused stares. I was completely outside of my comfort zone and this is where I also heard Country music for the first time in my life. Are these people aliens? I remember going home crying to my mom saying that I hate everyone, they all look the same, and I don’t fit in at all. I missed my old friends, the way we seriously joked with each other, how no one gave us dirty looks when we got loud and rambunctious, and where breaking out into random dance/singing/rap battles was totally normal. I still take pride in my social side where I’m loud and proud and enjoying myself without a care in the world about what people are thinking of me. As far as school went, I adjusted eventually, and now you would never even guess that I grew up that way…that is, until a throwback rap song comes on and I bust out every single lyric like it was second nature. Because being predictable is boring.

So, what does all of this have to do with Orange Is The New Black, you might be wondering? The cultural groups. Asian girl hanging out with the black girls, Mexicans helping the Puerto Ricans, the way they explain each other’s stereotypes, and everything in between. Watching them singing songs and dancing in their own cultural styles, and making cultural references that I actually understood is when it clicked. I had friends just like these girls, and watching them on the show behaving in a way that made me miss them, suddenly made me realize that my cultural identity is not ONE culture. It’s not Croatian, it’s not “LA”, it’s not trailer park, and it’s not even solely hip hop culture. It’s everything I have ever experienced in my childhood, and now I realize I am very lucky to have had the diversity I had growing up. I have learned, as I continued though life encountering and learning from people who had completely different life experiences than me, that I really am lucky that I learned the people and life skills I learned growing up poor. From going to the “rich” high school (definitely not rich, but it was one of the better schools in our area), going to parties on the “bad” or “ghetto” side of town (where all my friends still lived), or going away to college and experiencing yet another entirely new world, I’ve been able to see how I’ve benefitted from dealing closely with a diverse group of people in a genuine way. I also relate to the show a bit more than usual because I knew a lot of people like them, although they are probably convicted criminals…just a thought. But really, if you hadn’t don’t something illegal by the time you were in middle school, you were an outsider. Let’s just say we all had experience doing something we didn’t know was illegal because it was so normal to us.

On another note, I have a theory. Due to my extensive experiences with people different than me, it has put me in a great place to have empathy and cultural awareness, which has added to my urge to travel that most people never quite understand. My personality comes from my upbringing, my level of party and tearin it up on the dance floor even if no one else is there with me is due to the outgoing cultures I experienced growing up, and my openness to diversity and trying my best to put myself in their shoes is what I am most proud of. I want to help make the world a more open and accepting place, as I hope you do too, but first, you need to understand yourself and be open to see things through a different lens. It’s not until you see and accept other cultures as they are, and realize that your own lens differs greatly from the next person’s.

Thank you, Orange Is The New Black, for showing me pieces of what I miss about my childhood friends and helping me realize that experiencing different cultures made me a better person. Never in all my 26 years would I have thought I’d be living abroad in Italy writing this article and thanking my past, no matter how difficult or unorthodox, because it made me a better human with a sharper image of who I am and why. I am also better able to adjust to my surroundings to blend with the people and culture instead of behaving as if the whole world is my personal party and I run the show. That is just plain ignorance, with a dash of arrogance, which is never a good combination to have as a foreigner in someone else’s territory.


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