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Race, Racism and Mental Health: A Look At #OITNB’s Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren

I’m pretty convinced Suzanne Warren’s mother is racist. Unintentionally so, but to detrimental effect.

As you know, I was very excited for the Season Two premiere of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. I stayed up for hours and watched three straight episodes before my body gave in to fatigue and I went to bed. I spent the rest of the weekend inhaling the new stories that these women had to tell us, and I was grateful to be able to immerse myself in their lives once more.

There were more than a few surprises when it came to the backstories that were explored this season, most notably Morello, Poussey and Miss Rosa, in my opinion. But the backstory that stood out to me most was Suzanne’s. In the second season’s third episode, Hugs Can Be Deceiving, we get a glimpse into the difficulties Suzanne faced growing up as an adopted black child in a white family, who while clearly loving and protective of her, remained stubbornly blind to her mental health needs.


Promo image of Suzanne from Orange is the New Black, with her face painted with ketchup or something

So why do I think Suzanne’s mother is racist? It’s a bit difficult for me to articulate, so I’ll defer to this completely out of context quote from Bitch Flicks about a young black female character on the Disney channel show Jessie:

The worst part about her character to me is not just the stereotypes, but the fact that she is exhibiting urban Black stereotypes despite never having been a part of urban Black society. She lives in an Upper East Side penthouse and was born in Uganda. It is reminiscent of early 20th century ideas: things like social darwinism. These characteristics of Zuri exist in her genetics just because of the color of her skin.

Emphasis mine. Just let that percolate for a bit while I get into this next bit.

We, the audience, have had two seasons to get to know Suzanne, but even from the very beginning, when she doggedly pursued Piper and nicknamed her Dandelion, it was clear that she suffered from some form of mental disorder. While demonstrably very intelligent (can you quote Shakespeare from memory?) Suzanne is inappropriately sexually aggressive, lacks social boundaries, and demonstrates difficulty understanding interpersonal cues. That she is “different” is plainly obvious to the casual observer.

And yet.

In Hugs Can Deceiving, we see Suzanne’s mother self-righteously accuse another mother of racism for not wanting Suzanne to attend her child’s sleepover in a flashback scene. The sleepover is for her 6-year-old. Suzanne is 10. The scene rubbed the wrong way for a lot of reasons.

Firstly, a difficult child is a difficult child. It is not irrational for a parent (who will also be supervising several other small children, mind you) to not want to have to deal with a difficult child. Add that to the fact that it is rude as hell to arrive with an extra child to a party they weren’t invited to, much less a child who is of an inappropriate age. Remove Suzanne’s mental health issues, and her mother is still being unforgivably impolite.

But in context, I read that scene as being fairly clear that this mother did not want Suzanne around because she was “weird.” She did not want to deal with an eccentric child. For Suzanne’s mother to immediately conflate that hesitance to engage with racism troubles me because I think it says more about her attitudes towards her own daughter than it does about mom #2’s prejudices.

I did not interpret mom #2’s reaction as stemming from racism, though admittedly that is only my personal reaction. Suzanne’s mom’s response, to me demonstrated that in her mind, she had conflated Suzanne’s “eccentricities” with her blackness. As a child who clearly wasn’t getting the help she needed, Suzanne likely would have been difficult to manage even for someone with the best of intentions, let alone an unwilling parent. It is the most obvious reason for why she experienced so much alienation growing up. But her mother didn’t say, “Is it because she’s weird?” To me, this would have been the obvious assumption. Instead she said, “Is it because she’s black?”

Let’s go back to Jessie for a moment:

These characteristics of Zuri exist in her genetics just because of the color of her skin.

I genuinely think that this is the way Suzanne’s mother saw her — as a black body from whom difficulties were to be expected and endured.

Throughout the rest of the episode, we see how painfully white Suzanne’s world was growing up, including a telling scene where a very young Suzanne throws a tantrum in the hospital that her parents cannot handle. It takes the black nurse, the woman who looks like her, to comfort her and calm her down. Suzanne’s parents never seem to have made an effort to embrace and explore her blackness; instead, they tried ignore it in a misguided effort to be color blind. It’s in this way that I think Suzanne’s mother saw her difficult behaviour not as an indication of a disease that she could have received help for, but as an indelible part of her identity specific to her blackness.

In other words, black people are just “like that” and therefore there was nothing to be done. Because of this, her parent never made the effort to get her the mental health care that she so desperately needed, and as we know, she’s ended up in jail.

It is telling that even having grown up in an apparently well-off white family with economic means, the black child was not afforded access to the resources she needed in order to grow up in a well-adjusted manner. It should be noted that we still don’t know exactly what landed Suzanne in jail, nor do we know if she has an official diagnosis. The only indication that she receives treatment of any kind is a season one scene where she explains to Piper how difficult it is to be held is the prison’s psych ward.

I think that Mrs. Warren’s belief that Suzanne simply had a propensity for misbehavior or violence because of her blackness directly contributed to her current situation and it upsets me to think that even though Suzanne presumably had a more privileged background than most, she was still allowed to slip through the cracks. This becomes even more irksome as the season unfolds and we see how desperate Suzanne is for love and empathy, leading her to be completely entranced by the likes of Vee, who zeroes in on her need to be treated like a capable person worthy of admiration and respect, and then exploits her.

I’m sure I haven’t properly explained myself, but the tl;dr is that from what we’ve seen so far, I think that Suzanne didn’t get the help she needed because her family thought her “eccentricities” were an indelible part of her blackness and therefore did not try to get her help. What do you think? How did you read the scene and how do you think Suzanne’s family did or didn’t contribute to her current situation?

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog BattyMamzelle. Republished with permission.

5 replies on “Race, Racism and Mental Health: A Look At #OITNB’s Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren”

Late to this chat, but: it may be that her parents’ wealth are the reason Suzanne is in Lichfield, rather than a different facility. We don’t know why she’s there yet; it may have been a relatively minor situation that escalated quickly (because when Suzanne gets upset, it’s harder for her to control herself). I remember her having a conversation in which she describes has her gesture to show the guards she’s in control of herself, which prevents a trip to psych or SHU. The fact that she’s NOT in a higher-security facility already may be because her parents could advocate for her, hire mental health evaluations, and help Suzanne stay focused so she could advocate for herself.

Without knowing the particulars, we can’t really blame her parents for everything…but their attitudes didn’t help when she was a child.

One of the things I love about Suzanne’s backstory is the way that there is so much complexity tangled up in there. I’m not sure I necessarily read it in exactly the way you did, insofar as I didn’t come away feeling that Suzanne’s parents had obviously not tried to get her professional help. But I felt they were well-meaning but misguided on multiple levels – they want to look past the different aspects of Suzanne’s identity and believe that just loving her and supporting her will be enough. They want to be colour-blind, but this just cuts Suzanne off from her black identity in ways that Vee exploits. And they so are so concerned to not have her mental illness / disability define her that they are unable to recognise it and work with it. I don’t think this is just a matter of the kind of racism you describe (though it plays a part) – it’s a dynamic I recognise in a disability context too. In my own life with a disabled sibling, I’ve seen how parents can be so committed to demonstrating that their child should not be written off because of their disability, that they sometimes push too far, because there are times when the disability does come into play. That was how I read the graduation scene – Suzanne’s mother knows that her daughter has an amazing singing talent, and feels she should be able to share that and be celebrated for it, and that overrides her ability to acknowledge that pushing Suzanne to perform in a high stress public situation like that is really triggering.

tl;dr – I think race plays a part, but I think there are lots of other layers connected with Suzanne’s parents’ well-meaning approach.

One more thing – the scene with the party was SO PAINFUL to me because Suzanne seemed like a child who probably couldn’t interact well with kids her own age because of her disability, and when a kid likes playing with younger kids and can get some social connection there it’s so tempting to push the issue as her mother does there. But it doesn’t actually mean they are interacting appropriately with the younger children or that it is a good idea. :( And I totally get how it could be tempting to seize on the race issue in that context to avoid facing up to the more complicated issues. (Er, race is not a less complicated issue ni reality, but it is in the way Suzanne’s mother uses it here.)

Not necessarily easier, but certainly more visible and readily admitted. That’s how I read it. No parent wants to say “It’s because you can’t handle my child because she’s weird, right?” Often parents don’t realize that their child already KNOWS she’s different, or don’t want to exacerbate any knowledge they do have. Suzanne is OBVIOUSLY not white, so hearing that everyone knows can’t possibly hurt her.

I don’t know if Suzanne’s parents felt that her mental instability was due to her race (in fact, I didn’t read it that way) but I did feel that they were overwhelmed with both issues, and they ignored both issues, hoping that they would just go away. Of course, they didn’t and the issues ended up inextricably tied.

Wonderful analysis! I couldn’t quite put my finger on why Suzanne’s mom’s accusation rubbed me wrong. It was clear to me (a Black woman) that Mom 2 didn’t want Suzanne at the party because Suzanne is 1) too old, 2) too “weird”. (and it’s not impossible that Mom 2 had a problem with Suzanne being Black, but the first two concerns seemed more obvious to me.) And while Mom 2 has a valid point about the age, Suzanne’s mom should have taken her to task on the “weird”. But no, she jumped to race. Because that’s what good White people who adopt Black babies do, right? Rush to defend their Black Child in an effort to prove what good Colorblind Progressives they are?

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