Georgia Cranko
...a beautifully volatile and disabled existence of raw humanity, art and activism...
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Essays

Crashing the Fairytale of Multiculturalism

 

Director, Paul Haggis transgressed social conventions in 2004, with the release of his film, Crash, a gritty account of contemporary race relations in Los Angeles. It explicitly broached the topic of racism, and seemingly agitated the accepted ideology of a charitable neoliberal nationalism. Still, through the episodic depiction of various characters of diverse ethnicities, and a series of intersecting vignettes of their lives, distinct prejudicial acts are presented as homogeneous, and independent events.

 

The narratives in the plot delineate a common and dominant subjectivity out of the simple tension between tolerance and anger, never interrogating the constructing affects of inequitable social structures. Consequently, racism is shown to be a personal failing comprised of reflexive ethnic emotionalities and behaviours, which are innate and inescapable. So racism, acting as a convenient humanising and connecting element in the story, is shown as comprising the characters’ entrenched ways of relating, and it is rendered as inevitable and an integral part of the human condition. In this essay, I will consider Haggis’ portrayal of social injustice in a few specific scenes for what emotional truth it recreates, what it can tell us about the social contours of race in contemporary cultures.

 

The plot of Crash depicts the politics of race amidst what Hage (1998) outlines as a fairy tale ideology of “tolerant multiculturalism”. It acts on emotions to render social isolation and narcissism as constitutive of the animosity between minority groups, in the usual Hollywood melodramatic mode. The first few words of dialogue in the story explain, “I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just to feel something…” This is said before we see the pivotal car accident of the film, just after the intro.  

 

Social theorist, Sara Ahmed (2000, pp. 39,49) has posited, that it is in the “crashes” of identities, cultures and belief systems, that race becomes a social object, mediating between “familiarity and strangeness”. Distinctive bodies are defined by “… [different] economies of touch”, in that process one’s social experience is produced. Yet the social exchanges in the film, while being a primary narrative device, are never shown as central in demarcating the experience of race. All the characters are shown to be “…morally neutral, normative, and average”, despite being socialised in a bigoted society. In this covert way, we can see what feminist academic, Peggy McIntosh (1998) refers to as the social patterns stemming from white privilege. Consequently, social activist, bell hooks (2013, p. 121) labels the film “profoundly dishonest”, because it only cements the prejudice from this formation process and the fixity of such identity markers, never exposing the social roots of race.

 

 

As demonstrated in the very first scene, the concepts of isolation and individualism are integral to the film’s understanding of how race works. It is presented as merely operating on an inherent level in the idealised autonomous individual, and never shown as socially shaped by structural power (Kim, 2013, pp. 70, 81). Like this, we are invited to divorce racism from the surrounding social context, to not question the damaging effects of neoliberalism (hooks, 2013, p. 101; McIntosh, 1998, p. 166). In this first scene, two women involved in the car accident angrily argue over whose fault it was, annoy­ed that their individual space and property have been violated. It emphasises that self-centredness and seclusion are the origin of all violent collisions, placing people in cars, “…behind this metal and glass”. A sentiment that abstracts the way that broader society is biasedly structured, working to reduce all races to the feeling of loneliness.

 

Although equally susceptible to societal emotions, strange bodies are demarcated against an “…imaginary [unmarked and wholly human] social body.…” (Ahmed, 2000, p. 46).  In every scene of the film, this is revealed to be a white imaginary, though it is professing social egalitarianism.  As literature and social scholar Sue J. Kim (2013, p. 78) stresses, the account still “… privileges some minds over others in utterly typical ways”. For example, in the first scene, through low camera angles, the audience is positioned to look up to the Latino character, Ria, the only face we have a clear view of. She has conventional good looks and a generic American accent, which centralises a relatable (as-good-as-white) Americanness. She initially speaks in a calm and measured tone, unlike when we first encounter the Korean woman, Kim Lee, who is ardently arguing with a uniformed police officer. He is wearing a helmet, and so can be seen as a generalisable authority. The police presence is an illustration of a liberal “communism of tolerance” and it is used to diffuse and buffer the marking force of the altercation.

 

Racial stereotypes are felt through certain types of social interaction, and in that process, marginalbodies usually become subjugated, othered and marked “…as a place of vulnerability and fear” (Ahmed, 2000, p. 49). However, this process is reversed and shown as delineating the mainstream character of ria’s subjectivity, when Mrs. Lee becomes visibly troubled when Ria approaches and accuses her of causing the accident.  We see the shock and disbelief on Ria’s face to be encountering this belligerence, as the screen fades to the next lot of title credits, and Mrs. Lee’s prejudicial assertions can be heard, never giving the audience the change to understand her anger (Kim, 2013, p. 84). When it fades back in, a moment later, to a glaring close-up of Ria’s  face, we observe“…practices of nationalist exclusion...” from her {Hage, 1998 #235}(Hage, 1998, p. 90), when she patronises and mocks the way the Mrs. Lee pronounces ‘break’. It is the kind of prejudice that Western viewers are familiar with and given the preceding hostility, seems to be justified, and so it does not destabilise our neoliberal worldview.  The policeman reprimands Ria, and tries to reason with the obstinate Mrs. Lee. This furthers the sense that the racial antagonism between these two women is just generated by individual temperaments, because the broader societal structures are impartial.

 

Meanwhile, audience white guilt is alleviated by the emphasis on the existence of a collective [privileged and angry] humanity. This, as Kim (2013, p. 76) says, “…fulfils and reinforces the cultural scripts and narratives of liberal multiculturalism”. This is played out again and again. In a scene where a Persian man, Farhad, is looking to buy a gun from an unenlightened white shop owner, with his daughter translating for him. The owner is placed lower to the counter than his customers, which seeks to address the apparent unequal power dynamics for the (fair and progressive) audience, he still is looking up at these customers with a placid, wary expression. It is obvious that the owner is uncomfortable because of their ethnicity. So, he is embodying the conditional national space, because he still has the power to exclude, while looking somewhat apathetic and literally lower in the liaison.

 

It emphasises the racial stereotyping as a mundane kind, so it can be seen as done out a misguided genuine fear, and not as a personal attack. The owner rationally verbalises his thoughts, in saying “You, Osama! Plan your jihad on your own time. What do you want?”. These words operate on a perceived threat to the liberal nation,  and so this is where “…the tolerant can legitimately become intolerant…” (Hage, 1998, p. 91).  Additionally by the owner not getting overly aggressive or emotional, it “…simply happens as if it were a normal occurrence within a tolerant society…”(Hage, 1998, p. 84). In this way, the film is able to de-centre white supremacy and dismiss its detrimental consequences.

 

Similarly, the Persian gun buyer is seemingly unaffected and racially undifferentiated by this conflict. In this particular scene, Farhad is dressed in similar coloured clothing as the white gun seller, and is invested with more emotional intensity and hostility. His demeanour therefore engenders a bodily familiarity for the audience,  “… an affectivity which already crosses the line [between self and other]” (Ahmed, 2000, p. 45). Also he asserts his place in the capitalist liberal societal framework and is seen to be more agitated than the owner, “I am American citizen! ... I have right to buy gun!”.  This enforces to the audience that the belief that liberal “multiculturalism” actually works to create equal opportunity for everyone. The camera frames the characters’ angry faces, equally, in stark close ups, almost documentary-style, implying the two have equal dominance over the situation. Farhad is seen to  embody  the same entitlement and sense of belonging that being white would offer him (McIntosh, 1998, p. 168), to accentuate a relatable (white) humanness, unaffected by subsequent economies of social touch.   This intense interaction shows no evidence of the “…peculiar destabilising logic …”  of strengthening social boundaries (Ahmed, 2000, p. 45)  that usual bigotry operates on. It just reiterates and acknowledges a certain social exclusion in a liberal society, and it does not serve to challenge it. Thus race still can be portrayed as a permanent social construct, that inherently separates individuals.

 

 

However, the depiction of an “othered” citizen speaking up in a racist confrontation still acts to fetishise the distinction between the two characters. Ahmed (2000, p. 44) talks about how the fetishised object actually “... becomes the scene of the play of differences”, suggesting by representing the out-of-placeness, the strange body negatively defines what is familiar, what belongs. In this case and in this scene, Farhad’s foreign accent is revealed to be this kind of site of contention, seen when the owner condescendingly imitates it, highlighting its out-of-placeness. While the dialogue outlines him as not belonging and dependent on his enculturated daughter for social mobility, Farhad expresses social familiarity, imbued with a proxy of whiteness with as much privilege to be able to speak up in such heated situations. This cursorily recalibrates the socialised mainstream discourse about raced subjects as disempowered victims. The altered dialogue, however, results in, what hooks (2013) aptly terms “…. a racist quagmire”, which reinstates white supremacy. It flattens the social complexities of these lived raced embodiments, “…it denies the reality of racism” (p. 122). It glosses over the real experience of social attitudes, it also denies power dynamics and the systemic oppression of being non-white (Kim, 2013, p. 70).

 

 

Despite its representations of diverse identities, the film repeatedly places the audience’s humanity amid a white (Hollywood) perception of the other, characterising a sense of an idealised liberalism. We see this ideology personified in the young policeman, Tom Hansen, who represents the generic, and morally just white guy. For example, in a scene where his senior partner unduly pulls a black couple’s car over, the viewer is positioned with Hansen, as the camera frames his perspective of the road. The music also shifts to an eerie instrumental, foreshadowing the antagonism underscoring this incident. Hansen’s moral consciousness is evident as he steps above his junior status to adamantly proclaim what is occurring is unjust. While Officer Hansen is defiant in the majority of his scenes, he witnesses his senior partner molest the black woman during the traffic stop, Hansen just meekly looks on with disgust. During this incident, the camera is positioned with lighting highlighting the curves of her body, her body becomes an fetishised object (Ahmed, 2000, p. 44). After she’s been alleged to have been giving her husband a blowjob, she becomes adamant with the police, so in the individualistic ideology, she prompted the assault. This grating gender inequality is revealed as two other male characters in this scene are positioned “powerless voyeurs”. they are complicit in the implied understanding that it is a poor individual misuse of power, but do not try to prevent it. We can see how by reinforcing the neoliberalist framing of race, Crash also inevitably perpetuates patriarchal constraints on individual freedom.

 

These scenes perpetually frame bigotry as stemming from fathomable instinctive human fears (Kim, 2013, p. 71). Officer Hansen’s individualistic morality and ample capacity to assert his opinion, whether or not it is received, operates on white privilege (McIntosh, 1998, p. 168).  By situating us alongside this mainstream character who symbolises [white] compassion and a youthful freedom, it operates to conceal the current white supremacist basis of racism. Officer Hansen’s tenacity and empathy reaffirms the contemporary American social landscape (i.e. before Trump) as still viable and progressive.  However, insuring the central message of the film is conveyed, of “everyone is a racist”, the only killing is enacted by Tom Hansen, operating on a guttural reaction to a black hitchhiker, who he is giving a ride to. This further solidifies the premise that racism is intrinsic attribute of being human.

 

Although I have not explored every social dimension of the nullifying effect of Crash, I have cursorily shown how its candid portrayal of racism operated to substantiated the dominant libertarian discourse. The film’s intention may have been to change the narrative of racial minorities, but it unwittily revealed the underlying white supremacy. By granting minorities sufficient social mobility to overcome their life situations, it makes the rhetoric of liberal multiculturalism seem feasible. In neglecting to show the damaging effects of that ideology, the structural violence and traumatic legacies, racism still could be conceived as a personal flaw, and that way, the capitalist foundation can still be upheld.

 

Georgia Cranko