Michael Oher Doesn’t Have to Be Grateful to the Tuohys

Photo: Lucas Jackson/REUTERS

Michael Oher, the subject of The Blind Side, ignited a firestorm of conversation around race, adoption, and exploitation when he dropped a bombshell lawsuit this week alleging that the family depicted in the Oscar-winning film profited handsomely off his life story without ever actually adopting him. The former NFL lineman alleges that, shortly after he turned 18, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy tricked him into a conservatorship arrangement that allowed for the Tuohys to do business in Oher’s name and keep the fruits of The Blind Side’s commercial success for themselves. Now 37, Oher says he was disheartened to learn he was never formally adopted by the Touhys. “This is a difficult situation for my family and me,” he said in a statement.

The pushback against his claims has been swift. The Tuohys have vehemently denied the allegations, and their lawyer called Oher’s lawsuit a “shakedown.” Author Michael Lewis, who wrote the book upon which the film is based and is a childhood friend of Sean Tuohy’s, told the Washington Post that he thought it was faster for the Tuohys to go through the conservatorship process than to adopt Oher. “They showered him with resources and love,” Lewis said. “That he’s suspicious of them is breathtaking. The state of mind one has to be in to do that — I feel sad for him.”

For Angela Tucker, who is Black and was adopted by a white couple as a baby, it has been especially challenging to hear people questioning Oher’s claims or suggesting he should be grateful for the Tuohys’ support, even if they publicly misrepresented their relationship. Tucker, the author of You Should Be Grateful: Stories of Race, Identity, and Transracial Adoption, offers mentorship through which she’s met many fellow adoptees of color who have struggled with sharing their conflicting feelings around being adopted. “What do Black and brown people have to do in order to be seen as fully human and deserving of being believed?” she says. “As Black adoptees, we don’t get that benefit of the doubt. There can never be an accusation that we make without people defending white people first, looking at us sideways, thinking, There’s gotta be more to the story. Maybe they’re exaggerating.”

Tucker spoke with the Cut about the cultural impact of The Blind Side, why we rarely hear adoptees’ perspectives in the media, and how identifying as adoptive parents may insulate people from closer scrutiny.

Do you remember seeing The Blind Side when it came out? What was the conversation around the film like at the time?
As a transracial adoptee, there were several things that were striking to me. One is that we just didn’t get to hear Michael Oher much. He was kind of mute. He didn’t have many lines. This is really common with how the media portrays transracial adoption and adoption in general. There’s no story without Michael Oher, but it’s told from the parents’ perspective. The Leigh Anne Tuohy character, portrayed by Sandra Bullock, had the majority of the lines. And Bullock getting the Best Actress award, it’s almost too good to be true in terms of the perfect white-savior narrative and the perfect “adoption is love” narrative. I remember my friends and everybody else really loving it.
Another thing that has stuck with me is the poster of the film, which shows Michael from the backside. He’s really large. Then it shows Bullock as this tiny, petite, damsel-in-distress type. When we think about racism, Black men are often portrayed as larger, aggressive, scary. That fits perfectly in this white-savior narrative where Bullock is pictured as this feminine, dainty rescuer. One of the other things that I know about the film is — and Michael has said in his book — that he felt like he was portrayed as if he was slow. He had to write his own book and write about how he was depicted in order to share his side of the story. There was so much that the film could have explored with how Michael handled things. How does that feel to him, to be “rescued”?

How do you think this film helped shape narratives around adoption, especially around transracial adoption?
This film has played a huge role in people viewing adoption as a purely charitable act that benefits all involved. Michael needs support, and so he moves in with this family. They give him food and shelter. But I think what he also said in his book is he feels like, yes, he was starving, yes, he needed a home. And I wish I could quote this, but he said something like, he wishes he had food and shelter without strings attached or feeling like he owed something in return. I do a lot of adoption mentorship work, and adoptees sometimes say this to me. They feel like they need to be a good return on investment to their parents. There’s always strings attached, and that’s not the portrayal that we see in the film. It’s one-dimensional.

As you mentioned, Michael Oher made it clear he was unhappy with his portrayal in the film long before this lawsuit came out. What do you think that says about whose perspectives are prioritized when we talk about adoption?
Of course, adoptive parents are the loudest voices. They’re the ones that everyone loves to think about. I think adoptees are muted because hearing our complexities muddies up the story. That doesn’t sell well. Adoption is like sunshine and rainbows in terms of how people typically think of it, which largely has to do with The Blind Side but with other things too. People really want to believe that adoption can be this cut-and-dry, this simple, this clear.

Another reason adoptive parents often get the mic and have the power to tell these stories is because when you bring in adoptees, we’re then also talking about all those -isms, like racism and classism, why poverty is involved. Then we bring in our birth parents, and how we might really love them even though perhaps we’ve endured abuse or neglect. It’s very complicated for people to understand how an adoptee could want to be connected to their birth parents if their birth parents are “bad” people. There’s not a lot of room for humanity there.

Photo: Courtesy of Angela Tucker

How did you learn about the allegations this week and how did it feel to hear them?
I got tagged on all my social media when ESPN dropped their article. I don’t know Michael Oher, but he follows me on Instagram. That was notable, because I think that means he buys into my messaging, which is very adoptee-centric. I’m very open about the way white supremacy is involved in transracial adoption. It’s not a surprise to adoptees. There are many parents who have adopted their children internationally but haven’t followed through on all of the processes, so there are adoptees being deported back to their birth country because they’re not citizens.

With the Tuohys, it seems like it was intentional that they weren’t adopting him. But they chose to use the language. Us adoptees could get to the bottom of that quicker than society would’ve. We could have seen through what’s happening with the Tuohys, asked lots of questions about their motivation to adopt. I run a group right now as part of my mentoring that is made up solely of adoptees who are estranged from their adoptive parents, and a lot of the reasoning goes back to things like this, where the whole truth was never stated openly. That’s not uncommon. People love to use the word adoption and then they get a pass on everything else. Adoptive parents say, “I brought in this child. I love them. I’m caring for them, I’m adopting them.” No one’s gonna triple-check that. The response is automatically, “What a great thing you’ve done. You are an incredible person.” People assume adoptive parents are highly moral individuals, when in reality adoptive parents are just as complicated as the rest of us. They certainly aren’t all scammers or manipulative, but they aren’t more righteous individuals than others.

Do you think being perceived as adoptive parents shielded the Tuohys from closer scrutiny? Would it have been different had they identified themselves as legal guardians or benefactors, rather than framing this as an adoption?
Absolutely. We don’t glamorize guardians. There are a lot of adoptees who advocate for guardianship instead of formal adoptions, because we don’t feel that in every case birth parents’ rights need to be terminated in order for us to have a family and be cared for. Adopting and the severing of those rights, giving another parent ownership over us — our society really likes that. The word adoption insulated Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy from any potential wrongdoing. It is synonymous with “I’m a good person,” even though we have so many stories of adoptees who are kicked out of their adoptive parents’ houses. We have stories of rehoming adoptees, stories of adoptive parents abusing their kids.

I posted something recently where I was trying to say I wish I wasn’t adopted. But I also felt like I needed to say “I love my adoptive parents” beforehand, because even people who don’t know them protect my parents. It’s the automatic, “What’s wrong with you? Why would you do that after all that they gave to you?”

That brings us back to the concept of gratitude, right? You’ve talked extensively about how this idea that you should be grateful plays a huge role in our cultural understanding of adoption, but actually causes a ton of harm. So what do you think about people now saying that Michael Oher is “ungrateful” for moving forward with this complaint?
It’s the quintessential white-supremacy moment. What do Black and brown people have to do in order to be seen as fully human and deserving of being believed? As Black adoptees, we don’t get that benefit of the doubt. There can never be an accusation that we make without people defending white people first, looking at us sideways, thinking, There’s gotta be more to the story. Maybe they’re exaggerating.

When I was doing the film-festival circuit for Closure, which is a documentary about my search for my birth parents, I would give a Q&A afterwards. People would ask me all these questions about my life, adoption, and growing up surrounded by whiteness. I would share honestly and afterwards, if my parents were in the audience, they would have a huge crowd around them of people making sure that they were okay. People would say to my parents, “Are you okay with how she portrayed this, how she talked about that?” Adoptive parents are just seen as the charitable ones that have given everything.

It must be so upsetting. You, and in this case Michael Oher, are sharing these very complex, difficult feelings about a complex, difficult situation. And yet, the empathy does not pour out for you.
Exactly. I think the knee-jerk thought is often: If you didn’t get adopted by your parents — by these specific people, even though there’s lots of potential families — you could’ve been homeless, you might’ve been starving, you might’ve died young. For Michael, it’s a similar sentiment of, if Leigh Anne Tuohy and Sean Tuohy hadn’t adopted him, then he would never have become a football star. Which is just crazy.

I wonder what you think about people asking Sandra Bullock to take accountability, not only because this was a pivotal film for her career but because she’s also the adoptive parent of Black children.
She has spoken out about the ways that she’s parenting her Black kids, and that’s great. I can imagine that she didn’t have a say in finding out the truth about the story. My attention goes more toward the original writer of the book, reporter Michael Lewis. I think we need to be scrutinizing studios and scriptwriters. We have seen an increase in adoptees being invited into writing rooms to make sure things are accurate.

I know that Leigh Anne also had that photo where she posed with some Black kids with a message like, “I am coming to save the day and I want to be seen with these Black, needy people.” A lot of transracial adoptees talk about how that feels, to almost be an accessory for their parents, a demonstration of their parents’ anti-racism. It’s a lot of hard work for people to examine their own biases. I think about Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. In the book, she wrote a lot about The Blind Side and how and why we think this is a beautiful story. A lot of it has to do with deep-rooted thoughts we have about what families should look like, about whiteness and wealth, about Blackness and entertainment, which comes in the form of sports and football. It’s really uncomfortable to put those things together. I just am always doing this work, where I plead with especially white people who want to adopt Black kids to think about why you’re doing it. People really dislike that sort of excavation.

Michael Oher Doesn’t Have to Be Grateful to the Tuohys