The Problem With Hugs

By now we’ve all seen the viral image of a teenage black boy, tears streaming down his face, hugging a white police officer in riot gear. The image, taken from a Ferguson protest in Portland, Oregon will doubtless become as iconic as the photograph of 17 year old Jan Rose Kasmir holding a flower up to the stony faces of the National Guard during a Vietnam war protest, or the unknown man standing alone in front of oncoming tanks in Tiananmen Square. The boy, Devonte Hart, has unwittingly become a symbol of hope and pacifism in the midst of growing fury over the failure of the Grand Jury to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown. It seems to suggest that if we all just stop for a moment, let down our guard, become human beings, show some love and face our own mortality, that this whole sorry mess might blow over. As one of his mothers, Jennifer Hart wrote, this moment was about ‘listening to each other, facing fears with an open heart”.

Devonte Hart – we’ve been told repeatedly by newspapers and social media – is the adopted black child of two white mothers. It’s one of these mothers who, even before Devonte stumbled onto internet fame, released his private history to the world in an interview with an online magazine, where we are told the most horrifically personal details of Devonte’s life without any indication he has given his consent for their release: “Devonte Hart entered the world 12 years ago with drugs pumping through his tiny newborn body. By the time he was 4 years old he had smoked, consumed alcohol, handled guns, been shot at, and suffered severe abuse and neglect. He knew only a handful of words, including fuck and shit, and he struggled to identify with the names of food, body parts and every day objects. Devonte was a violent toddler and his health was weighed down by a heavy list of disabilities.”

Devonte, we are led to believe, was destined for rehab or prison, until Jennifer and Sara Hart swept in to “save” him: “It was a life with little hope and a future that seemed over before it began. That is until Jen Hart and her wife Sarah entered Devonte’s life and adopted him and his two siblings seven years ago.”

Devonte’s feelings are unremarked upon. We are not told if Devonte gave his permission for this interview or for his personal narrative to be retold and released into the world. We must assume, as Sara and Jennifer obviously have, that Devonte can be nothing but grateful for this “saving”. At the center of the white savior narrative is, of course, the savior. The centrality of whiteness and the white experience dominates the conversation: the white savior’s desires, feelings, experiences and reflections are more important than the silent, blank, black body of the child who is spoken for: “Jen says the day she met Devonte was frightening and traumatic.” No mention of Devonte’s feelings, which we might presume to be even more frightening and traumatic than Jen’s.

To take someone else’s story and to exploit it in this way is a deeply violent act. To take an adopted child’s story and exploit it is even more violent. To take your black adopted child’s story and retell it within the framework of a deeply troubling myth of modern day liberalism, that of the white savior – beggars belief. But of course, there is a long history of white American liberals – doing just this, even the ‘good’ ones. Scholars, including Henry Louis Gates have written extensively about the unreliability of slave narratives due to their frequent collaboration with white abolitionists who were crafting stories intended to be consumed by a literate, white, sympathetic audience: the kind of people who had read, enjoyed and been moved by the “sentimentality” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work, a “sentimentality” which travels all the way through to Devonte’s white mother, Jen Hart, who writes:

“this wasn’t about one recent occurence [sic] that has been exploited by the media(on both sides) and used to create more tension. This is about a systemic issue that is interwoven into the very fabric of how this country was established. I noticed Devonte was struggling. Tears. He wouldn’t speak. He was unconsolable. My son has a heart of a gold, compassion beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, yet struggles with living fearlessly when it comes to the police and people that don’t understand the complexity of racism that is prevalent in our society. He wonders if someday when he no longer wears a Free Hugs sign around his neck, when he’s a full grown black male, if his life is in danger for simply being.”

He “struggles with leaving fearlessly when it comes to the police”. We can see that Jennifer Hart has a tendency to speak about her son, and speak for her son, and in doing so, not only devaluing his experiences, but superimposing her own values upon them. She dismisses his extremely valid concerns about police brutality, and seems to suggest her son should be “living fearlessly” – as if the privilege she carries with her white skin is an emotional state of being attainable for people of color in this country if they only change their attitude and confront their fears. There are two contradictory threads running through her words. On the one had she seems to name check racism as a “systemic issue”: an issue which is so deeply entrenched in the system that extricating one portion of the cancer is impossible. On the other she seems to lament the fact her son fears the police and suggests that it is this fear which could and should change:

“Last night I encouraged Devonte to face his concerns and fear. It was one of the most emotionally charged experiences I’ve had as a mother. He trembled holding a Free Hugs sign as he bravely stood alone in front of the police barricade. Tears rushing from his eyes and soaking his sweater, he gazed upon them not knowing how they would react. After a while, one of the officers approached him and extended his hand. Their interaction was uncomfortable at first. I kept my distance and allowed him space to truly have his own experience.”

As black feminist, writer and performer Ali Barthwell phrases succinctly, “that fear he has of police is totally justified and real and understandable. He should not be forced to “face his fear” of police if that fear might keep him alive. It’s sad but it’s true. Black people walk around with a healthy and rational fear of police and sometimes that fear keeps us alive. If you’re afraid of bears, you learn what to do if you’re ever near a bear TO KEEP YOU ALIVE.”

But it is precisely this action which Jennifer congratulates herself on orchestrating. It is precisely this action which she deems “part of the real life solution” – to solving systemic racism? One starts to see now why The National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) is against interracial adoptions. “The National Association of Black Social Workers has taken a vehement stand against the placement of black children in white homes for any reason,” the group’s “Position Statement on Trans-Racial Adoption” reads. “We affirm the inviolable position of black children in black families where they belong physically, psychologically and culturally in order that they receive the total sense of themselves and develop a sound projection of their future.”

We are in America in 2014 and as Darren Wilson walks free, another black child playing in a park is gunned down in plain sight by police officers. Hugs are not going to bring him back. Hugs are not part of the solution. Viral pictures are not part of the solution. White people appropriating the narratives of black children are not part of the solution.

Not only is the image of Devonte Hart deeply problematic, its misreading by social media – encouraged by the smug, self congratulatory and woefully ignorant posts by his adoptive mother – indicates that we seem to be moving backwards in terms of comprehending and understanding the impact of racism in American society. The image of a traumatized black teenager with a narrative appropriated by his white savior mother, who encourages him to confront the people who have become symbols of White America’s endless capacity for racial violence, is not a symbol of hope, but a symbol of heartbreaking, apocalyptic devastation: the very absence of hope. It is a symbol that white people still blame black people for the violence inflicted upon them. It is a symbol that white people still believe that the first step towards “necessary dialogue” is that terrified black children should reach out, love and forgive those who have the power and the intent to hurt, maim and destroy them because of their skin color, using the language of fear to justify the violence levied against Trayvon, against Mike, against Tamir – and against Emmett all those years ago. This picture is unashamedly a symbol of white supremacy, which asks not just to be obeyed, but demands to be both feared, despised, revered, respected, loved and liked. This picture is a symbol that this country wants to be forgiven for being racist, more than racism to end.

We white people do not want to reform the police. We do not want to end systemic racism. We do not want to talk about racist policing and why a teenaged black boy is twenty-one times more likely to be shot dead by a police officer than his white brother. We simply want to share a facebook picture which speaks to our relief that a photo opportunity and some hallmark captions might elide centuries of inequality and murder which continue to this day. We want to believe that the solution is not only out of our hands, it is firmly in the camp of the abused. If only people of color could stop the violence (“Stop the Violence! It doesn’t solve anything! Those protestors aren’t doing themselves any favors by looting and throwing things at the police! It’s not fair on the police! They’re just doing their job!”.) we might be able to move forward, in this new, post-racial America. We might be able to live fearlessly, like the white folks do.

Ruth Fowler is a journalist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. She’s the author of Girl Undressed. She can be followed on Twitter at @fowlerruth.


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Ruth Fowler is a single mom of one small dog and a large twenty month old living in Venice Beach. She is currently raising funds to eliminate her legal debt and direct a short film about custody visitation at gig.me/at/IRMO – please give her lots of money. She promises not to hug you or believe in you in return.

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