There’s something indescribably sad about the petition filed by former NFL star Michael Oher against Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. The story of how a white family took a Black teenager into their home and raised him as their own was turned into the film The Blind Side, based on the 2005 book by author Michael Lewis. We all remember Sandra Bullock embodying her role as Leigh Anne Tuohy in the film, which also earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress.
The story itself is yet another common trope: the white savior complex — white people who consider themselves the only helpers to Black people and people of color. It fulfills their fantasy of saving and civilizing Black people and labeling it racial unity. But they help for the wrong reasons and oftentimes end up doing more harm than good.
No, this does not refer to all white people. This white saviorism refers to those who operate from the assumption that they know best what Black people need, as if we require saving from our own Blackness. They believe it’s their responsibility to support and uplift communities of color because they believe we lack the resources, willpower, and intelligence to do it ourselves.
In the case of Michael Oher, he was more than just a homeless Black teenager taken in by a white family in Memphis who then went on to be a successful NFL player. Oher is much more than a Hollywood story. He’s a real person with a real life.
When we meet Michael Oher in the film, he is one of thirteen children by a mother who was addicted to crack. He doesn’t know his real name, his father, or even his birthday. He doesn’t know how to read or write, nor has he ever touched a football or know anything about the game.
Yet, in his 2011 memoir, I Beat The Odds, Oher says that the movie was not an accurate portrayal of his life and has major inaccuracies. Oher had two major issues with his portrayal in the movie. First, that he was written as being “dumb,” and second that he needed to be taught football — when in fact he had been playing long before he met the Tuohys. He wrote, “I felt like The Blind Side portrayed me as dumb instead of as a kid who had never had consistent academic instruction and ended up thriving once he got it.”
Oher has filed a petition alleging that Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy never actually adopted him. Rather, that they tricked him into a conservatorship, which gave them legal authority to use his name in business deals once he turned 18. According to his memoir, back when Oher signed the papers, the Tuohys made it seem as if there was no real difference between adoption and conservatorship.
The petition also claims that the family used Oher to make millions of dollars from the book and 2009 Oscar-winning film. He’s now asking the court to end the conservatorship, which will prevent the family from using his name and likeness. Oher also requests an accounting of all the money the Tuohys have made since starting the conservatorship in 2004 and to pay him his share of the earnings.
As of April 18, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy say they intend to end their nearly 20-year conservatorship for Michael Oher. “If that’s what [Oher] wants to do, is terminate it, then we’re more than glad to do so.” It’s so condescending. What do you mean if that’s he wants to do? The man is 37 years old, married with four children. He can make his own decisions in life and in business. They have profited off him long enough.
The 1994 film Hoop Dreams deals with the machine built around taking poor Black athletes from the inner city and sticking them into primarily white school systems that only care about them to the extent that they would help their sports teams win. Basketball, in the film, is a jumping off point to explore issues of race, class, and education in America. The 2006 film Glory Road was about a white coach that decided to build a team based on talent rather than race. But the conservative town couldn’t take it when Black kids showed up to play, despite the fact that the team started winning all their games.
Both of these films were a representation of young Black men as weak and told from a marginalizing point of view. Just like Oher, they were initially unaware of the societal and structural racism and ultimately became stepping stones in someone else’s journey.
Perhaps even with all the information that has surfaced, we shouldn’t rush to judgment. We are though, however, and rightfully so. The truth is, white people are not having the same discussion around Michael Oher and the Tuohys that Black people are having. Many white people are wondering why Oher isn’t grateful for this generous white family pulling him from the depths of poverty, dusting him off, and making him a success. Black people knew the story was trash to begin with and we weren’t buying what it was selling: a rich white family who takes a Black teenager out of the ghetto and changes the trajectory of his life to make him a success.
This unfortunate story is another glaring reminder that things aren’t always what they seem. When white people aim to profit from Black talent, it’s the worst kind of appropriation of Black culture. They engage in it and are never forced to confront that fact — not that this is anything new. The most disturbing part of it all is that white people taking any accountability tarnishes their enjoyment of the very thing they’re exploiting.
Michael Oher is now retired from the NFL and looking at this whole situation as a mature man. It is not far-fetched for him to still be grateful for what the Tuohys provided him but at the same time be incredibly hurt by how he was used for their benefit. It is, in many ways, just as American as football.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.