Just One Look

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Columbia Pictures

When I was a kid growing up in rural Oklahoma, there were only 1.5 Asians within a 30-mile radius of my hometown: my mother and me. At first glance, I had an idyllic childhood; an innocent, bucolic existence that I look back on with fondness. But if I were to take a second look, stripped of the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, I might see something more ominous. Something I’m supposed to overlook.

My early experiences with anti-Asian racism were rarely subtle. In first grade, an older white boy would bully me during recess, pulling his eyes back with his fingers to mock me. “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!” he’d sing, tugging at the front of his shirt to mimic a pair of pointy breasts.

After a few more incidents like this, I told my mom what happened, and she talked to the boy’s mother, who then made him apologize. It never happened again. For what it’s worth, I hear he grew up to be a decent human being. But even though the matter was resolved, the racist taunts didn’t really end; they just went dormant.

Aside from those few adults that insisted on telling me that I looked “just like” some other random Asian person they saw on TV, my life was relatively free of incident—until junior high. Once eighth grade hit, everything changed. Some of the boys in school were so foaming-at-the-mouth racist, you’d think they invented it.

I’m half-Chinese, so maybe that’s why chink became their favorite slur. I was also called jap and gook on a daily basis. It was infuriating. To quote Margaret Cho, “If you’re going to be racist, at least learn the terminology.” Thankfully, their harassment became less fervent over time, but it didn’t die down fully until senior year, when most of the guilty parties had graduated.

I told no one. The law of the high school jungle is you don’t get parents involved. You don’t run to the teachers. You fight your own battles. You find a way to win them over. You make them laugh. You prove every single day that you deserve basic human dignity. Sadly, I bought into these rules. Little did I know that they were written to protect the bullies.

Once I went away to college, my experiences with direct, unambiguous racism diminished over time. Mostly, it would rear its ugly head in the form of microaggressions—an ignorant assumption here, a veiled insult there, little moments in your day that reveal what lies hidden beneath the mask of white politeness. On the rare occasion where I would discuss such incidents openly, I’d inevitably encounter people who were all too eager to deny my experience.

Maybe you’ve met them. They will insist that you’re “too sensitive.” That you’re just misinterpreting things. Oh, I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way. You’re overreacting. Why, he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body! He doesn’t even see color!

Even the most well-meaning people will tell you that your instincts are wrong. They’ll create a cloud of ambiguity where absolute clarity once existed. This is gaslighting at its finest. You hear stuff like this long enough, and you just might start to believe it.

When I first watched The Crimson Kimono (1959), I knew the film dealt with issues of race, but I didn’t expect the climax of this murder mystery to hinge on a racially charged moment between friends. And that wasn’t the only surprise. The film features a sympathetic depiction of interracial romance, and the director even takes great pains to portray both his Japanese American protagonist and the Japanese American community of Los Angeles in a positive light. Even so, the film also wants us to accept that the racial animosity the main character perceives is nothing more than a figment of his imagination. The film spells this out by drawing a parallel between the detective and the killer, as both are said to suffer from paranoid delusions rooted in their insecurities. However, I would argue that the film is slightly more ambiguous than it purports to be—hardly an open-and-shut case.  


The Crimson Kimono is not a typical mystery; instead, it uses the conventional trappings of the hardboiled detective story to explore an interracial romance between a Japanese American man and a white woman—a taboo topic for its time. Although a major studio might have balked at such a story, director Samuel Fuller exerted total creative control after founding Globe Enterprises in 1956. Budgeted at less than a million dollars and shot in about a month in early 1959, the film centers on the murder of a white burlesque dancer named Sugar Torch (Gloria Pall), who’s gunned down in the streets of Los Angeles by an unidentified assailant. During the subsequent investigation, detectives Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) and Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) discover that the victim was preparing a Las Vegas burlesque act called “The Crimson Kimono.” In this Orientalist fever dream come to life, Sugar Torch would portray a geisha caught in a love triangle between a karate master and a samurai warrior, who’d at the end sacrifice her life for true love like Madame Butterfly.

The sole clue that the two detectives find is a painting of Sugar Torch wearing a kimono, signed by an artist known only as “Chris.” While the Japanese American Joe journeys all over Little Tokyo to find the men slated to appear in Sugar Torch’s act, his white partner, Charlie, seeks out the mysterious artist behind the painting. Despite Charlie’s gendered assumptions, “Chris” turns out to be a white woman named Christine Downes (Victoria Shaw), an art student at the University of Southern California. While Charlie is the first to meet Chris and becomes instantly smitten with her, she later gravitates towards his more sensitive, introspective partner. In fact, Chris makes the first move on Joe, but he resists her advances out of respect for Charlie.

At this point, the murder mystery seems to be of secondary interest to Fuller, as the interracial love plot dominates the bulk of the film’s running time. In many ways, The Crimson Kimono benefitted from the 1956 revisions to the Production Code that allowed for onscreen depictions of interracial couples for the first time in decades. From March of 1930 to December of 1956, the Code had a provision that expressly forbade such relationships, albeit with a clear anti-Black bias. Of course, interracial relationships between whites and Asians were more than a cultural taboo in the United States; anti-miscegenation laws existed well into the 20th century in numerous states, many of which had legal prohibitions against whites marrying people of Asian descent. In California specifically, anti-miscegenation statutes existed from the time of statehood in 1850. Although initially a ban on white-Black marriages, the law was expanded in 1943 to read as follows: “no license may be issued authorizing the marriage of a white person with a Negro, mulatto, Mongolian, or member of the Malay race.” This law would not be struck down until Perez v. Sharp in 1948, only a decade before The Crimson Kimono

In the rest of the country, the remaining anti-miscegenation laws would not be repealed until Loving v. Virginia in 1967—a full eight years after the film’s release. Further, in the aftermath of both World War II and the Korean War, a large number of U.S. soldiers returned home with Asian wives. This phenomenon not only necessitated the creation of various laws to help GIs circumvent pre-existing anti-miscegenation and anti-immgration statutes in various states, but it also helped normalize the image of interracial marriage between white men and Asian women. However, the reverse—a relationship between an Asian man and a white woman—was an entirely different story in the eyes of the American public. 

In an interview with Roger Garcia in his 2001 book Out of the Shadows, Shigeta explained that his upbringing in Hawaii, a then-U.S. territory where no such laws existed, affected his blasé reaction to the film’s content:

Well, don’t forget, I come from Hawaii. Maybe I wasn’t as surprised as someone from here [the mainland]. And I liked the way it led up to that point. I guess I was surprised but it wasn’t a terrible shock…Looking back, I guess it came way before its time—the relationship between a white [woman] and the Asian guy. 

Despite Shigeta’s lack of surprise, it’s clear that an onscreen romance between an Asian man and a white woman was provocative for most white audiences at the time. One need look no further than the film’s trailer. After introducing Shaw and Corbett, the voiceover narration poses the following question: “And James Shigeta—what is his strange fascination with American girls?” The trailer’s sensationalized tagline may sound ridiculous to modern ears, but the suggestion that not just Joe but Shigeta himself is a sexual deviant and fetishizer of white women (“American” being code for “white”) actually has sinister implications in regard to non-white men dating or attempting to date across the color line. After all, the protection of white womanhood has been a contributing motivation for white male violence against racial minorities (lynchings, incarceration, deportaton, etc.) and has served as a rallying cry to denigrate Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latino men from at least the 19th century onward.

In Fuller’s 2002 autobiography A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, the director recounts the conflicts he had with Sam Briskin, then-head of Columbia Pictures, over the film’s content:

 “Well, Sam, can’t you make the white guy a sonofabitch?” asked Briskin, a little worried. “We’ve got to market your movie all across the country, including the Midwest and the Bible Belt.”

“The girl chooses the Japanese guy because he’s the man for her,” I said. “Not because the white guy’s a sonofabitch. The whole idea of my picture is that both men are good cops and good citizens. The girl just happens to fall in love with the Nisei. They’ve got chemistry.”

“That’s gonna be hard for average American audiences to swallow, Sam. We’ve got to sell ‘em tickets. Look, can’t you make the white guy a little bit of a sonofabitch?”

“No, I can’t! A girl can’t be a little pregnant! She is or she isn’t. My white cop is a regular guy.”

True to his word, Fuller presents these men on equal terms, refusing to placate viewers uneasy about interracial relationships. In fact, he seems hellbent on educating his audience. Much of the film is undeniably groundbreaking when it comes to its portrayal of Japanese Americans. Unlike the criminalized depictions of Chinatown and the Chinese in early Hollywood cinema, Little Tokyo and its residents are sympathetically portrayed. As Lisa Dombrowski states in The Films of Samuel Fuller (2008), “The Crimson Kimono does not exoticize Japanese culture as much as present it as an ordinary facet of life in Los Angeles.” With the murder investigation propelling the onscreen action, The Crimson Kimono provides viewers with a cinematic tour of Little Tokyo, showing them a vision of then-contemporary Japanese American life. Joe’s investigation results in a unique type of cultural tourism, meant not to commodify a culture for the entertainment of the masses, but instead to teach the audience about a minority group of which they perhaps know very little.


While the mystery of Sugar Torch’s death may be the engine that drives the narrative forward, a second, much more important mystery emerges more than halfway through the film. With Joe unwilling to act on his feelings for Chris, his buried emotions come to the surface when he goes berserk and knocks Charlie unconscious during a Kendo match. When his partner wakes up, Joe confesses that not only does he love Chris, she feels the same way about him.

 Although Joe admits that he fully expects Charlie to be angry and even take a swing at him, his partner’s reaction shakes him to his very core. After contemplating Joe’s confession for a few moments, Charlie raises his head and gives him an enigmatic look, before asking, “You mean you want to marry her?” In the heat of the moment, Joe believes Charlie’s comment has an anti-miscegenation tenor and immediately loses his temper: “You wouldn’t have said it that way if I were white!” When Charlie professes ignorance, Joe retorts with what he believes is the most damning piece of evidence: “Look at your face!” 

Distraught, Joe seeks comfort in the arms of Chris, as they both verbally affirm their love for one another. However, when Joe seeks Chris’ counsel, he doesn’t get the support that he was expecting. Although sympathetic, Chris refuses to believe his interpretation. “You only saw what you wanted to see,” she tells Joe. “It’s what you think is behind every word, every look.” For her, Joe’s cries of racism are purely imagined. In response, he tells her that as a white person, she could not possibly understand how he feels. “For the first time, I feel different,” Joe claims. “I’ve never seen that look before, never felt it.” He goes on to say that he never once had to endure anti-Japanese racism in the army or in the police force, an admission that film scholar Gina Marchetti rightly views with skepticism in her 1992 book Romance and the Yellow Peril:

“That a Japanese American man, in his twenties or early thirties, who must have grown up during World War II, with virulently racist anti-Japanese sentiments common throughout the United States, should be given a speech in which he claims to have never experienced racism before seems ludicrous.”

Although I agree with Marchetti’s assessment, Joe’s unlikely confession that he’s never once encountered prejudice seems right in line with the film’s most glaring historical omission: the U.S. government’s treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. 

Yes, Fuller takes great care to showcase a real-life memorial to the 442nd Regiment, an army unit composed entirely of Japanese American soldiers that was the most decorated in U.S. history. He even goes so far as to provide the audience with lingering close-ups of complimentary words on the memorial from Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Mark W. Clark to emphasize how valuable Japanese Americans were to the American war effort. 

And yet, the film makes no mention of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which authorized the mass removal of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast. There’s also no reference to the resultant incarceration of over 120,000 people of Japanese descent in internment camps. Nor is there any allusion to the fact that many Nisei who served in the 442nd came straight out of the internment camps. For whatever reason, none of these events are a part of Joe’s backstory. These historical elisions are prime examples of the homegrown, government-sanctioned racism that the film politely overlooks. It’s there; we just don’t see it. 

However, if we accept Joe’s statements as true within the confines of the text itself—that he was somehow shielded from racial slurs his entire life—we can see how quickly his world has shattered in response to a single perceived act of bigotry by his friend: “I was born here. I’m American. I feel it, I live it, and love it. But down deep, what am I? Japanese American? American Japanese? Nisei? What label do I live under, Chris? Tell me!” Once cool and confident, Joe begins to question not just his position within American society but his very identity. His inability to define himself—the Asian American identity crisis par excellence—is itself the product of white racism. Further, for a Japanese American character to only now realize that racism exists speaks to Joe’s privileged position and proximity to whiteness. If he were a Black man, he’d have no such illusions, and Fuller might not have been so comfortable giving him the same lines. Indeed, to understand race and racism—and where ethnic categories lie on this spectrum—we have to remember that these concepts do not exist in a vacuum but in a shifting terrain of relationality, law, and social context. 

Indeed, Joe cannot help but worry that the racial hatred he perceived in Charlie’s reaction had always been there, hiding in plain sight: “I’m wondering now, what was in his mind all these years? What kind of cracks he made when I wasn’t there.” Joe is completely unnerved by the possibility that a festering bigotry lay hidden beneath his friend’s genial façade. His breakdown speaks to the fragile place of all racial minorities in the United States, where even someone who feels accepted can have everything they hold dear come crashing down at the mere hint of prejudice.

Prior to this moment, Joe has bought into a way of thinking that will later become known as the model minority myth. After all, he’s not just a police detective and a war veteran but the winner of the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest military combat decoration awarded for gallantry in action. In so many ways, Joe is the model minority incarnate—the patriotic, law-abiding Asian American who’s hardworking and never complains—and is thus purportedly assimilable into mainstream white culture and shielded from the threat of racism.

 But this feeling of acceptance is only temporary, if not outright illusory. We’ve seen this story play out time and time again. World War II, the Vietnam War, 9/11—times of crisis lead to racial resentment and the racialization of the Other. Think of the recent resurgence of anti-Asian sentiment and violence in the wake of COVID-19, where ordinary citizens are harassed, attacked, and even killed just for being Asian. The message is clear: you’re one of us, until you aren’t.


But is Charlie’s reaction to Joe’s confession racially motivated? That’s the big question, and Fuller has an answer. In addition to directing and producing The Crimson Kimono, he wrote the screenplay, so his opinion on the matter understandably carries a substantial amount of weight. In Lee Server’s 1994 book Sam Fuller: Film is a Battleground, the director remarks, “That picture I made for one reason. I wanted to show how racism can come from anywhere.” But if by anywhere, you think Fuller means Charlie, you’d be wrong. In his autobiography, Fuller makes his intentions clear:

“I was trying to make an unconventionally triangular love story, laced with reverse racism, a kind of narrow-mindedness that’s just as deplorable as outright bigotry. I wanted to show that whites aren’t the only ones susceptible to racist thoughts. Joe is a racist because he transfers his fears to his friend.”

 Server agrees with Fuller’s estimation, couching his analysis in terms of the director’s larger oeuvre: “Typically, Fuller shows racism to be the product of an aberrant psychology—in this case, paranoia. Always looking for the unexpected twist, he makes his racist Joe Kojaku the ostensible victim of it.” Similarly, Dombrowski characterizes Joe’s reaction as “a surprising case of reverse racism” and concludes that Joe was “projecting onto Charlie his own fears of racial prejudice.”

It’s fascinating that Fuller, Server, and Dombrowski would characterize Joe’s behavior this way. The term reverse racism refers to situations in which the majority racial group becomes the target of prejudice or discrimination; for example, it most often appears in right-wing critiques of everything from affirmative action programs to diversity requirements for university classes. The term is deeply problematic and born out of anti-Black and xenophobic discourses that presume a kind of white American innocence, purity, and victimhood. But even if Joe’s interpretation and subsequent behavior towards Charlie is wrong, under no circumstances could it be understood as reverse racism, even by the definition embraced by proponents of the term. Joe neither discriminates against Charlie for being white nor hurls racial epithets at him; he’s simply upset over a moment that, rightly or wrongly, he perceives as racist. To call Joe a reverse racist suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of what racism even means.

Late in the film, Charlie attempts to make amends. He doesn’t apologize but tries to convince Joe that there was no racial animosity behind his reaction. “Maybe there was a look on my face,” he explains. “It was a look of hate. Normal, healthy, jealous hate. Look at me, Joe. You know me better than anybody else. I’m even carrying a pint of your blood in me, remember?” 

Charlie makes a number of good points. For one, he’d expressed interest in Chris first, and she not only kissed him back but agreed to date him once the case was over, so it’s natural that he’d be upset by this unexpected turn of events. Second, the two men share a deep history. As revealed in the film, Charlie and Joe met in a foxhole during the Korean War, the first war to feature a newly desegregated American military. But they’re not just brothers-in-arms; they’re blood brothers, as Joe donated his blood to save Charlie’s life. Furthermore, when the two of them returned stateside after the war, they pursued the same line of work to stay close to one another, eventually becoming partners in the homicide division of the LAPD. The two men even live together at the the suggestively named Gaylord Hotel, occupying separate rooms in an adjoining suite. Before Chris enters the picture, the two seem very much like a happy domestic couple. Earlier in the film, Charlie even brags to Chris that he and Joe put “every buck [they] had into the place,” as if they were building a life together like a conventional married pair. Curiously, this blissful homosocial relationship is disrupted by the incursion of the androgynously named Chris.

Despite Charlie’s best efforts, a still-despondent Joe remains unconvinced by his partner’s seemingly earnest explanation. The tension between the two is finally broken when they spot their prime suspect, Paul Sand (Neyle Morrow), a librarian with expertise in Japanese culture. Charlie and Joe chase him down, only for Sugar Torch’s real killer to step out of the shadows and shoot at them. The mysterious assailant turns out to be Roma Wilson (Jaclynne Greene), a wigmaker they met earlier in the film and Sand’s girlfriend.

In the ensuing chase, Joe shoots Roma, although not fatally. As he cradles Roma in his arms, she admits to killing Sugar Torch because she wrongly believed that Sand was having an affair with her. In reality, Sand just wanted to put his knowledge of “Oriental customs” to use by helping Sugar Torch with her act, but was too embarrassed by her reputation as a burlesque dancer to tell anyone.

“It was all in my mind,” Roma admits, “I thought I repulsed him.” Her confession begins in a two-shot before pushing in on Joe’s face to focus on his reaction to her words. After the paramedics come to take her away, Joe leaves to find Charlie. After explaining what happened, Joe says that Roma killed Sugar Torch because “she only saw in his face what she wanted to.” The instant Joe completes this sentence, the camera zooms in on his face once more to underline his epiphany. 

 JOE (shaking his head): I don’t know how to tell you now how I feel.

CHARLIE: You don’t have to. It’s all over your face.  

JOE: How could I have jumped the gun like that, huh?

Here, Joe’s sensitivity—the defining aspect of his character, the one that most appealed to Chris—stands revealed as his fatal flaw. In response, Charlie calls him “a meathead,” a comic term of endearment that would otherwise suggest that forgiveness is imminent. However, when Joe asks whether they’re still partners, Charlie responds in the negative, saying that he’s still upset about Chris, before adding, “I’m just as glad you are that you wrapped up your own case.” 

Charlie’s turn of phrase has an interesting double meaning. The word “case” not only refers to the mystery that any detective must solve but also one’s state of mind. In other words, Joe’s accusation of racism makes him a ‘headcase,’ since the whole thing was actually a product of his own paranoia. 

Or was it?


Ultimately, The Crimson Kimono poses an all-or-nothing question—is Charlie a racist? I’m not sure that’s the most productive way to look at the film. To me, the real question isn’t whether Charlie’s a racist; it’s whether his reaction to Joe had a racist component that he’s incapable of recognizing, understanding, or even articulating.

Of course, to even suggest this alternative would go against not just the director’s professed intentions but perhaps even against the text itself. And yet, that’s the funny thing about texts—they’re often more ambiguous than we realize, containing multiple irreconcilable meanings. 

How does one determine whether or not Charlie’s look was racist? By what criteria do you judge racist intent? This scene is a veritable Rorschach test, as there’s very little to go on besides what we as the audience see in Charlie’s face and how Joe reacts to it. Even so, I can point to two additional moments that complicate, if not outright undermine, Fuller’s intentions to paint Joe as a reverse racist.

The first moment occurs prior to the Kendo match. After Joe realizes that he’s in love with Chris, he becomes so frustrated that he starts giving Charlie the silent treatment. In turn, Charlie becomes concerned about his friend’s drastic change in behavior and asks Chris if something happened between them. 

CHARLIE: Well, sometimes people drop a remark. Harmless one, you know?

CHRIS: No, I don’t know.

CHARLIE: Well, sometimes people forget, the word slips.

CHRIS: You mean a word about the Japanese? 

The operative, unspoken word here is jap. This short scene carries several implications. While Charlie’s show of concern on Joe’s behalf could lend credence to the idea that the accusation of racism against him is unfounded, his characterization of the slur as “harmless” would imply otherwise. Not only does he preemptively excuse Chris for possibly making a racist remark about his best friend, Charlie’s wording implies that he views such “slips” as simply insensitive breaches of decorum. According to this line of reasoning, they carry no real meaning, and therefore, are not racist. 

This is not the only moment to consider. While discussions about The Crimson Kimono have largely focused on the implications of the look that Charlie gives Joe after their heated Kendo match, little attention has been paid to a second look that occurs immediately after Sugar Torch’s murder has been solved and Joe offers his mea culpa. 

In the film’s denouement, the music swells as Joe and Chris rush into each other’s arms. He hoists Chris in the air, twirls her around, and embraces her. The scene cuts to Charlie watching them with a scowl on his face. It’s a look that neither Joe nor Chris can see. Is it a look of jealousy? Of hatred? Of racial resentment? Are these categories mutually exclusive? Can it not be all of those things at once? Whatever its meaning, Charlie’s unobserved look unsettles the notion that Joe’s “case” has truly been solved. 

Of course, this is not the director’s preferred reading. The film insists that racism is an either-or proposition: one must either accept Joe’s prior view that Charlie’s behavior was racist and that he must have always been a racist, or believe Charlie’s explanation that his reaction was not racist in the least and was instead exactly what he claimed it to be—“normal, healthy, jealous hate.” Based on how Fuller constructs the climax of the film, the latter interpretation is not just the preferred one, it’s the most narratively persuasive of the two. However, I would like to offer the possibility that this is a false binary, one that forecloses any deeper investigation into the subject of race. Could it be that Charlie has never seen Joe as a sexual threat until this moment, and that the prospect of marriage (a subject that he’s become strangely fixated on) is enough to lure out some dormant racial prejudices—if only for a moment?

In many Hollywood movies of this era like The Crimson Kimono, real-life anxieties over race are ‘resolved’ through the mechanics of the plot. But by presenting Charlie as a morally upright cop ‘betrayed’ by his partner, friend, and blood brother, the film stacks the deck too much in his favor. After all, Joe is shown at the end to be guilty of the same crime of overreaction as the film’s killer. That is a disturbing parallel. Yes, the union of Joe and Chris provides us with the requisite happy ending, one that can be seen as a celebration of interracial romance. However, it’s unsettling that the only potential act of racism in a film primarily concerned with race is revealed at the end to be a delusion on the part of the minority character. By resolving the conflict in this way, the film inoculates itself against a more serious examination of race relations in the United States.

Even now, popular discourse on racism tends toward a very Manichean reading of racist attitudes, speech, and behavior—as if racism were somehow only endemic to ‘bad people.’ Think of the many apologies issued by public figures when they’re called out for racism. I am not a racist. These comments do not reflect my values. My remarks were inconsistent with my beliefs. This is not who I am.

If there’s indeed a racial component to Charlie’s jealousy, I’m not suggesting that he’s secretly a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. But did Charlie, even for a second, feel threatened by losing Chris to an Asian man, even if Joe was his close friend? Could Charlie—no matter how nice, forward-thinking, or sympathetic—have fallen prey to the racist discourses that have permeated American culture from even before he was born? Could he not, even in the smallest ways, be a product of his time? Aren’t these things we should ask ourselves? After all, whether it’s racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism—you name it—we’re all trying to deprogram ourselves from the prejudices we’ve been exposed to since birth, things so deeply ingrained in us that we probably don’t know they’re even there. That is, until they bubble to the surface in a moment of anger or jealousy. Ultimately, Charlie’s true feelings remain hidden from us; they’re the film’s final unsolvable mystery.

Indeed, prejudice in its many forms often operates in complicated ways. Even so-called ‘good people’ like Charlie can fall prey to it. To use Charlie’s own language, anyone could slip, even for just a moment. But maybe that slip isn’t as “harmless” as he—or we—would like to believe.


As an adult, I’ve returned to my hometown numerous times to visit my parents. Every once in a while, I might bump into a familiar face at the grocery store or at the Walmart two towns over. It’s usually a pleasant experience. After the normal polite chit chat, I’ve even had people go so far as to say that they’re proud of me. Now, you usually expect that kind of talk from someone older—a former teacher, a family friend, or perhaps some classmate’s parent who always thought highly of you. On a rare occasion, maybe a peer might say it, like an old friend or someone who’s just super nice. 

What’s odd is when it comes from someone who was horribly racist toward you. Unlike the incident between Joe and Charlie, there’s no ambiguity in these cases. As they sing my praises in the present day, I’m reminded of the slurs they hurled at me in high school. The now-friendly voice I hear is the same vicious one that would prank-call my house in the days before Caller ID. And yet, they’re so incredibly nice and polite during these impromptu encounters that I might otherwise be persuaded to believe that the racism of my youth was entirely imagined. Of course, I know better. As I listen, I can’t help but wonder—do they say these things because they’ve forgotten how they treated me or because they remember? Is this an act of disavowal? Is this their apology? Have they been humbled by their past mistakes, as I have, and quietly tried to change for the good? No matter how hard I look, I can’t see what lurks in their hearts. I never will.