Crossing the Bar of Difference

Wed. January 4, 2006
Categories: Papers

Analysis of the film CRASH

In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something (Crash, 2004).

I live in Los Angeles and can spend one to four hours a day driving. Road rage is one of my fears. What the film Crash does is show how small, ordinary accidents and misunderstandings can escalate violently when race is a part of the equation. In this essay I look at how the characters cross the double yellow line of race to experience rupture.

The first car crash involves two detectives engaged in a sexual relationship. She says “my father’s from Puerto Rico. My mother’s from El Salvador. Neither one of those is Mexico.” He says “Ahhh. Then I guess the big mystery is who gathered all those remarkably different cultures together and taught them all how to park their cars on their lawns?” (Crash, 2004). Morales (1998) says,

Oppression buries the actual lives of real and contradictory people in the crude generalizations of bigotry and punishes us for not matching the caricature, refusing all evidence of who we actually are in defiance of its tidy categories.  It is a blunt instrument used for bashing, not only our dangerous complexities, but also the ancient and permanent fact of our involvement with each other. (p. 75)

The officers’ rear end collision into the car of a Chinese American woman with the ensuing argument demonstrates how language can be used as a vehicle of oppression between races. “It’s her fault! She do this!” “My fault?” “Stop in middle of street! Mexicans no know how to drive. She “blake” too fast.” “I blake too fast?” (Crash 2004). If you can speak English clearly you are less subject to ridicule, but if “R’s” sound like “L’s” there is an open invitation for derision. Speaking another language besides English increases tension as in the next scene.

A Persian father and his daughter are buying a gun to protect their family-owned store.  Living in a borderland state, which is essentially what Los Angeles is, whether a state of mind or real, leaves people feeling vulnerable. The gun store owner says, “Yo, Osama! Plan a Jihad on your own time” (Crash, 2004) because the Persian is speaking in Farsi, and an argument follows that shows, once again, the lack of tolerance for non-English speakers even though the Persian family are American citizens.

Throughout the film two young African American males discuss aspects of racism, which forms the central narrative. One of them expresses the magnitude of the problem of racism and how it affects every interaction in their lives, from it taking nearly two hours to get a plate of spaghetti in a restaurant to the way an upper class white woman in Studio City clings to her husband’s arm walking down the street when she sees them approaching from the opposite direction. The black guy says, “You couldn’t find a whiter, safer, or better-lit part of this city right now. But yet this white woman sees two black guys who look like UCLA students strolling down the sidewalk, and her reaction is blind fear?” (Crash, 2004).

Her white, upper-class fear of young black men is not just antagonistic, it is justified.  This is because in spite of his protest against the stereotype of black youth, he participates in the culturally-constructed assumption that young black guys on the street are going to steal your car (which is what they proceed to do). The wife later confronts her District Attorney husband to have the house locks changed the next day by someone other than a Mexican American. She says, “Yes, the guy with the shaved head, the pants around his ass, the prison tattoo.” “Those are not prison tattoos.” “Oh really? And he’s not gonna sell our key to one of his gangbanger friends the moment he is out our door?” (Crash, 2004). The couple exists in a world that is separated from struggle and poverty. Morales (1998) said,

Racism (is) firmly rooted in class…unrelenting racism permeates our daily lives in all its forms, from brutality and humiliation at the hands of the police, schools and our institutional structures to the most subtle ways of making us disappear as human beings (p. 61).

She makes the locksmith invisible by talking in front of him as if he cannot hear or even understand her. So far I have only described how ongoing dehumanization escalates the tension leading to rupture, as in the next example. A white cop is angry because his father has a urinary tract infection and cannot get treatment approved by the HMO’s female African American supervisor. He antagonizes an African American couple driving a vehicle similar to the carjacked vehicle, even though he knows that they are not suspects. Police officers are the authority symbol of the ruling class, and as such they have the ability to antagonize many social groups by individual harassment. The female passenger was actually performing fellatio on her husband as he was driving the car, which constitutes lewd public conduct. She says to the police officer, “Fuck you! That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? You thought you saw a white woman blowin’ a black man. That drove your cracker ass crazy.” “Will you just shut your fucking mouth!” “I’d listen to your husband, ma’am.”  (Crash, 2004).

Nevertheless, as Morales (1998) said, “It’s a guerrilla war against linguistic control where sassy slangs and precision-calibrated formalities are wielded in turn, as needed” (p. 59). Slang typically used in one culture can antagonize others when used in a different context. In this case, the police officer proceeds to conduct a body search where he feels her up to intentionally humiliate her and her husband.  It demonstrates that there are very few boundaries when the power of authority is invoked followed by threats of silence or violence. But it also shows how we antagonize each other verbally by the use of language, thereby escalating the violence to ourselves and each other.

Racing around in our cars in L.A. the tension between the races is high. But then the ruptures start happening. The ‘bad cop’ rescues the same African American woman when she is trapped in an automobile that is ready to explode. In a move to free her, he pulls out a knife to cut the seat belt but she screams for him not to touch her. These unexpected events blur the distinction between the ‘bad cop/good cop’ stereotypes to show how disruption provides the means for us to reconcile our differences if we choose to let something in through the rupture.

The accident leaves each of them questioning their hatred of each other, but was it a restorative moment? He is overcome with duty and compassion, while she is forced to overcome her resistance in what can only be called a crash of racial opposites. Nevertheless, it is a rupture where re-examination of relationship is possible. It shows me that the racial conflicts in my personal relationships are not to be avoided. The crashes, accidents, or mishaps that I get into can be used constructively if I do not scream in resistance. Healing is possible with conscious awareness. Desmond Tutu says,

Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. (1999, p. 270).

The accident exposes the truth that we are interdependent. Reconciliation is a difficult process yet we are given this opportunity nearly every day. I encounter more diversity in the San Fernando Valley on any given day than if I was traveling in another country. At the same time, it is difficult to find a place where I feel safe. I am afraid to drive in certain neighborhoods.

The Latino locksmith is the father of an adorable girl hiding under the bed, afraid of the bullets sometimes real and sometimes imagined that she hears in the night. He comforts her by telling her a story of a secret cloak that he wears, given to him by a fairy. She lets him place the imaginary cloak around her shoulders and she goes to sleep.  Sometimes it requires imagination to survive because danger may really be beyond our perception, either down the street or around the corner.  A misunderstanding happens between the Persian store owner and the Latino locksmith. Later in the narrative the little girl runs out of the house and jumps in front of her father to protect him at the time he is being accosted by the Persian man whose store was vandalized. She realizes her father no longer wears the cloak of protection because he has given it to her. The Persian man shoots into the back of the little girl while she is in her father’s arms. The Persian man regresses into that difficult, often painful or chaotic experience of defamiliarization… a feeling of being lost in an unknown environment, where literal truths dissolve in favor of the chaotic or symbolic.  One learns painfully in this state about the transient and evolving character of cultural and personal constructions of reality.  Few people enter this painful state willingly and once in it, many want out as quickly as possible” (class handout, no page number).

When it is recognized that the girl is uninjured because the gun contained blanks, the Persian man believes that the little girl is his personal angel who saves him from his own act of violence.  Desmond Tutu (1999) said, “It isn’t easy, as we all know, to ask for forgiveness and it’s also not easy to forgive, but we are people who know that when someone cannot be forgiven there is no future” (p. 151).

The Persian man lets a new level of awareness in through the rupture and it results in a change of ethics for him, by chance or luck, and he feels apologetic.  I used to think that ruptures, like car crashes, were something to avoid at all costs. I thought that when the membrane-like boundary between us was stretched so thin that it tore a hole in our social fabric, we were headed for trouble.  But, I see differently now. I am less afraid of crashes, mishaps, ruptures because that is how the spirit of reconciliation enters.

Meanwhile, the D.A.’s wife runs a narrative of separation from those marginalized others who exist only to serve her, as shown by her harsh treatment of the Latina housekeeper employed by her. Her narcissism contains socially constructed assumptions of the racial superiority of white people. One can sense the fear that drives her to control non-whites so that her life is not affected negatively by them. Yet, she has no-one who will come to her aid when she twists her ankle and falls down the stairs except, that is, her Latina housekeeper. At this moment, she witnesses the contradiction and recognizes that the Latina woman who serves her is the only one who sincerely cares about her. It is possible during this moment “in and out of time,” a moment out of secular social structure (Turner, 1995, p. 96) that social ties organized by caste, class, or rank hierarchies which previously separated them can be changed. Morales (1998) says,

How to responsibly dismantle our own privilege, how to acknowledge the injury privilege does to those who have it as well as those who lack it, how to make it clear, to ourselves and to those who have what we do not, that surrendering privilege is ultimately joyful and deeply rewarding, that the real losses happened long ago when the privilege was accepted – these are fundamental questions for a much needed theory of solidarity, of how to reweave the torn fabric of our interdependence. (p. 95).

At moments of rupture we are given the opportunity of sacrificing privilege for communitas, that space where we experience a communion of equal individuals. It is understandable that within a social web of commonality there is a shared sense of community. But how is communitas between races possible?  Comunitas between races is possible during ruptures and it can be further expanded if we do not renormalize (to the status quo) after the disruption. The model provided to me is one where opposing maps of reality are held next to each other and separate points of view are explored, each of us examining the reality we want to experience and seeing how we can negotiate the boundaries within our shared spaces (Shulman Lorenz, 2005).  Instead of separating from one another we can experience transformations that build communitas to further integrate our points of view into a common reality between races. The movie Crash shows me that the opportunity for communitas exists within ruptures because every time we crash into each other, realistically or metaphorically, it is an opportunity to deconstruct the opposites.

Speaking of opposites, actions that start with bad motives can end up with a good outcome.  Likewise, actions based upon good motives can end badly. The ‘good cop’ narrative starts with his being uncomfortable with the racism of his partner. He tries to face the problem by requesting to ride in a patrol car alone. The good cop puts his life and reputation on the line to save the African American film director from getting killed on the street in a confrontation with other police officers. But what starts out as a desire to draw attention to the problem later reverses itself. While off duty, the good cop offers a hitchhiking young black guy a ride and in a short-tempered moment, he is overcome by suspicion and fear.

As the young black guy puts his hand in his coat pocket to pull a car ornament out of his pocket that matches the car ornament on the dashboard, the good cop shoots him in the chest. The ornament had the possibility of being a shared symbol between the good cop and the young black guy.  This ornament reminds me of Winnicot’s idea of symbolic construction that was mentioned in class, for example, that transitional objects exist in the field of interaction between mother and child. The mother and child communicate through these transitional objects.  The black youth was attempting to communicate with the good cop by sharing this symbol. Nevertheless, racial stereotypes are carried unconsciously in spite of ourselves. Even though he was willing to dismantle his own privilege and take responsibility for remaking the world (Morales, 1998, p. 95) the good cop was caught by unconscious racial fear and kills an innocent youth.

Homi Bhabha (1990) said that we need to create a Third Space between our cultures, in this case, between our races. What if we imagined that no race is complete in itself and that social meaning is constructed because of our differences? City life is not just about cultures coexisting in a multicultural environment. We cannot easily coexist just living side-by-side and pretending not to notice our differences. We need to find a way to cross the ‘bar of difference’ (Bhabha, 1990, p. 214). That means to cross the double yellow line between the races without crashing into each other and causing pain.

Bhabha (1990) calls this process “translation” (p. 210). It appears to me that he means we are to consciously alienate ourselves from our idea of having a complete and holistic identity that is separate from other races. Translation as a theory of culture involves disidentification and this would apply to race as well. How can I disidentify from my sense of being complete as an Anglo American or Latina or any other organic identification without imagining a larger self that contains other people’s identities as well?

Bhabha (1990) uses the word “displacement” interchangeably with the word “liminality” (p. 210). We enter the liminal space between the races by consciously translating ourselves out of the social structure as we know it and across the boundary. He uses the idea of imitation as a means of displacement, that is, we can imagine a simulation of our organic identity in order to move across boundaries. This imitation in the liminal spaces allows the so-called original self to become de-centered in order to open up the possibility of experiencing within ourselves various aspects of different races.  This is where his notion of hybridity occurs. Bhabha says,

Then we see that all forms of culture are continually in a process of hybridity. But for me the importance of hybridity is not to be able to trace two original moments from which the third emerges, rather hybridity to me is the ‘third space’ which enables other positions to emerge. This third space displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received wisdom. (1990, p. 211).

The act of translation itself shows that any single organic identity does not contain ultimate reality in its essence. Any discussion of race includes all races as if there were no otherness. Does this mean that while my original identification is with my own race, I can simultaneously allow myself identification with others? I am part Mexican and part Anglo but maybe there is a place in me where being African is possible in Third Space, where there is another discourse altogether that is, as yet, unfamiliar to me.  In Third Space, the crash (or strife) between races becomes the very place where wholeness is possible.

So far I have discussed the movie Crash objectively, and it is difficult to look at Crash subjectively, where every character and setting is in the mind/spirit world of the personality of the protagonist, because of the separate narratives. Instead of analyzing one protagonist I will examine several narratives.

The Latino locksmith as Protagonist: the Persian storeowner represents the part of his psyche that sees how violence is the way to survive, but it is also something that he rejects. He is trying to live his life in a way that protects his little girl in a violent world. She represents that childlike and vulnerable place in his psyche that holds hope for a world without violence, the part he is afraid of losing.

The Good Cop as Protagonist: he sees that his job is to protect the innocent. Yet, he witnesses the potential in himself to be a racist prick that has the power to oppress, represented by his patrol car partner. It is the part of him that he wants to avoid at all costs. The Lieutenant represents the part of him that recognizes institutional racism as the evil it is. The good cop sees that he will have to sacrifice institutional protections and privilege in order to deal with the problem. He sees how people who experience racism on a daily basis face a painful loss of dignity regularly and strive to develop rank and power inside of racist structures where the idea of justice is a luxury. Yet he continues to search for shared symbols with the oppressed and wants the killing to stop but finds the racial stereotypes so deeply imbedded in his consciousness that it does not seem possible to overcome them no matter how hard he tries. His hope for reconciliation between the races dies, represented by the black youth he shoots.

The white upper class Bitch as Protagonist: her D.A. husband represents the part of her that politicizes racism to further her privilege. She acknowledges that society is multicultural and works it to her advantage. The Latino locksmith represents her fear that she is never going to feel safe enough in this world. The housekeeper is the wounded part of herself that recognizes her abuse of power and privilege.

The African American film director as Protagonist: his wife represents his conscience that racism is evil and is to be fought at the cost of your own life. The cops represent the fears that he has to face in order to do so. The young black carjacker represents that part of himself that he hates, as if to give in to the racial stereotypes is too disgusting.

The African-American detective as Protagonist: he’s dying in his soul, as represented by the death of one of the carjackers, a little brother whom he couldn’t save. He wants to block the painful feelings as represented by his drug addicted mother. His feminine side is wounded, as represented by his relationship with his female partner. She is the part of him that sees the irony of the situation, that is, that the racial stereotypes actually say something true, and are relational.

Shohat/Stam (1994) say racism is a social relation anchored in material structures and embedded in historical configurations of power. “Since racism is a complex hierarchical system, a structured ensemble of social and institutional practices and discourses, individuals do not have actively to express or practice racism to be its beneficiaries” (p. 19).

Therefore the importance of restoration: we must intervene in the process of racism. The Third Space that Homi Bhabha talks about is the place we need to consciously enter. I had the experience of moving into Third Space when lying in bed next to my Latino boyfriend. For the first time, I accepted our differences as meaningful instead of trying to push them aside in order to achieve unity of spirit. I looked at our differences as something to honor, rather than ignoring them in the spirit of multiculturalism. Reconciliation is a marriage between races that honors the differences between the opposites. I crossed the bar of difference that Bhabha speaks of, feeling it in my mind and body as a transcendent experience. It also happened at Fry’s Electronics when the Latinas spoke in Spanish (a language I understand) in my presence and I did not react defensively, instead remaining in the space of love. If only I can spend enough time in transcendent function to be a container, not only for myself but also for the world, I could let go of racism without crashing. When I enter the Third Space with the intention of conceiving myself as a hybrid of diverse biological development I have more love, more creativity, and more peace.


Bhabha, H. (1990). The third space. In J. Rutherford, (Ed.), Identity: Community, culture, and difference (pp. 207-221). London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Cheadle, Don. (Producer), & Haggis, P. (Writer/Producer/Director). (2004). Crash [Motion Picture]. United States:Lions Gate Films.

Morales, A.L. (1998). Medicine stories. Cambridge: South End Press.

Shulman Lorenz, H. (2005, November). Depth Psychology and Cultural Issues I. Unpublished lecture presented at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA.

Turner, V. (1974).  Liminality and communitas. In The ritual process (pp. 94-130).  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Tutu, D. (1999). No future without forgiveness. New York: Random House.

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