Black or White or Red All Over
We have to wonder if the casting call for Cameron and Christine Thayer asked for actors on the lighter end of the Starbucks Skin Scale. Maybe somewhere between "Café au Lait" and "Would you like some coffee with that milk?" More so than for any other characters in Crash, the exact skin tone of the Thayers is important.
Their story begins after they are pulled over by Officers Ryan and Hanson. Ryan spots Christine, um, operating Cameron's gear shift, shall we say, while he's driving the vehicle. Ryan is hostile toward Cameron, and Christine accuses Ryan of pulling them over because he thought she was white and he was jealous that a white lady was engaged in a sex act with a Black man.
Is she jumping to conclusions, or is she right? Would the Thayers have been treated this way if they were white?
It doesn't matter, because Christine's reaction shows us that she has grappled with her racial identity before. Prior to this, we can infer that she has seen people treat her like they might treat a cup of coffee if they ordered it with cream but then got it Black. People treat her one way if they think she's white—her light skin tone and her accent allow her to "pass"—and then treat her in a different way once they discover she's Black. For her, race is a pretty nuanced matter.
Christine's internal conflict about her race becomes an external one in her relationship with Cameron. She is angry that he submitted to the white cop, and she taunts him for hiding his Blackness.
CHRISTINE: Let me hear it again. Thank you, mister policeman. You sure is mighty kind to us poor Black folk. You be sure to let me know next time you wanna finger-f*** my wife.
However, even when she tries to bring the issue up in a less aggressive manner, Cameron dismisses her concerns.
CHRISTINE: I got scared, Cam. It's not like I haven't been pulled over before. You know? But not like that. And, yes, I was a little drunk. And I was mouthing off. I'm sorry. But when that man was putting his hands on me…
CAMERON: I don't want to talk about it.
Christine doesn't know that Cameron is struggling with his own racial identity. As a television director, Cameron benefits from being "whiter" than other Black guys. We imagine that if someone made a joke about him being an Oreo, he would laugh—but maybe feel guilty for doing so.
His struggle is evident when Fred, who appears to be a TV producer, brings up the issue of race in the episode they're filming.
FRED: This is weird for a white guy to say, but have you noticed he's talking a lot less "Black" lately? […] Like in this scene, he's supposed to say "don't be talkin' 'bout that", and he changed it to "don't talk to me about that."
CAMERON: You think because of that the audience won't recognize him as a Black man?
FRED: All I'm saying it's not his character. Eddie is supposed to be the smart one, not Jamal, right? You're the expert here, but to me it rings false.
Fred tries to deflect the matter away from race, but Cameron accurately picks up on the racist undertones in Fred's criticism. When Fred says that someone is "talking a lot less Black," Cameron understands that underneath, what Fred means is that someone is "sounding a lot smarter." That means that Fred is equating Black with dumb, which offends Cameron. But to keep his job, Cameron has to submit to Fred's request. What show are they working on? Two Half-Black Men?
Girl on Fire
Cameron's and Christine's stories both culminate in tense encounters with the police. Christine is involved in a fiery car accident, after which she must be rescued by the cop who sexually assaulted her at the beginning of the movie. It's humiliating for her, and when she is being led away by paramedics, she looks back at Ryan and shakes her head.
Why does she do that? Does she forgive him for what he did at the beginning of the movie? Or is she telling him that he doesn't deserve her thanks just for doing his job?
As for Cameron, after he's carjacked by Anthony, he makes the ludicrous (har har) decision to flee the cops. The police chase him as if he were the carjacker. When they corner him, he gets out of the car and taunts them.
CAMERON: You get on your knees and suck my motherf***ing dick while you down there! […] That's what you look like, a f***ing joke to me.
Whoa. That feels like it comes out of nowhere, but it's really Cameron's simmering rage bubbling to the surface. Is there a different way he could have handled his anger? Christine has been wanting Cameron to be more "Black" for the entire movie, and Cameron expresses his Blackness in a "screw the police" moment. Is that because it's the only role our society allows Black men to take on? Is this the only language Cameron can use to make his point?
Anyway, Cameron, like his wife, is rescued by a white cop. This time, it's Officer Hanson. The two have an exchange.
HANSON: Look, I'm trying to help you.
CAMERON: I didn't ask for your help, did I?
Cameron has a point. He wants to stand up to the police, but Officer Hanson steps in with his white savior routine. Should Cameron be grateful to Hanson for intervening? Whose side do the filmmakers want us to be on?
The scene ends with Cameron going from Ice Cube to Bill Cosby, lecturing Anthony on how he thinks Black people should behave. In the car, he tells Anthony:
CAMERON: You embarrass me. You embarrass yourself.
Cameron is angry with Anthony, because Anthony's actions make all Black people look bad in the eyes of the majority. But should every individual Black person feel responsible for making sure their race is viewed in a positive light? When Cameron chastises Anthony, which part of his racial identity is he speaking from? The Black side, or the white side? Is race ever that simple?