Written and directed by Paul Haggis and starring an ensemble cast, the 2005 motion picture Crash depicts a tale of racial tension in the lives of a group of interconnected Los Angeles residents and the often violent ways in which these tensions are manifested. The film was extremely well-received by critics. Among numerous prestigious film honors, it won both Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the 78th Academy Awards in 2006. It currently holds a 75% “Fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes.com – a web site that aggregates reviews from film critics across the country – and is given a rating of 8.0 out of 10 by users on IMDB.com. A quick search on the internet yields many analyses and discussions of the film and how it deals with racism, with most of these praising it for its honest portrayal of racial tension. One college reviewer wrote that the film “leaves no type of racism unaddressed,” praising its inclusion of “angry racists… subtle racists… some don’t know that they’re racist and still others are trying to be racist (sic).” And yet, I remember being unimpressed by the film, and even feeling skeptical of its nonstop depictions of racial stereotypes.
Using a combination of ideological and race criticisms to analyze Crash, my paper examines the portrayal of whiteness in the film, and more specifically, the implications of whiteness on how race relations and conflicts are represented. My analysis reveals that despite the presence of an ideology of equalizing racism, unequal power relationships are still constructed due to an under-examination of whiteness. To demonstrate this, I will first provide the theoretical concepts that frame my analysis, and then present my main argument: that the lack of critical examination of whiteness in Crash ultimately results in a reproduction of a dominant-white ideology masked by an ideology of equality. My analysis will consist of examining the following elements present in the film: associating whiteness with power, constructing whiteness through representations of otherness, hailing white as “the savior,” and personalizing racism using racial stereotypes. Finally, my conclusion will touch on the importance of critically examining a film like Crash.
As a film that enjoyed both critical acclaim and commercial success, Crash’s controversial portrayal of racism has resulted in a number of scholars taking interest in analyzing it critically. My research on the literature revealed that despite the large amount of studies done on the film, most scholars tend to focus on the prevalence of stereotypes (and the perceived effects). Few studies actually focus on Crash’s portrayal of whiteness, though many scholars have noted its importance and suggest that future studies embark on this task. Therefore, I combine the strengths of two rhetorical lenses in my attempt to examine the absence of whiteness in Crash.
The first of these two is ideological criticism, which is defined by Wander (1984) as a politically empowered tool to bring to light “the existence of powerful vested interests benefitting from and consistently urging policies and technology that threaten life on this planet, when it realizes that we search for alternatives” (p. 18). Using ideological criticism will help me uncover the ideological system(s) in power, as reflected by the film’s narrative and persuasive components. It is important to note that ideological criticism cannot be used to establish causal relationships; instead, it seeks resonance, or how the power of an ideology is manifested.
The second lens I use is race criticism, which is comprised of Nakayama and Krizek (1995)’s analysis of the discursive space of whiteness and a colorblind discourse developed in more detail by Bonilla-Silva (2010). Nakayama and Krizek outline six strategic ways that whiteness can be rhetorically constructed. Whiteness can first be defined when it becomes synonymous with power because of its majority position. Second, whiteness can be seen as the lacking of any racial or ethnic features, which is then interpreted to mean that it must be the default. A third way is characterized by whiteness being defined as “natural” with a scientific basis in biology. In addition, those who define their whiteness by their nationality “relegate those of other racial groups to an marginal role in national life” (p. 301). A fifth approach is espoused by those who refuse to label themselves and subscribe to the ideology of individualism, and thus, mask their whiteness by refusing it as a label. And finally, Nakayama and Krizek’s study found a small group of interviewees who linked their whiteness to their European heritage, which does not necessarily mean that they recognize the power relations embedded in this history (p. 298-303).
Bonilla-Silva highlights four central frameworks to analyze colorblind racism. The first, and also the most important of these four, is abstract liberalism, which is when racial matters are explained in an abstract manner using political and economic liberalism. Second, naturalization is demonstrated when whites explain racial phenomenon as natural occurrences with basis in biological science. Cultural racism is a more prevalent form of colorblind racism that is expressed by those who explain the current standings of racial minorities in society by citing their cultural values as the cause. Finally, minimization of racism is seen in those who downplay the role of racial discrimination in terms of how it can affect a minority’s life chances (p. 26-32).
Various representations of race identities and relations abound in Crash, resulting in a variety of race issues being put forth to the audience, however for this paper I will focus on the role of whiteness and its implications on the interracial interactions in the film. To situate whiteness within the narrative space of Crash is not an easy task, as the film focuses mostly on racial stereotypes ascribed to non-whites; hints to white privilege are seen here and there, but as expected, there are no extended or explicit portrayals or mentions. Thus, Nakayama and Krizek (1995)’s classification of whiteness as something that “wields power yet endures as a largely unarticulated position” (p. 291) is applicable here in recovering the ideology of whiteness. Moreover, I will illustrate later how this ideology of whiteness actually serves to mask a simultaneous ideology of inequality that the film rhetorically constructs through its treatment of whiteness.
First, the dominant ideology present in Crash is that of equalizing racism, evident through the film’s attempt at depicting every individual of every race as racially prejudiced. Indeed, in the very first scene, we witness a conflict between an Asian-American woman and a Hispanic woman during which they freely throw racial slurs at each other; “Mexicans no know how to drive,” as the Asian-American woman angrily screams, while the Hispanic woman mocks her mispronunciation of “break” as “blake.” From then on, the movie becomes a relentless battlefield characterized by an incessant flow of racial conflicts, instigated and fueled by characters who both explicitly and implicitly abuse their 1st Amendment rights against not only members of another race but also people with whom they share the same skin color. Aside from a few exceptions, almost all characters display some evidence of being racially prejudiced. Taken together, the combined efforts of these seemingly unbiased portrayals of racial conflicts form a dominant ideology of equalizing racism, which positions all represented races in the story on equal ground based on their collective identity as humans while giving the film the sense that it is honest, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and other descriptors that together translate into fairness. This attempt at depicting fairness is ironic, considering racial conflicts in real life are anything but fair. Indeed, the ideology presented in Crash exists only on a symbolic level, since it cannot be extended into the real world.
Yet, despite this ideology of equality, whiteness is frequently associated with power in Crash. One way this can be seen is simply through observing the difference between how the film depicts its white and non-white characters: almost all the white characters are in positions of power, while non-white characters are not only shown to be structurally subservient in terms of their roles in the film, but are also subordinated in terms of their depictions as demonstrated by the narrative of the film. In one scene, a black television sitcom director, Cam, is confronted by his white producer boss, Fred, because it has become evident to him that one of the black actors, Jamal, has been “talking a lot less black.” Cam tries to downplay the situation by assuring Fred that the viewers will have no trouble figuring out that Jamal is black. But he is unsuccessful. Fred soon turns serious and rhetorically asks in a demanding voice, “Is there a problem, Cam?” resulting in Cam’s immediate compliance. This quick but important interaction has multiple implications. More than just the black character being denied creative direction, black authenticity is actually decided by the white character in power. Nunley (2007) deems this especially problematic because “within the world of the film, African Americans and others are consistently unable to occupy authorial subject positions when they enter the orbit of white privilege” (p. 341). In addition, what’s also interesting is the fact that Fred accuses Jamal of seeing a speech coach, which implies that Jamal is trying to “de-black” himself by “whitening” his speech, governed by a sense of ridicule and rejection over his perceived at entering the white-only club. This scenario illustrates a clear example of how Crash subjugates its non-white characters, despite its rhetoric of equalizing racism in a “we are all racists” fashion.
Thus, Crash constructs whiteness mostly through a means of contrast derived from its portrayals of non-whites, all of whom are shown as possessing stereotypical traits. According to Nakayama and Krizek (1995), this is the rhetorical strategy of white being defined as the default because it lacks any racial or ethnic features. Again, this is illustrated by the differences between the film’s portrayal of white characters and of non-white characters. For example, when Ryan, a white cop, pleads with Shaniqua, a black insurance agent, to give clearance that will allow his father to receive treatment, the dialogue suddenly transforms into a monologue of Ryan talking about his father’s life as an honorable man who remained a proponent for affirmative action despite losing his fortune to the passing of the first measures. Not only is Ryan given the agency to defend his character to Shaniqua – whom he also accused of being an unfair beneficiary of affirmative action – he is also given generous screen time to further develop his evidently multidimensional character.
In contrast, Shaniqua does not receive the same privilege of being able to reveal any additional information about herself; she is not even allowed a retort to defend her merit against his accusatory remarks. So maybe she is an unfair beneficiary of affirmative action after all? Certainly, Shaniqua is rendered not only as just another angry black woman who lacks self-reflexivity (and thus, intelligence), but on top of that, she is also depicted as a racialized figure who is heartless, in that she is incapable of looking past issues of racism. To the viewers, Ryan’s father is presented as a noble and sympathetic figure who obviously deserves the medical treatment that Shaniqua can apparently make possible so easily. Evidently, the white character is injected with a multidimensional personal story, while the non-white character is represented as merely a body characterized by an inability to look past issues of race and ethnicity. This is humorously summed up by Sangeeta Ray (2007) in his essay titled Crash, or How White Men Save the Day, Again:
Thus, the LA cops much maligned for their racism are actually nice guys with hard-luck stories. They are devoted sons who happen to molest beautiful, wealthy, sexy black women because their fathers, who employed black people (and therefore were real do-gooders), are now decrepit and old and have a hard time peeing. (p. 352).
It is no surprise, then, that a central framework through which Crash constructs whiteness is the motif of “the white men saving the day.” In what is perhaps one of the most emotionally-charged scenes of the film, Ryan demonstrates his most-admirable personal uprightness by saving a black woman trapped in a SUV, Christine – yes, the same woman he had previously sexually assaulted – despite warnings from fellow officers that the SUV is only seconds away from exploding (of course, the SUV explodes immediately after he rescues her). This scene can be interpreted to mean that Ryan’s act of bravery outweighs the racial prejudices he hold, redeeming him from his previous acts of racism. While his act seemingly echos the film’s central ideology of equalizing racism, what also becomes apparent is a system of unequal power relations. By presenting the white man as the savior, the film positions white above non-white, which successfully reproduces the racial hierarchy that persists in our modern society. Holmes (2007) describes this power-relationship as having a basis on “the same ideological space that liberal, conservatives, and avowed racists have occupied from the eighteenth century on: paternalism – the conviction that black people need white people to take care of them” (p. 317).
While depicting Ryan in contrasting ways certainly adds to his character’s multidimensionality, it also highlights the film’s minimal and uncritical treatment of white privilege. As a white person in power, Ryan occupies a space at the top of the current institutional racial hierarchy. Nunley (2007) writes, “Ryan’s ability to fondle or at his whim save an African American woman is precisely what institutional and personal white and male privilege is about, it is exactly what makes him so dangerous” (p. 344). Conveniently, this ideological construction is masked by the film’s perceived overall goal of equalizing racism, which functions as the central ideology that serves to give the appearance of an unbiased and honest treatment of racism and race relations while allowing lesser-obvious ideologies of inequality to form and manifest. This ideology of false equality is closely related to the term liberal humanism, which Nunley (2007) refers to as “the valuing in political philosophy of freedom, individualism, tolerance, and the sanctity of humanness” (p. 343). Interestingly, this concept is based on the idea that this humanness “assumes the centrality of man/men and whiteness” (p. 343), thereby excluding all non-white ethnic minorities as well as all women. Thus, the invisibility of whiteness and white privilege is masked by the dominant ideology of equalizing racism, whose basis on liberal humanism strengthens its concealment of white privilege.
The issue of whiteness is further rendered obsolete by Crash’s attempts at personalizing racism. The rhetoric of the film seemingly states that racial conflict has only one cause: racial stereotyping. Absent from the narrative is any mention of institutional or systematic racism, which is responsible for much of the current societal racial injustices according to colorblind theory (Bonilla-Silva, 2010). While stereotyping pervades almost every scene in the film, one scene is particularly dramatic in its representation of a stereotype-caused-conflict. In this scene, two black males are seen taking a stroll in an apparently predominantly-white upscale neighborhood. One of them incessantly rants about having just been victimized in a coffee shop. As they are about to cross paths with a wealthy white couple, they notice the woman suddenly clutching to the man’s arm, which the two black men perceive as a reaction to noticing their presence. Anthony, the more vocal of the two black men, begins to complain about being stereotyped as being “threatening” despite walking around in an area mostly occupied by white folks and heavily patrolled by the LAPD. Instead, Anthony says that they are the ones who should be scared, calling on the audience’s social knowledge of the prevalence of racial profiling. But the two black men are not scared, because they have guns, which they immediately use to rob the white couple’s expensive automobile.
Giroux & Giroux (2007) criticize this sudden reversal of narrative flow as having potentially negative consequences in endorsing racial stereotypes. They write, “The stereotype of the dangerous black man is suddenly made all too real, an empirically justified fact” (p. 750). Surely, not only does this scene substantiate the persisting stereotype of the black men as dangerous criminals, Holmes points out an additional stereotype in the character Anthony on the basis of his persistent ranting as “the quintessential angry black nationalist without a cause” (George, 2002, as cited by Holmes, 2007, p. 316). In characterizing him as such, Holmes (2007) sought to bring to light Crash’s deliberate disregard for the history of blacks being dominated by whites:
What remains unsaid by Haggis and unseen in the movie is that whites have attempted to control the economics, context, and content of African American expressive culture, from Phillis Wheatley to Frederick Douglass… (p. 316).
Accordingly, by representing racial conflicts as the result of stereotyping, the dominant ideology of equalizing racism points to a need for understanding and tolerance, and in turn frames personal growth as the solution to assuage racism and race conflicts. While the importance for understanding and tolerance should never go understated, the film’s complete disregard for systematic racism is highly problematic because it allows the film to suggest the presence of a non-existent society in which racial equality can be achieved merely through individual self-reflexivity. Not only does this unfairly redirect the general population’s concern with achieving racial justice into focusing on their own racially-prejudiced beliefs, it diverts attention away from the institutional aspects of racism that are in need of the masses’ attention, for instance, institution-aided segregation in schools and neighborhoods. Moreover, Crash attempts to mask the very powers of the corporations involved in making the film by presenting itself as a socially-conscious text.
Examining Crash using the two rhetorical lenses reveals a strong bias in the film’s representation of whiteness, despite its apparent attempt at representing everyone as equally racist. This is shown through my analysis, which reveals Crash’s tendency to associate whiteness with power, as well as its attempt at manufacturing whiteness through the depiction of racial minorities as justified receivers of racial stereotypes. As expected, the film gives preferential treatment to its white characters, who not only belong to positions of power but are also allotted more screen time to develop into multidimensional characters unlike most of the non-white characters in the film, who are depicted as one-dimensional characters consumed by their race. Perhaps this is the Crash’s hidden attempt at highlighting the fact that most whites can live in this country and never think about their own whiteness. Moreover, by personalizing racism as an issue of personal struggle, Crash denies the existence of institutional racial barriers that people who are non-white in this country continue to experience every day. As one of the most popular films of the last decade, Crash occupies an important space within popular culture, which should be noted by academia, since its controversial portrayals of race relations may be more than meets the eye.
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By Lee Yang, May 2010.