Why is the concept of culture so important? Culture can offer us insight into our own thoughts, feelings, and motivations. The bright colors and sounds of movies provide one of the strongest links of cultures from around the world. In fact, these fictionalized stories are often the only “truth” which one culture has to judge another. Academy Award movies in particular are often successful because they represent larger ideals. In 2005, a small-budget feature by the name of Crash proved this point. In a little under two hours, director Paul Haggis (Crash motion picture, 2005) brought to life a powerful series of interlocking stories that haunted audiences and wowed critics. In Crash, viewers are taken on emotional and thought-provoking journeys with several characters. Arguably the most memorable characters are the African Americans. What do these symbolic characters tell us about their lives and their culture, and how might their messages resonate in the real world of psychological counseling?

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Black culture in the movie

One aspect of the movie that I identify with is prejudice and discrimination. The movieshows interactions between many different racial groups, including Caucasians, African

Americans, Hispanics, and Arab Americans. In each ethnic interaction, verbal and physicaldiscrimination are rampant (Crash, 2005). In particular, the scenes involving black charactershave a constant underlying racial tension. For example, white police officer John Ryan isintroduced early in the movie as a bigot who hurls racial slurs at a black insurance agent. Ryanjustifies this outburst by blaming the lack of insurance coverage for his sick father on affirmativeaction programs. Later, the police officer exhibits his hatred in a more disturbing way when hepulls over a black couple, the Thayers. Ryan abuses his position of power by sexually touchingthe wife, Christine, during a “search” for weapons. The officer flaunts his actions in front of

Christine’s husband Cameron, who feels powerless to prevent the injustice being committedbefore his very eyes. Another prominent African American in the movie, car thief Anthony,justifies his criminal ways by complaining of the racial bias that he feels limits his possibilitiesfor a peaceful and normal life.I have experienced instances of prejudice and discrimination due to my race, mostly insubtle ways such as stereotyping. However, the degree of prejudice against blacks in America ishistorically overwhelming. Despite advancements, one cannot ignore the wide racial gaps thatstill exist in many areas. In economic terms alone, black families still trail white families by fortypercent income-wise (Jensen &Wosnitzer, 2006). Continued civil rights breaches are anothermatter entirely. For these reasons, blacks often identify with the oppressed. Car thief Anthony issymbolic if this cultural trait. By the movie’s conclusion, Anthony has transformed from heelinto hero by releasing a van full of slavery-bound immigrants into freedom.

            Another parallel I detected between my culture and black culture is the emphasis on connectedness between people. The opening lines in the movie speak about isolation in America:

“It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. 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, 2005). This line is spoken by an African American police officer who craves connection and meaning, and he speaks for a larger group. The entire structure of Crash is part of a popular trend in modern movies, particularly movies with minority casts. This trend focuses on inter-connected storytelling that jumps forward and backward in time and that features multiple characters in criss-crossing plots (Gormley, 2007). Crash respects this tradition, as several seemingly random events and stories are connected by a single theme: the movie’s title, crashing. Characters that seem completely isolated from each other have all interacted and had life-altering experiences together by movie’s end. The film also takes place over a one and a half day period. Such a timelines shows that events in the past influence decisions in the present and in the future (Crash motion picture, 2005).

            A final aspect of culture I noted with interest was the African American desire for achievement and validation, and how this desire impacts cultural identity. Detective Graham Waters is a perfect example of this conflict. Waters is a highly respected and admired officer and citizen. He has in many ways escaped the prison of poverty and crime that dominate the childhoods and adolescences of many inner-city black youths. Waters is a product of such an environment, and he can never completely escape this past. His mother is a drug addict, and he feels obligated to help turn his younger brother from a life of crime. But the detective still desperately wants to raise both himself and his culture out of the negativity which surrounds it. When he is confronted with the case of a possibly corrupt black cop, Waters is willing to bend the rules. He does this so that the officer will not lose his respectable standing and the black community will not lose a hero. Waters wants to keep the hope alive for every young black man that he sees himself in. The Thayers are another example of African Americans who have “succeeded.” The couple indulges in an upper-middle-class lifestyle. Also, both husband and wife come from privileged families.

However, all three ‘success stories’ find conflict with the black communities which they represent. The Thayers’ wealth is built on television programs that exploit and stereotype African Americans. Cameron shows guilt about the couple’s privilege when he insults his wife for joining upper-crust clubs in high school. When the man does encounter the experiences of so many of his fellow blacks—through his wife’s molestation and a tense stand-off with police—he finally breaks and is nearly shot to death when he pulls a gun on police officers. Likewise, Detective Graham finds himself at a crossroads of cultures when he must choose between his family and the integrity of his job. He chooses the former.

Art imitates life, as blacks in powerless and supporting roles too often mirror the actual role of blacks in American society today (Chan & Chang, 2005). Certainly, I—and I believe all people to some extent—can identify with the need for self-improvement. But I also have the benefit of a strong cultural identity which balances my goals for myself. Unfortunately, as Crash depicts, blacks in America are still caught in a struggle between two worlds. Assimilate into white culture or embrace African heritage is often the choice African Americans face.

            Counseling implications

            Crash confirms a few important assumptions about black culture. Namely, forces of oppression, connectedness, achievement needs, and identity are prominent. Perhaps themost effective means of addressing such issues is to return to the roots of African culture itself.

African psychology has a powerful heritage, and its influences are still felt in the humanistic andtranspersonal psychology movements of today. Incorporating some of these aspects intocounseling sessions with black patients could provide valuable learning tools for therapist andpatient alike.

Many of the foundations of African practices are familiar. African mystics believe that each man’s soul is connected, and forms a greater consciousness. Rhythm is also a critical component of human life, ordering everything in the universe. In order to establish rhythm for human health, Africans have devised a number of ritualistic methods to improve their own states:  particular physical postures, controlled breathing, sense withdrawal, symbols, and “wordplay” games (through which one individual interprets another’s speech). One may consider the imagery techniques employed by Western psychologists to be a polished form of these practices, and such techniques may be of more benefit to black patients. Africans also emphasize the ideals of dharma and karma.  Every action we take has a ripple effect on not only ourselves but the world as a whole. By devoting our energies to helping others, we create positive will in the world which we internalize as high self-esteem (Truett, 2002). Africans also stress the importance of developing a unifying worldview (how we make sense of the world), whether it be through religion or science or some other factor. (Harms & Schreiber, 1963). All of these processes and beliefs address the cultural issue of connectedness.

One way African psychologists handle issues of achievement and identity is through meditation practices. Meditation is all about introspection and personal growth. Everyone likely has a general understanding of how meditation works. Sit quietly in a corner, and focus the mind and body through controlled breathing, concentration, and (sometimes) the repetition of a mantra (Akhhilananda, 1999). If an individual devotes just a few moments of his or her day to this practice, then he or she will eventually reap the rewards of his efforts. If nothing else, at least the individual can escape from the stresses and tensions of the world for a few precious minutes. Although it may sound far-fetched to Western thinkers, scientists will not dispute that many individuals practicing meditation can inexplicably control heart rate, breathing, pain reflexes, and other involuntary functions quite easily. EEG changes have also been recorded in individuals practicing meditation (Hillix & Marx, 1973).

What can counselors for African Americans do on a more community-based level to aidtheir clients? One important tool for a culture that values helping the underprivileged ismentoring. Positive role models within the black community are vital for the future (Rogers,1997). The African American community has addressed this problem by forming coalitions suchas affinity groups, in which young minority workers are introduced to networking opportunitiesand events which will help them in their climb up the employment ladder. Counselors arecertainly in a position to raise awareness and bring together such efforts. Communities are, afterall, among our most powerful cultural connectors.

African psychology stresses, above all else, that each individual’s journey must be unique. In other words, the patient must ultimately discover his or her own identity. The therapist is merely an aid in this process. (Akhhilananda, 1999). If an individual can balance the craziness and upheaval within himself (and create harmony), then he can overcome any obstacle. Such is the lesson of Crash, of psychology, and of humanity’s quest for understanding:

Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will becometroubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over allthings (Truett, 2002, p. 2).


Akhhilananda. (1999). African Psychology: Its Meaning for the West.  London: Routledge.

Chan, S. & Chang, J. (2005). Can white Hollywood get race right? Retrieved September 21,

            2007, from Alternet:

Crash. (2005). Retrieved September 21, 2007, from Internet Movie Database:

Crash motion picture. (2005). Retrieved September 21, 2007, from Lion’s Gate Entertainment:


Gormley, P. (2007). rash and the city. Retrieved September 21, 2007, from Dark Matter:


Harms, E. & Schreiber, P.  (1963). Handbook of Counseling Techniques. New York: Pergamon

Press. 308-331.

Hillix, W.A. & Marx, M.H.  (1973). Systems and Theories in Psychology, 2. New York:

McGraw-Hill Book Company. 520-578.

Jensen, R. & Wosnitzer, R. (2006). ‘Crash’ and the self-indulgence of white America. Black

            Commentator, 176, 14-15.

Rogers, J. (1997). Voices from African Americans in the field. Retrieved September 21, 2007,

            from World Wide Web:

Truett, W.A.  (2002). Indian psychology. Retrieved September 21, 2007, from Sanatan


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