Leigh Ann Tuohy's Latest White Savior Act Isn't So Great

But she meant well. What’s the harm?
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Publish date:
December 19, 2014
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race

I scroll by lots of questionable content and things I disagree with on the Internet every day. Any of us who meet up in this sometimes strange and often wonderful place has to in order to survive. And then there are the times when I wish a headline, image, or link had just never made its way to my consciousness, as is the case with this Instagram post, from Leigh Anne Tuohy.

I saw this post skitter by, courtesy of our frenemy social media (she posted it on Facebook as well), and immediately recognized the name as that of the matriarch in the 2009 movie "The Blind Side," based on the 2006 book "The Blind Side: Evolution of A Game" by Michael Lewis. The book is described as a look at the changing role of player positions in football strategies, and it also tells the story of Mr. Lewis’ schoolmate Sean Tuohy and his wife Leigh Anne adopting Michael Oher when he was a teenager. That latter part of the book is what inspired the massively popular movie in which Michael, who is black and had been in foster care and homeless, is taken in by the well-off (and white) Tuohys and ultimately becomes a successful NFL offensive tackle.

Let's get this out of the way: I have neither read nor seen “The Blind Side”, because I choose to not engage with grand scale reinforcement of a narrative that I find damaging and upsetting on a personal level. I understand that it is based on a true story and while the actual life experience of Mr. Oher was, by all accounts, immeasurably enriched, the film shows the White Savior trope in all its gleaming whiteness and as a moviegoing experience, you can miss me with that.

It’s excellent when someone who needs help gets it. It is wonderful on an extra special level if that person is a child who was in dire need and is able to go on to achieve at high levels, like Michael Oher has. Adpoting a child into a loving family is nothing short of miraculous, and race plays no part in that love whatsoever.

The story of Michael’s success is indeed wonderful. And, like any wonderful story, how nice to share. However, as a black woman who is an actor and a writer, I am deeply invested in which stories are chosen to be told and sold as entertainment, on what platforms, and from whose point of view.

Having grown up on Webster and Diff’rent Strokes (to name a few), I’m really not interested in spending my leisure time watching benevolent white folks saving poor black boys as entertainment well into adulthood, thank you very much.

I never saw "The Help" either, and I can objectively celebrate Octavia Spencer's Oscar win for that movie without specifically subjecting myself to another portrayal of black women as maids given voice by their white savior in a film made by a white director. (A white man also directed “The Blind Side,” but let me not digress within my digression.)

Ms. Spencer was also fantastic in the devastating "Fruitvale Station," also based on real-life events but with the tragic ending of a young unarmed black man being shot and killed by law enforcement, and directed by a black man. Ms. Spencer's performance in “Fruitvale Station” probably didn't compute as easily to Oscar voters because she was a black woman being a good mother.

As I wrote about regarding Nicholas Sparks, artists are free to tell whatever stories they like without it necessarily constituting a racist agenda. But when taken as a whole; when we see whose stories are welcomed and listened to and not questioned and made into Hollywood blockbusters and showered with awards, whiteness still reigns supreme, and far too often even when a black role is prominent, it is only by the grace of the kindly white person they’re lucky to know.

The true story behind “The Blind Side” is not my quarrel. It's the glorification of biased narratives that are accepted as the norm. It's Leigh Anne Tuohy carrying on as though she's a deity when sometimes she's just being nosy. It's the nerve she has to not only behave this way, but to publicize it and have that liked and shared and spread as gospel. Which brings us back to her Instagram post.

The action itself was a good thing. But the bragging and the pure, undistilled lack of awareness with which she could write "STOP judging people and assuming and pigeon holing people!" a few lines after she says this whole thing happened because she saw "these two" and "the person with [her] said 'I bet they are up to no good'" are mind-blowing.

But hers is the story that will be told.

I can TYPE THINGS in CAPS also! And they are only words, unless backed up by genuine action that starts with awareness of one's own damaged thought processes. I'm so wary of promoting the "gotta save the poor lil' black boy" trope that I was hesitant to even share this story of when I intervened on behalf of a young man in danger of being arrested on the street.

My public sharing of that ugly incident could’ve seemed like bragging or using someone else's humanity being trampled to get myself some shine. But I wanted to detail what happened that day because I think many people think of racial profiling in sepia-toned images of attack dogs and public bus seating, when it is alive and well in too many forms.

Also, I’m not white and there is no established Black Savior trope, so there’s that. As I said then, I looked at that young man and saw my brothers. Being an advocate or providing assistance does not require superiority. Actually, I’m of the opinion that it may be more meaningful and effective when it's about honoring shared humanity in the pursuit of equality, but I guess that sort of malarkey doesn't sell books and movie tickets.

I’m aware of how bitter I sound. Mrs. Tuohy’s Instagram life lesson is infuriating to me because on top of the already pervasive thing I fight known as systemic racism, I hate giving anyone the idea that I'm against something positive because of the optics. I'm thrilled that those kids were able to go to their game, if that’s what they wanted to do.

It’s just that too many times I have spoken up in situations like this, only to watch otherwise sensible and truly well-intentioned white people devolve into petulant brats figuratively throwing their hands in the air and saying things like Jeez you try and do something good and this is the thanks you getyou people have Oprah and the President and your own channel…What more do you want?

I know, I know. We shouldn't bite the hand that feeds us. We should be grateful to be given good homes. Except that’s how you speak about dogs, I’m sick of black people being treated like animals, and America is not Leigh Ann Tuohy's personal ASPCA.

One of the boys posing with Leigh Ann took to Instagram himself in her defense after some people of the same opinion as myself weighed in, and he also said that they made a deal to do something lovely and pay it forward. Beautiful. So what's the harm, right?

You cannot fully understand how you're being denied agency and humanity unless you understand that it should be your birthright to begin with, and images like this are in direct opposition to that idea. As I say often, many slaves would also say that were treated very well, and while I know it is inflammatory to conflate Ms. Tuohy's good deed to slavery, her good deed began with an ugly thought that is clearly the lens through which many white people view the world.

One of my favorite Twitter buddies tweeted today that she had just come from having her Mercedes serviced at the dealership. She is a black woman who is seven months pregnant and a white woman who is a stranger to her felt the need to start chatting with her, ultimately leaning in and quietly saying, "If you need help, my church has a financial assistance program for single moms." My Twitter homegirl was assumed to be single and in need of charity despite the large ring on her finger, her upscale manner of dress and accessories, and the fact that both women were patronizing a Mercedes dealership in the first place.

She even went to the trouble when tweeting about it to let us know that the white woman appeared to be in her 30's, so we're not in some sort of Archie Bunker lovable bigot/oh-grandma's-just-a-little-bit-racist-territory. She is a contemporary of this black woman yet she looked at her and saw someone in need.

But she meant well. What's the harm?

Microaggressions are real and they are harmful, and many “well-intentioned” people are actually racist as hell. Not only are they not aware of it, but they loudly trumpet how UNracist they are through "caring" messages to #BelieveInOthers like the one above, cementing how much work we have to do to untangle this mess.

Leigh Ann Tuohy takes care to point out that the boys were in one of the many businesses that she and her husband own, so one might be able to make the argument that she has a right to monitor activities in her establishment, but by her own account the boys were seated at a table and she simply butted in. I advocate for bystander intervention when deemed safe, but what are the criteria by which she deemed them in crisis? I find it hard to believe that she would have left violent or rowdy behavior out of her story had it taken place, and they weren’t panhandling, so…young black boys simply equal danger?

Where are the Instagram posts about Leigh Ann Tuohy bothering little white boys and coming to their rescue? Listen -- the Tuohys not only mean well, but they do good, in terms of their charitable acts. But the message is tainted with white supremacy, a demon so powerful that even “innocent” examples need to be called out if we’re all going to move forward together.

Maybe those two boys would have put together the money for the game tickets though their friends or whoever they were contacting and gone on about their business that day without being held up as scenery in an ongoing White Savior narrative. Maybe they would have missed the game but gone on to have fun in some other manner. Maybe they deserved to be left alone while minding their fucking business in a public space.

Leigh Anne Tuohy didn’t think so. And hers is the story that will be told.