Monday, February 25, 2008

Culture Crash

“Issues of gender, class, nation, race, religion and sexuality all meet, and sometimes crash, at the intersection.”
-Ella Shohat, Talking Visions

I’ve only seen the film “Crash” once. But one viewing was all it took for me to realize how much I disliked the 2005 Academy Award winner for best picture. While the acting was spot on, I found the narrative to be contrived and sensationalistic and the characters to be so self-involved that they bordered on autistic. To boot, the film seemed to reinforce many of the stereotypes it seemingly sets out to counteract.

Despite my strong feelings against the film, I admit that I’ve had moments in which the Los Angeles portrayed in “Crash” surfaces. In this Los Angeles, it’s not just every man for himself, but every minority group for itself also.

I most recently felt myself being sucked into the Los Angeles of “Crash” about a week ago, when a middle-aged white gay man I know (I’ll call him Paul) approached me to bemoan the fact that an employee at a hotel we’d just visited didn’t speak a word of English. There was no venom in his tone, just exasperation that this particular employee couldn’t direct him to the bathroom because he lacked the language ability to do so.

In response, I shrugged my shoulders, but our young Chicana acquaintance (I’ll call her Liberty) chipped in, “What’s wrong with that?”

That’s when things began to get uncomfortable. Paul started to fidget in place, perhaps realizing that his remark wasn’t just an observation of sorts but a judgment or, better yet, a complaint that extended beyond the hotel worker and to entire groups of people. The complaint’s underlying message? “I’m sick of these people inconveniencing me by not speaking English.”

In response to Liberty’s question, Paul stammered out, “Nothing.” And to diffuse the tension in the air, I asked Paul if he knew any Spanish. He didn’t need to know a whole phrase, I assured him, but useful words. Had he known the Spanish word for bathroom, for example, the man would have done what he could have to help him, I said.

I know that some will argue otherwise, that this is America and everyone here needs to speak English, but that’s a debate I’ll save for another time. Suffice it to say now that I believe that the bridge goes both ways. America did not start out with an official language and considering that the country’s global competitors produce citizens that are often quadrilingual, it would behoove us to have some familiarity with other languages.

Liberty agreed with me that knowing a word or two of Spanish would have likely helped Paul out, that the hotel worker wasn’t somehow conspiring against him by not speaking English. Then, suddenly, the conversation took an unexpected turn.

“Yeah, you try speaking Chinese,” Liberty told Paul, proceeding to lapse into sentences of ching-chongery that would have boiled the blood of the blogger over at

After unleashing one ching-chong after another, Liberty started to imitate an Asian nail manicurist. “I do yo nail fo five dollah,” she said in her best broken English.

By this time Paul had lost interest in the conversation, but my eyes began to bulge in surprise that Liberty could have gone from correcting Paul for being culturally insensitive only to exhibit behavior that was arguably more so.

Is the Los Angeles depicted in “Crash” not so far off the mark, after all? Yet, it was in this city and not my native, notoriously segregated Chicago that I learned, as critic Ella Shohat posits, “genders, sexualities, races, classes, nations, and even continents exist not as hermetically sealed entities but rather as parts of a permeable interwoven relationality.”

What to make of it then when scenarios such as the one above occur here? Is ethnocentrism responsible or is ignorance, othering or plain old hypocrisy? I’m not sure. What I do know is that I didn’t call Liberty on her behavior. And, by doing so, by giving into a mixture of apathy and a desire not to ruffle any more feathers that day, I missed out on the opportunity to crash not in a way that would result in cultural divisiveness but in a way that may have resulted in cultural connection.


Mandy said...

I absolutely hate that movie, and not just because Sandra Bullock actually plays someone who isn't 100% nice for once. I resent the depiction of Los Angeles in that manner (especially by a Canadian--how easy it is to throw stones from north of the border!) but you'd have to be a fool, I suppose, to say that hatred, ignorance, racism, etc., doesn't exist in the LA metro area. It sadly exists in a number of places. Maybe it's one of those "hard to take a look in the mirror and deal with what you see" situations--like with your friends Paul and Liberty. You expect good things from these folks, and (seem to be) genuinely shocked by their prejudices and insensitivity. It's hard when you believe in humanity and it sometimes doesn't live up to your expectations.

Word. Nice post, Nadra. Not that I'm surprised by your brilliance.

Nittle said...

Three of my favorite quotes on race:

"One day our descendants will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin or the shape of our eyes or our gender instead of the unique identities of each of us as complex human beings."  ~ Franklin Thomas

"To live anywhere in the world today and be against equality because of race or color is like living in Alaska and being against snow."  ~William Faulkner, Essays, Speeches and Public Letters

"At the heart of racism is the religious assertion that God made a creative mistake when He brought some people into being." - Friedrich Otto Hertz