Here’s What I Saw
You know that photo that went viral of the hug between the 12 year old Black boy and the white Portland cop? The one that 400,000 people reposted on social media and that The Oregonian, the Portland paper that originally posted the photo, bragged about how often it had been shared and liked? Yeah, that one. While many, it seems, saw hope and beauty in that hug. I did not. Here’s what I saw…
I was immediately skeptical when I first saw the photo posted on Facebook. (In an effort to not add to the exploitation of the boy in the photo, I will not repost the photo and I will not use the boy’s name.) Where others saw a positive image I saw a distraction. I saw a frightened, exploited, deeply emotionally scarred boy. Guessing that there was more to the story, I clicked the link to the photo which had another link to an article about the boy from a New Zealand based online news site called Paper Trail. According to the article, the boy was born addicted to drugs and had done and seen many abhorrent circumstances by the time he was four years old. His life was in a downward spiral until (cue the superhero music) his white, adoptive parents came in to save the day.
I don’t want to undermine the level of psychological, spiritual, emotional fortitude this boy seems to have. Instinctively, when I looked at the photo, my gut told me the boy was adopted by white parents. (Because “free hugs,” enough said.) For what it’s worth, this appears to be a case where adoption was a good option. I presume that the boy’s adoptive parents are activists and believe in racial justice. However, I question the parents for allowing their son to be used like a pawn as an oversimplified message on race relations in America. To me, the photo is akin to the pictures of children in Africa with bloated bellies and flies crawling all over their faces used by white organizations that are “saving the children.” Exploitation at its finest.
Where others saw a touching photo, I saw deep sadness and confusion within the boy. I saw a 12 year old Black boy grappling internally with the need to understand systemic racism. In the boy’s tears, I saw the fierce unfair reality of being forced to know that, as a young Black boy in America, he is not considered a child for as long as white boys are and that were he to play with a pretend gun, he may very well end up killed, as Tamir Rice was, by the same white cop who embraced him in the photo. In the boy’s clinging to the cop, I saw all of his birth parent’s heartache and pain that led to not being able to take care of their son. Their pain, no doubt, being intricately connected to the systemic racism that is the foundation of America.
In the Paper Trail article, I applaud one of the boy’s adoptive mothers, Jen Hart, for saying, ““People always tell us how lucky he is that we adopted him. I tell you, we most certainly are the lucky ones. Yes indeed he is living proof that our past does not dictate our future.” However, I implore Ms. Hart to reconsider being the teller of her son’s story. I wonder whether Ms. Hart’s son with full and complete understanding, approved of his mom telling his story to the world? As adoptees everywhere advocated during National Adoption Month in November to #flipthescript in order to allow the adoptee voice to be heard in first person, I would hope that Ms. Hart would take a moment to stop talking (and sharing on social media) and start listening.
Acknowledging that Ms. Hart wants to be and/or is an ally to the racial justice movement that has blossomed in the aftermath of the murder of Mike Brown by former cop Darren Wilson, my wish would be that she stop using her Black son as a tool in her quest to show the world that she is an ally. Your son is not a tool.
Perhaps the images of the protests in reaction to the grand jury decision in Ferguson are too difficult for some to see. Thus, the distraction of a sappy photo was welcomed. For those who find the protest images uncomfortable, and who prefer the sugar coated hug photo, I ask you – why? Why are the protest photos uncomfortable to look at? Do they make you mad? If so, why? Has your life been inconvenienced because of the protests? Or has your white privilege been threatened for all the world to scrutinize?
After the Ferguson grand jury decision was announced, I was deflated. With the level of corruption being exposed throughout the Darren Wilson investigation, I was not surprised by the grand jury decision but the utter wrongness of the decision made my heart and spirit temporarily crash into a million pieces. As the mother of Black children and as a person of color myself, I wondered where our country was headed as racial injustices have spun out of control. And then I saw the photos of the many protests that continue to go on in reaction to Ferguson and the institutionalized racism that caused Darren Wilson to walk free despite murdering a teenager. In these courageous scenes of protest, I see hope. I see rightful rage. I see love.
Julie Young is a former litigation attorney and currently works full-time in the nonprofit sector. Additionally, Julie is a writer and speaker. She serves on the Board of Nazdeek and is an Advisory Board Member of All Together Now. Julie holds a B.S. degree in Psychology from Fordham University and a J.D. degree from Cardozo School of Law. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and twins.