Watching Old Movies and Discovering Racism

In addition to loving to read, I am a big movie buff. I make it a point to introduce my 10-year-old son to some of the films that were my favorites when I was growing up. Once in a while, we come across some scenes in a film that are somewhat offensive. This happened when we were watching the 1975 classic

The Return of the Pink Panther, starring Peter Sellers. The moment occurred after a scene in which Clouseau is ambushed by his Chinese servant, Kato, resulting in the total destruction of Clouseau’s apartment. Later, Clouseau is talking to a co-worker at police headquarters about the incident, and he refers to Kato in several derogatory and racist terms. My son instantly turned to me and exclaimed, “Hey, that’s racist!”

The Return of the Pink Panther
Inspector Clouseau

When I heard my son say this, I had one of those rare moments when you feel you have done a good job as a parent. Granted, our house is a little different—a large percentage of the children’s books in our collection contain diversity themes, since publishing these kinds of books is what I do for a living. Our home may also be more racially aware than most because growing up with these kinds of books has prompted—and sometimes required—many conversations with my son about race, prejudice, and issues of right and wrong.

The offending scene in The Return of the Pink Panther did not stop us from laughing our heads off. It is still a hilarious movie, and the slapstick humor and utter cluelessness of the Clouseau character is timeless. Sure, we discussed why Clouseau is racist, but we came to the joint conclusion that his general ignorance and stupidity are also the cause of his intolerance.

An experience like this is an example of why I am totally against banning old films and cartoons because of outdated perspectives or off-color humor. These uncomfortable moments create opportunities to discuss issues and behavior and explain why they are problematic. Being able to have regular and frequent conversations about race removes the tendency for the topic to become taboo. Such conversations also allow us, as adults and parents, to become comfortable discussing a sensitive subject with kids—and that is not always easy to do.

7 thoughts on “Watching Old Movies and Discovering Racism”

  1. It’s commendable to know that children do know the difference. As a child I would love Sunday morning movies of Shirley Temple. I would always ask about the terms they used and the roles of African Americans and why they were portrayed as they were. I knew back then about racism and I am so thankful my parents taught me the right and wrong.

  2. I think this is a real issue for thoughtful parents, and the fact that your son recognized it such is so commendable! We had a similar experience watching one of the early Get Smart episodes – ended up discussing with the kids why I was uncomfortable with a particular episode, so I think that was valuable, but must say I’ve not gone back to them since then. I wonder also if Asian stereotypes in tv/film seem to have been tolerated more/longer than other kinds of racism?

  3. Peace, this is a very interesting concept and when me and my son watch films like “The Goonies” I’m often confronted with the fact that there are no kids that look like him in the old movies I love. Data is the only Asian character in the film, but even his role I believe is typecasted. Because of this I have been cautious about what I show my son. I think I might ask him what he thinks about it next time instead of just feeling nervous about it personally. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Unfortunately, when we want to believe in 2010 that things have changed immensely, we have to witness blatant racism as in the Trump fiasco against President Obama.
    Fortunately, Obama had the grace and intelligence to make him look foolish at the White house dinner. Our children are a lot more savvy than many were in the past because some topics were just taboo. Just like your son Jason, children often surprise us when least expected, as I too have seen in class and in my own children when they were young. How we handle these questions help to set the basis for learning to accept and appreciate people of diverse cultures, and to realize that we all have worth and something to offer each other in this life.

  5. Thanks for this post. I agree that old movies and books with racist language and images offer great opportunities for conversations and creating awareness. I’ve used old textbooks and magazines to teach students, even as young as third grade, about stereotypes and found that they are quick to identify racist and sexist images once they’re given the information of what to look for. Using older, more obvious examples gives them a chance to practice the skills that may help them recognize bias when it shows up more subtly in contemporary situations.

    I’ve been writing on the subject of talking about race with children at “Coloring Between the Lines,”( – the illustration is from my Bebop Book, SISTER, SISTER)and welcome input to the discussion.

    Thanks for all you and everyone at Lee & Low contribute toward the recognition that we are all one family!

  6. Thanks everyone for your feedback. I think it is important to not bury the past, especially when it comes to old shows and movies. Continue to enjoy them with your kids, but with parental guidance in place. Movie-time can help bring up culturally aware kids while keeping your cultural sensitivity muscles in shape.

  7. I think it is important to remember that Peter Sellers inspector Clouseau character is in fact a bit of a nitwit much like Archie Bunker. I believe his provincial attitudes are part of the reason to laugh at him and therefore laugh at the small mindedness of his comments. There is no malice in satire at least to anyone with a working brain.

    On the other hand, banning everything in sight on some misguided premise of “political correctness” is kind of dumb. We are allowed to have a stupid and ineffectual characters in movies just as we are allowed to have criminals and crooks and psychopaths. It’s part of the story and it correctly relies on the discrimination of the viewer to understand the difference between a right minded and a wrong minded character. There’s no need to shove our ideas of acceptable artistic content down peoples throats, in fact that was precisely in the intent of Hitler’s fascist purging of ‘degenerate”art in the third Reich in World War II Germany.

Comments are closed.