Zadie Smith’s White Teeth paints a multicultural portrait of 20th century Britain, when racial tensions were still at large. During World War II, Britain was in desperate need of more workers, thus immigration was encouraged. As a need for labor stimulated immigration, an influx of immigrants sparked racism. Despite the inherent exclusivity of the word “minority” it almost becomes a blanket term in which to group all seemingly substandard races. Smith’s cast of characters is a salad bowl of English, Bengalis, and Jamaicans all of whom face very different struggles. The story’s first generation immigrants Clara, Samad, and Alsana are often brutally discriminated against; wheras Archie sees racism by proxy through Clara. Samad and Alsana martyr themselves by refusing to assimilate to a culture that they feel has already rejected them. In result of that same supposition, they also observe reverse racism against the enemy that they feel so prominently victimized by, which tends to be members of the lower class who feel disenfranchised by the presence of immigrants. Perhaps succumbing to their teenage insecurities second-generation immigrants Magid, Millat and Irie conform in an attempt to thrive in a society where they realize their parents are bitterly stunted.
The story opens with the attempted suicide of Alfred Archibald Jones, an Englishmen who is recently divorced. The attempt is foiled, and Archie finds solace in the disruption. His epiphany, that the earth must need him alive, manifests in the optimism that defines his character throughout the novel. As a native born, white male in Britain he faces the least amount of adversity, especially in comparison to the other apparently polarizing characters. Archie’s only tastes of racism occur when his boss, Mr.Hero, revokes Archie’s invitation to company events reasoning that it is unpleasant for people to have to look at his Jamaican, toothless wife while they eat. Benevolent Archie is unaffected by the assertion.
Clara Bowden was raised by her mother, a devout Jehovah’s witness, of Jamaican descent. Like most teenagers, Clara struggled with her identity. The strict life of a Jehova’s witness paled in comparison to the attractiveness of Western pop culture, seemingly free of morals. Clara eventually dismisses most of the values from her upbringing and marries a white Englishmen- much to her mother’s disgust. Clara and Archie decided to repudiate religion and heritage, in an attempt to raise their daughter Irie in a family free of dogma. Clara is happily submissive and forgiving to a fault. She does not object to any type of racial slur made against her. She accepts her Jamaican lineage, but at the same time perceives it as devaluing. She believes that ones race is directly correlated with ones potential, and thus ones future is basically mapped upon inception. When Joyce affronts that Irie’s intelligence is an inconceivable anomaly in relation to her race and social class, Clara assuages that it’s probably due to her white grandfather. Clara disregards the offensiveness of Joyce’s suggestion, and hopelessly accepts her race’s stigma as fact. She’s been indoctrinated with discrimination for so long that she recognizes her minority status as not just her burden, but societies burden. Her only advantage at this point comes from acknowledging her intrinsic downfall, hoping that she can mitigate some of the ignorance that she presumes is naturally within her. Ironically, it is societies ignorance that has caused her to believe this to be true.
Irie Ambrosia Jones talks and acts like any other British teenager, but one must look no further to understand her trials. She’s Jamaican, from her exotic hair right down to her voluptuous rump. Her peers regard her as inferior because of her physicality, and therefore Irie reasons that to increase her innate value she must adhere to Western standards of beauty. Her passivity comes from her mother, yet Irie takes bigoted attacks as constructive criticism rather than irrevocable truths. Irie is hopeful that she can rise socially if only she regresses introspectively, whereas Clara is too brainwashed with discrimination to even fathom equality.
Alsana and Samad exhibit reverse racism in an attempt to hold onto their culture. They’re immersed in a world that doesn’t understand or seem willing to tolerate them; therefore they’ve deemed everyone outside of their own faith as irrelevant and amoral. To assimilate is to destroy their lineage. In spite of their acrimonious portrayal of other racial groups, they find comfort in Archie and Clara. Upon first meeting, however, Alsana prejudged Clara to be trashy and ill mannered, which no doubt went on her “con list” (55). “Black people are often friendly” Alsana generalized, adding this swiftly to the record of races she kept in her head (55). Though the aforementioned comment is complimentary on a superficial level, it also implies that all black people are of the same disposition.
When Alsana learns of her niece Neena’s betrayal she regards her with fury. She very much so carries an “us against them” mentality, and to adopt English culture is treason. When Milliat and Irie began their lessons with the Chaflens, she fears the same fate for the children. She believes they’re being preyed upon and indoctrinated with British culture, “they are like birds with teeth, with sharp little canines–they don’t just steal, they rip apart!” (285).
It’s human nature to reject what we don’t understand. What we don’t understand seems threatening. Samad Miad Iqbal sees no need to immerse himself in British culture, or to regard Britain at all. To him, Bangledash is not only his home but his moral, ethical and spiritual compass. It’s also where he’s comfortable. Britain and all its lavishness have sucked in his children and threaten to destroy the traditions of his lineage. His response is to counterattack. At a school governors meeting, he demands that the school celebrate a Muslim holiday rather than the annual Harvest festival. The suggestion is of course shot down, as the school has its own tradition- only adding to Samad’s martyrdom. He regards this as a final rejection of himself and his family. He believes there is no way for him to be a part of this world.
Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubatsim Iqbal, son of Samad and Alsana, strays from his Bengli and Muslim roots. Magid is more invested in the English education that he’s required to undergo, rather than the Muslim education that his parents encourage. His parents become alarmed by Magid’s rebelliousness, especially when they learn of Magid’s pseudonym, Mark Smith- clearly an attempt to normalize himself with his classmates. Magid knows that his father has come to regard the Harvest festival as everything that is unjust with British culture, but he simply doesn’t care. Magid does not simply wish to conform to English morales, he wants to be English. At times it seems as though Magid feels superior to his family because of his English education, perhaps because at that place and time his education is more relevant. Although Samad thinks that sending Magid to Bengladesh will help Magid understand his heritage, it only makes Magid more iconoclastic. His father romanticizes his own past in Bengladash, perhaps because at least there he was seen as an equal, but Magid sees the city in ruin and distress.
Millat Zulfikar Iqbal has accepted English culture, but one issue he finds is the way women dress. One of Millat’s many love interests, Karina Cain, frequently shows off her stomach. Millat believes that she is “prostituting herself to the male gaze. Particularly white males. Because that’s how it worked between Western men and Western women, wasn’t it? They liked to do it all in public. The more he thought about it, the more it pissed him off. Why couldn’t she cover up? Who was she trying to impress?” (309). Millat views the preceding behavior as Karina not respecting herself. This is where the western and eastern views seem to conflict. In western culture if a girl is dressed provocatively, she’s often met with disdain or jealousy from fellow females and lust from males. Karina asserts that she doesn’t dress for Mallit or anyone else; she dresses for herself (309). In eastern society it tends to insinuate insecurity and a lack of respect for one’s own body and therefore ones family. Karina and those of similar fashion inclinations are harlots who will probably never marry suitable husbands. When Millat addresses his confusion and concern to Shiva, she shares his confusion but with a bitter twist, “Don’t talk to me about white women. It’s got to the point in the West where women are men! I mean, they’ve got the same desires and urges as men-they want it all the fucking time. And they dress like they want everyone to know they want it” (309). In their culture men and women have clearly established roles. Sexual urges are exclusively masculine. Karina’s implication of sexuality is vulgar because it’s coming from a woman, even though she proudly declares that she dresses to please herself, not the desires of man.
If Irie Jones had her way heritage would play a mediocre role in the present and future lives of individuals. Sadly, however, this wish seems to be far fetched. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth certaintly illustrates the struggles of multiculturism. Racism becomes a key trait throughout the novel. While Archie plays the protagonist who is for the most part free of racism, his wife Clara has been so beaten down by the racial slurs made against her that she eventually comes to accept them as fact. Although Samad tells Archie “that land they call ‘India’ goes by a thousand names and is populated by millions, and if you think you have found two men the same of that magnitude, then you are mistaken. It is merely a trick of the moonlight.” (85) However Samad’s hypocritical behavior throughout the novel hardly leads him to believe his own mantra is true about other communities and his wife, Alsana follows his lead. The second-generation immigrants of the novel Irie, Magid, and Millat have conformed to the Western values that they have been taught, although Millat protests against the way Western women dress. Smith’s White Teeth ultimately depicts the social realism of the racism that spurs as a result of a multicultural society by venturing through generations of English, Bengali, and Jamaican cultures.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. New York: Vintage International, 2000. Print.