The Deadly Fight Over Feelings

Rebecca Wanzo, PhD, associate professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and associate director, Center for the Humanities

St. Louis illustrator Mary Engelbreit’s artwork mostly features cherub-faced white children and inspirational quotes in greeting cards and children’s book illustrations; her work is described as comforting by some, saccharine with an “appeal mainly to eight-year-old girls and grandmothers with dementia” by others. Thus fans and detractors might be forgiven for being startled by a work she created after Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown on August 9, 2014.

A number of witnesses to the shooting stated that Brown had his hands up when Wilson shot him multiple times, and in the ensuing protests, “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” became a call and response refrain for protesters around the world. One of my most indelible memories in attending an early protest was listening to African American parents explaining to their children who Michael Brown was, and why they needed to protest. One of the more painful, searing images from the militarized response to the protesters was that of children raising their hands up as local officers looked at them through riflescopes.

Engelbreit must also have been jarred by this rupture of innocence and chose to blend her aesthetic with the language of protest in an image she created. In it, a tear creeps out of an African American mother’s eye as she holds her young son in her lap, his hands raised in the air. A newspaper from “Everywhere USA” is in front of her, with the “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” headline. Her caption is quite a different sort than what she usually produces: “No one should have to teach their children this in the USA.”

The backlash made national news. Responses to the artwork were emblematic of the battle over whose affective responses should be privileged, a battle that runs through the debate about police brutality. Engelbreit violated affective segregation for her fans — the regulation of the appropriateness of affective response in certain spaces and, critically, a valuing of white affect over the affect of people of color. Her usual stock of illustrations specializes in nostalgic and romanticized representations of white childhood. By bringing injuries to African American children into the space reserved for a mythic white US American ideality, she violated the segregation between idealized fantasies about the American dream and the injuries the state and institutionalized racism continue to inflict on African American children.

One study found that African American youth are often read as older than their years and, thus, less innocent. This is evidenced by the killing of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, shot while playing with a toy gun in a park, who was identified by the police officer who shot him within seconds of driving up to him as a “black male, maybe 20.” Despite the reams of empirical data demonstrating continued racial bias against African Americans by the police and courts, many whites continue to argue that blacks experience little to no discrimination in the twenty-first century. To critics of Englebreit’s print, she was encouraging a fiction about black suffering believed by African Americans and their allies.

Excerpted from Professor Wanzo’s article as published in Feminist Studies.