Aside from the one-of-a-kind storylines presented in the hit Netflix show “Orange Is the New Black,” the cult series also stands out from other mainstream shows for its depiction of characters from diverse racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Actress Amanda Stephen plays Alison Abdullah, a black Muslim woman who represents one of several marginalized groups viewers see in the series.
Stephen spoke with HuffPost on Tuesday about the pride she takes in representing such a rarely portrayed demographic.
“I’m proud to be playing Alison Abdullah, a black Muslim here in America,” said Stephen, who doesn’t practice Islam in her personal life.
Muslim characters on TV are so often typecast as terrorists that even former President Barack Obama once felt compelled to call out the media’s stereotyping.
“Our television shows should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security. It’s not that hard to do,” the 44th president said during his visit to a Baltimore mosque in February 2016.
While having a Muslim TV character without a terror-related storyline is rare in itself, it’s even rarer for such a character to be a black woman. Stephen noted this lack of representation, saying she can only recollect one instance of seeing someone in that role on television.
“Regina King playing a Muslim woman in ‘American Crime’ was really the first time I’d seen a modern African-American black Muslim woman played and it showed so many different layers of her,” she said.
“Any underrepresented group deserves to be represented ... entertainment and arts is supposed to be a reflection of society,” Stephen continued.
But there is one thing that differentiates King’s and Stephen’s characters: Stephen’s Alison Abdullah is in prison.
“Having a black Muslim inmate is just saying, ‘Whatever your preconceived notions of black Muslims are, hey, this is her story. Hey, maybe by seeing her story you’ll start to think more about seeing a black Muslim lady walking down the street and think about what her story is.’”
And she believes “OINTB” is doing its part to encourage this line of thinking.
“I think ‘OINTB’ tries to find the humanity and similarities among us all on this earth and try to find more empathy amongst ourselves,” she said.
The actress, who posed for a political photo shoot in March and recently gave birth to her first child, is just as uncertain as the rest of us about how her character landed in prison.
“I believe in my heart that ― because she’s bright ― I’m not sure if she did some kind of forgery,” she speculated. “I think something dealing with her [halal food] business [and] trying to make ends meet. So maybe she dabbled in something illegal to boost her business.”
We’ll just have to wait and see.