(un)Blinded by race and class

I still have not seen the beginning of The Blind Side, but I did manage to see enough of it to form strong opinions and to have a visceral reaction.  The more I thought about the movie, the less comfortable I was with the actual story that it presents. Michael Oher, a poor, African-American living in Memphis is given a home, and eventually legally adopted by his wealthy white adoptive parents (Leigh Ann Tuohy is played by Sandra Bullock and she won an Oscar for the performance).  Despite Bullock’s skilled interpretation of her strong-willed character, and despite the hard work of the film to inspire the viewer with this wealthy families’ openness and generosity while also revealing the depth of Michael Oher’s character, the film seems to suggest that white people are uniquely placed to “save” poor African American children. I did feel in my gut that Oher was lucky to stumble upon a family that for opaque reasons chooses to select him as their good deed. My husband noted that if every wealthy family adopted a needy child, many problems of  neglected,  poor children would be solved.  However, this solution is one that does not address the root of the problem. Nor is it a realistic solution.

When Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Tuohy, drives through the poor neighborhoods in Memphis, the film emphasizes the drug abuse, violence and lack of education that propels young African American men to a premature death.  At the end of the film, when the Tuohy family is pulling away from Ole Miss, leaving Michael to his football scholarship, Bullock’s character notes that it was God who brought Michael to her and that it was through God that Michael survived the ghetto (while his boyhood friend was murdered). The idea that God is behind the problems and solutions of the poor in America absolves many of us of responsibility for the part we play, intended or not, in sustaining the conditions of the urban poor.

The Blind Side seems to deliberately ignore the fact that the family that adopts Michael is a white family of old-wealth status, and the exploration of the very fact of slavery and its connection to both Michael’s current state and the affluence of his adopted family seems to scream out for investigation.  This topic is not easily broached by feel-good films, I am sure, so it just stares in at us from the window of their very large mansion (plantation?).  The first time I saw the end of the film, I was outraged at the lack of even fleeting attention to the fact of white America’s culpability for the current state of urban, black poor children.

Bullock’s character, who swoops in like a great white savior, at least has the gumption to seek Michael’s mother for her approval (though we learn that it is not required since Michael is a ward of the state by the time the Tuohys move in) of their adoption.  I give Leigh Anne credit for this attempt at acknowledging the responsibility that many people play in the life of a single child.  However, the fact that Michael is a ward of the state, and that as such, he is subject to horrible care in a variety of foster homes, is not a recommendation for the foster care system. It is also a condemnation of a communal cure for the economic, political and social realities of the urban poor.  If the state cannot take care of these kids, then it takes individual, white, wealthy folks to solve the problem (exit: government, enter: private sector).

The movie paints a positive, fairy-tale ending to the story of inter-racial adoption.  It is meant to pull at our sympathies and our desire to root for Michael, and strangely for his stubborn, tough, yet loving adoptive mother. As an adoptive parent, though, I watched with a critical eye and with ambivalence.

That critical eye reminded me of another, somewhat related, film.  Recently, I have been privileged to see The Prep School Negro by Andre Robert Lee, in a screening at my school.  Lee only allows his film to be shown when he can be there to meet and talk with the audience. Lee’s film is a powerful, thought-provoking exploration of his experience of race and class as a poor African American boy who earns a scholarship to the prestigious Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia. While Lee’s movie provides an intimate look at race and class divisions in America, it also, surprisingly, reveals another sort of informal adoption and boundary crossing connection between affluent white families and poor urban black children.

Late in the film, Lee travels to someplace that looks like Maine (I am not an East Coast person, so all that snow covered colonial architecture looks the same to me), to reunite with what he calls his “adopted” family.  This family of Lee’s school friend is white and seemingly affluent.  Lee is welcomed with open arms.  In the footage, the mother in this family talks about how unimportant it is that Andre is black, and how he is just a regular part of the family.  Lee seems quite connected to this family and very comfortable with them.  His shifting consciousness propelled him to seek a family that could understand his cultural awareness on a level that was different from his own biological family, perhaps. I am still wondering about this part of the film, and have not figured out why Lee feels quite so connected to these white folks.

This sort of “protection” or acceptance of “the other” by white families illustrates perhaps the openness of the white families and their willingness to cross boundaries of race and class.  It may also, in a more cynical reading, be a clue to the allure of cultural voyeurism that is illustrated by the consumption of hip-hop culture by white suburban youth.

Both films have been on my mind for a while and I have been wondering about the desire for parents who can commit to care-giving, on the one hand, and the desire for giving nurturing sustenance, by the families that adopt, on the other.  Families that adopt across race and class boundaries are not to be condemned for doing so, far from it. Those families take a risk, too. However, I am aware of the cultural constructs that frame these relationships and that may allow people to ignore the larger issues that create the need for adoption.

Both films are worth seeing, and both bring unique insights to the on-going discussion on adoption.

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