Cultural Identity, Assimilation And Hybridity In Jadie Smith’s Novel White Teeth

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Identity, a concept that is unwillingly beyond one’s control, constantly restricting and limiting an individual’s capabilities. In the novel White Teeth, the reader is immediately exposed to a variety of situations and cultural legacies of three uniquely different families residing in London, England; The Joneses, Iqbals, and Chaflens. Each family having contrasting ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Taking place in post-colonial Britain, Smith sets the stage for a medley of different ethnicities, and a diverse melting pot of unique cultures rising in the late 20th century of modern London. Smith actively highlights problems such as the association with an individual’s roots, and deeply explores the world of multicultural families living in decolonized England. Samad fears losing the cultural identity he associates with, while Irie conforms into western society and European beauty standards to fit in, and Millat adapts to various different identities and uses it to please the people around him. Zadie Smith effectively uses characterization to shape and reinforce the theme of facing internal struggles with identity due to dominant cultures in the invigorating novel, White Teeth.

Finding himself in the in-betweens of contrasting or assimilating to western culture, Samad is an immoral and hypocritical character that is ultimately obsessed with his Bengali culture, being Muslim, and making sure his family is too. Samad realizes he has made continuous mistakes in his life, and finds himself continuously mentioning his past to hide the inner struggle of belonging he feels within his own current society. He prioritizes fixing the people around him rather than fixing himself. While Archie and Samad reminisce on their past during WWII, his frustration is described by the narrator, and highlights how he “wished to defend a country that wasn’t his and revenge the killing of men who would not have acknowledged him in a civilian Street” (Smith 95). This quote seamlessly allows the reader to establish a deeper understanding that Samad believes he is not welcomed nor acknowledged in his own neighbourhood, and that even if he fought for his country he remains disrespected. As Elid Özkan adds, Samad “feels the inferiority and otherness as a foreign colonized soldier”. Samad further proclaims how he wants to wear a sign saying:

I am not a waiter. I have been a student, a scientist, a soldier, my wife is called Alsana, we live in East London but we would like to move North. I am a Muslim but Allah has forsaken or I have forsaken Allah, I’m not sure I have a friend – Archie – and others. I am forty-nine but women still turn in the street. 

This quote proceeds to highlight Samad’s frustration with the world, and how he wishes he was not automatically labeled dependent on his race and religion. This frustration is further explored as Samad explains that he resides in a society “where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated . . . it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognizable, you belong nowhere.” Explaining how he witnesses his own self being washed away and replaced with something unrecognizable. Throughout the novel Samad continues to push this idea that that each individual goes on to pursue their own lives. That as diverse people, not everyone should need to be on the same page to accept and understand one another. Samad says; “In the end, your past is not my past and your truth is not my truth and your solution – it is not my solution”. Özkan goes further and expresses that “Samad suffers from the way society regards and judges his identity as he cannot truly raise his voice about who he actually is, since he has the feeling of ‘other’ in the society”. There is a constant theme of otherness and being outcasted that we see throughout various characters in the novel, Samad is just one example of an array of different scenarios in which one feels unhappy with their identity due to society. Samad fears that his children are growing up in an immoral community, and that he “Never should have brought his sons to Britain, so far from God. Willesden Green! Calling-cards in sweetshop windows, Judy Blume in the school, condom on the pavement, Harvest festival, teacher-temptresses!” (Smith, 145). Samad being a first generation immigrant, has realized that he has spent a majority of his life trying to find himself, and fears that his cultural traditions as a Benglali and a Muslim are not being directly translated to his children.. K. Pavicic Ivelja states Samad fears that one day:

“There will no longer be Samad Miah Iqbal. The Bengali Muslim will be replaced by Sam Ick-Ball, an Englishman with a queer sounding surname, Londoners in place of sons, white babies instead of grandhildren and definielty no famous military strategist grandfather Mangal Pande. He will become someone else – a stranger to his own self.” 

Ivelja explains that Samad does not want to adhere to British culture nor lose his own identity in the process of creating a life in Britain. He is losing every ounce of identity he used to associate with, and sooner or later he will become a more westernized version of everything he never wanted to be.

In addition, the twins of Samad Iqbal; Magid Iqbal, and Millat Iqbal, sharing the same DNA, are an example of two polar opposite characters that are very different in their personal identities. They portray the contrast in how one may choose to face this dilemma of instability in their own cultural identities, family relations, and how one perceives ‘culture’. Magid and Mallat challenge Samad’s belief that identity is something that can be constructed or made from scratch, something that you can put some elbow grease into and call a day. This can be seen when Samad’s plan to send Magid to Bangladesh so Magid can become a traditional, and well-educated Islam backfires, and Magid returns home an atheist. Focusing in on Millat alone, throughout the novel the reader can acknowledge that Millat is a troublesome and reckless, typical ‘western’ child. Millat grows up listening to rock music and wearing Levi jeans, but then bewildering enough converts to a religious Islamic extremist group. Smith decribes Millat, saying he was “Neither one thing nor the other, this or that, Muslim or Christian, Englishman or Bengali: he lived for the in-between, he lived up to his middle name, Zulfikar, the clashing of two swords.” Millat is neither more Western nor Bengali, and he realizes the English influence is inescapable. Moreover, he continues to be a part of this religious group out of his own personal gain, seeing how his own father struggles with faith and uses this fact to cover up his own internal impurity. Millat says “Samad prays five times a day but he still drinks and doensn’t have any Muslim friends.” With that being said. Millat does not know where he falls in terms of identity, he accepted KEVIN as his identity but does not follow through on what that means as a member of this group. Millat accepts the identity but not the beliefs that follow. Smith states,

‘To the cockney wide-boys in the white jeans and the coloured shirts, he was the joker, the risk-taker, respected lady-killer. To the black kids he was fellow weed-smoker and valued customer. To the asian kids, hero and spokesman. Social chameleon. And underneath it all, there remained an ever present anger and hurt, the feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere.’ 

Similarly to the previously mentioned characters, Mallat finds it extremely difficult to know who he is as a person in society. It is hard for him to identify himself, as he is everyone and everything. He adapts to the western society he is surrounded by, and exposes himself to drugs, sex, and being a troublesome deliquent at his school to reflect this assimilation. As Gunhild Iversen mentions, “To Millat, identity is a posture adapted for the benefit of others.” Millat sees identity as a sort of performance to put on for others, and is no longer “an innate, apriori quality, but an articulated ‘skin’ between the individual and the world … and a result to being conceptualized and verbalized. With this understanding that he belongs everywhere, it is understood that he ultimately has nothing to identify with. Millat overall is an example of a lost character that associates with everything, to the point where he struggles to pin-point any personal identity within himself.

Irie herself is another character who struggles with racial identity, which makes her run away from her own roots and family history. Being Irie is half British, more of her effort goes into acting and behaving British due to the want to fit into the dominating society that surrounds her. The narrator in the novel explains that “Irie Jones didn’t know she was fine. There was England, a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie, without reflection. A stranger in a stranger land” (Smith 266). Although Irie was born in Britain, she does not feel comfortable where she is growing up. Feeling alienated in her hometown leads to her attempting to change her appearance and habits to fit in. We see this when she decides to straighten her hair, and spend a majority of her time with the Chaflens, a white middle-class family that are “more English than the English”. As a character, Irie seems to be more focused on pleasing the people around her rather than herself. The narrator states:

Here, the impossible desire for straightness and “movement” fought daily with the stubborn discrimination of the curved African dolicle; ammonia, hot combs, clips, pins, and simple fire had all been enlisted in the war and doing their damnedest to beat each curly into submission.

Irie wanting to straighten her hair is just the beginning of a spiral of wanting to seem the utmost British and to conform to western society, due to her fear of being ostracized otherwise. Katleen O’Grady further states, “Irie’s self-mortification in the quest for beauty is not just an individual battle”, O’Grady explains that in society, there are thousands of young girls alike Irie facing the same challenges, and that are all “striving for European straightness”. To combat this feeling of otherness, and instability, that Irie is experiencing, she realizes that she needs to expose herself to her roots and ancestors. Throughout the novel Irie develops this deeper understanding that the current dilemma she is facing is most likely the bi-product and therefore consequence of not being exposed to her familial roots sooner. Furthermore, Irie explores her roots in the chapter “The Root Canals of Hortense Bowden” and learns about her racial history as a Jamaican. This inspires her to create an identity for herself rather than assimilate into the British society she feels inferior against. As a result, Irie overcomes this dilemma by finally coming to terms with both her British and Jamican side. Smith’s choice to inform the reader on the characters past further entails the alienating conflict between local and original culture, and showcases the characters overcoming their struggles with identity. Irie is a strong example of character development as she learns and goes through this process of coming to terms with her racial history, transcultural hybridity, and further learning to appreciate the ideas she previously despised.

Issues regarding identity have been recurring and are becoming more apparent. The uncertainty for the future of one’s ethnic identity remains, reason being as globalization progresses, there is little to no room for such ordeals. In the novel, Samad feels conflicted between being moral and traditional, or living up to his actions and to who he really is as a person who has failed to follow the morals of his religion. Irie struggles to accept her own culture, and battles between this need to conform by assimilating into western culture to be accepted. Millat finds himself struggling to find his identity as he falls in between a variety of different associations that he has adapted into. The novel White Teeth includes a diverse and well rounded set of complex characters that each offer a uniquely extreme cultural background. White Teeth discusses the issues society faces before fully being developed into an inclusive and multicultural nation, and portrays the flaws and struggles of immigrants who feel alienated and unsure of who they are and who they will become. In the novel White Teeth, the theme of facing internal struggles with identity due to dominant cultures can be directly applied to everyday life as people of an evolving society. Some immigrants come to more developed countries to earn money, then return to their homeland. Others look for a better standard of living. It is then easily deemed difficult to then be openly able to express oneself, especially when surrounded by an unfamiliar, unknown culture that is highly impressionable. Smith effectively takes on this idea of struggles with two generations of immigrants, in regards to the preservation of rooted tradition or the loss thereof. 

Overall, by using characterization, Zadie Smith effectively reinforces the theme of one’s struggle with identity, due to the dominating cultures that they reside in, in her debut novel White Teeth. 


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