Multiculturalism in Zadie Smith's "White Teeth"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

19 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Multiculturalism, transculturality and the national form

3. Character Analysis
3.1. Samad Iqbal
3.2. Irie Jones

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“With White Teeth (2000), Zadie Smith (*1975) landed both a critical and a popular success.” (Nowak 2010: 585). According to Schmidt (2011: 436), White Teeth is an “extensive panorama of multicultural London”1. There has even been widespread praise for White Teeth as “the definitive representation of twentieth-century British multiculturalism” (cf. Cuevas 2008: 176; Head 2003: 106).

Today's media are dominated by the debate around what is perhaps best described as 'identity politics' in British life. Do we want a multicultural society? Do we already have one? If so, is its existence an affront to the 'native' British', whoever they may be? Modern postcolonial Britain has constituent parts that have originated in the Caribbean, in the Indian subcontinent, and in Africa; in fact, in all corners of the globe. It is precisely this helpless heterogeneity2 that Zadie Smith recognises and celebrates in her wonderfully poised firstnovel, White Teeth (Phillips 2000: 283).

In accordance with Bentley (2008: 52), White Teeth3 includes an ambitious range of characters and narratives that represent the multicultural nature of contemporary Britain and shows how historical factors affect the ways in which people in the present relate to each other. It is a novel interested in analyzing the Zeitgeist of contemporary Britain through issues of multiculturalism, ethnic diversity and colonial legacies. At one level White Teeth embraces ideas of pluralism and the coming together of different cultures, ethnicities and races, but it also shows the problems for individuals caught up within a postcolonial world (ibid.).

Due to the fact that the term multicultural society, which is politically implicated in a heavy way, has been controversely discussed4, multiculturalism has to be defined in the context of this seminar paper (cf. Sommer 2001: 37). In the following, this seminar paper will focus on transculturality by mainly referring to Homi K. Bhabha's “concept of hybridity and what he calls the third space” (Bentley 20) which Bhabha developed in contrast to multiculturalism5 (cf. Sommer 2001: 50). Furthermore, “Stuart Hall's concept of new ethnicities” (Bentley 2008: 20), which deals with “the historical development of racial politics” (ibid.: 21), will be outlined.

In the following character analysis, with regard to Bhabha's third space, this seminar paper will examine whether Samad Iqbal and Irie Jones are able to create such a third space or not.

In the following conclusion, the findings of this seminar paper will be summarized.

2. Multiculturalism, transculturality and the national form

According to Sommer (2001: 37), multiculturalism can be considered a ubiquitous phenomenon6: ’’There are few societies in the world today not marked by multicultural heterogeneity of one kind and degree or another.” (Goldberg 1994: ix; also see Sommer 2001: 37). Nevertheless, although ethnic homogeneity is fiction to a large extent, multiculturalism is frequently regarded as a threat7 (cf. Sommer 2001:37).

Transculturality, which can be seen as a continuation of multiculturalism, becomes important in the context of this seminar paper because transcultural approaches have a basically positive attitude towards cultural hybridization, cosmopolitan globalization and ethnic fragmentation8. Transcultural concepts develop optimistic alternative drafts to 'classic' multicultural models of assimilation or difference to the point of visions in terms of the dissolution of stable cultural identities9 (cf. Sommer 2001:48).

With reference to the postcolonial debate, the programmatic concept of transculturality by Bhabha, who criticizes multiculturalism as political exoticism without consequence, has been dominating this debate since the publication of Bhabha's essay collection TheLocation of Culture (1994)10 (cf. Sommer 2001: 50):

It is significant that the productive capacities of this Third Space have a colonial or postcolonial provenance. For a willingness to descend into the alien territory - where I have led you - may reveal that the theoretical recognition of the split-space of enunciation may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture's hybridity. To that end we should remember that it is the 'inter' - the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the inbetween space - that carries the burden of the meaning of culture. It makes it possible to begin envisaging national, anti­nationalist histories of the 'people'. And by exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves. (Bhabha 1994: 39; also see Sommer 2001: 50-51).

Bhabha's concept is aimed at the overcoming of the national state11 (cf. Sommer 51):

[...] Bhabha rejects the well-defined and stable identity associated with the national form. It is not that he rejects national identity entirely, but that he wants to keep such identity open. He achieves this by examining the 'narration' of nations [...]. Nations have their own narratives, but very often a dominant or official narrative overpowers all other stories, including those of minority groups. Such minority or marginalized groups have privileged perspectives on the rethinking of national identities, helping to make them more inclusive and realistic. (Huddart 2006: 101-102).

According to Huddart (2006: 118), Bhabha's rethinking of the narration of nation invites us to remake education, particularly perhaps English studies, to accord with the realities of hybridity rather than idealized projections of coherence.

Another theory which has proved useful in this context is Stuart Hall's concept of new ethnicities (cf. Bentley 2008: 21). In accordance with Bentley (2008: 21), Hall identifies two trends in the historical development of racial politics, the first being when 'black' became an important signifier of cultural identity and allowed for a politics of resistance against racism in Britain. This involved challenging the use of black stereotypes in mainstream literature and culture, a process that gained ground from the 1950s onwards. It also championed the development of what became recognized as 'Black British' art and literature12. The second context developed from the first and recognized that, in practice, there is a range of marginalized positions, a fact that complicates the idea of a unified 'black' subject in opposition to a 'white' subject. (Bentley 2008: 21).

Due to the fact that, according to Pérez Fernández (2009: 158), identity and its performative character become an issue once the idea of belonging to a place - that is, the connection between space and self - is broken, the characters of Samad Iqbal (first-generation immigrant) and Irie Jones (second-generation immigrant) will be analyzed with reference to Bhabha's third space.

3. Character Analysis 3.1 Samad Iqbal

Samad Iqbal is a first-generation immigrant that feels dislocated and alienated in London. Samad has not fully arrived in London, and still has the status of a migrant in an intermediate position (cf. Schaff 2009: 285): ”He represents a diasporic identity and only survives with the help of the intact memory of this roots, home, history, and community.” (Schaff 2009: 285).

Nearly all of Samad's thinking revolves around his own and his twins Magid's and Millat's cultural values and orientations. As much as Samad regrets and attempts to fight Magid's assimilation into Western culture in Britain, he is himself 'corrupted' by Western ways of life due to the fact that he states in a fit of moral self-confession after he has interfered with ('killed') his son playing a video game, for example (cf. Hallet 2011: 55-56):

Samad closed his eyes and forced his eyeballs to roll up as far as possible in his head, in the hope that his brain might impact upon them, a self-blinding, if he could achieve it, on a par with that other victim of Western corruption, Oedipus. Think: I want another woman. Think: I've killed my son. I swear. I eat bacon. I regularly slap the salami. I drink Guinness. My best friend is a kaffir non-believer. I tell myself if I rub up and won without using hands it does not count. But oh it does count. It all counts on the great counting board of He who counts. What will happen come Mahshar? How will I absolve myself when the Last Judgement comes? (WT 148-149; also see Hallet 2011:56).

On the one hand, this excerpt shows that Samad longs for a clear cultural orientation and ethnic purity, “the very idea of belonging” (WT 407; also see Hallet 2011: 56) to belong to one pure, i.e. Muslim culture which is connected with his Bangladeshi origin and his family roots in the history of the anti-colonial Indian mutiny.


1 Original text: “Zadie Smiths erster Roman ist ein umfangreiches Panorama des multikulturellen London [...].” (Schmidt 2011: 436).

2 “From the 1950s onwards Britain has developed into a multicultural nation as groups of people moved from parts of the Caribbean, South East Asia and Africa (as well as other parts of the world) and settled in Britain, often in communities that gathered together in Britain's urban areas. This series of diasporas has changed the face of British society and culture in profound ways, but has not always been a smooth process.” (Bentley 2008: 17).

3 “ White Teeth is best categorised as a postmodernist historical novel [...].” (Pirker 2007: 56).

4 Original text: “Der Begriff der multikulturellen Gesellschaft ist [...] stark politisch besetzt und wird kontrovers [...] diskutiert [...].” (Sommer 2001: 37).

5 Original text: “Bhabha kritisiert Multikulturalität als politisch folgenlosen Exotismus und entwickelt in Abgrenzung dazu seine Konzepte des 'Dritten Ortes' und der kulturellen Hybridität” (Sommer 2001: 50).

6 Original text: “Multikulturalität ist ein allgegenwärtiges Phänomen [...]. (Sommer 2001: 37).

7 Original text: “Auch wenn ethnische Homogenität weitgehend Fiktion ist, wird Multikulturalität aber häufig als Bedrohung empfunden.” (Sommer 2001: 37).

8 Originaltext: “[...] [A]lstranskulturell [werden] diejenigen Ansätzebezeichnet, die der kulturellen Hybridisierung, kosmopolitischen Globalisierung und ethnischen Fragmentierung [...] grundsätzlich positiv gegenüberstehen.” (Sommer 2001: 48).

9 Original text: “Sie [transkulturelle Konzepte] entwickeln optimistische Gegenentwürfe zu den 'klassischen' multikulturellen Assimilations- oder Differenzmodellen bis hin zu Visionen von der Auflösung fester kultureller Identitäten.“ (Sommer 2001: 48).

10 Original text: “Dies gilt besonders für das programmatische Transkulturalitätskonzept, mit dem Bhabha seit der Publikation seiner Aufsatzsammlung The Location of Culture (1994) die postkoloniale Debatte beherrscht. Bhabha kritisiert Multikulturalität als politisch folgenlosen Exotismus [...].” (Sommer 2001: 50).

11 Original text: “Es geht ihm [Bhabha] vielmehr um die Überwindung des Nationalstaats [...].” (Sommer 2001:51).

12 Many writers who have immigrated to Britain from former colonies or are the children of such immigrants have been producing novels since the 1950s that have articulated this experience, and have to differing degrees addressed some of the issues raised by Bhabha and Hall. The list of these writes includes, inter alia, Zadie Smith. (cf. Bentley 2008: 21).

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Multiculturalism in Zadie Smith's "White Teeth"
University of Duisburg-Essen  (British and Anglophone Literature and Culture)
Survey of British Literature
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ISBN (Book)
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multiculturalism, zadie, smith, white, teeth
Quote paper
Cesare Siglarski (Author), 2014, Multiculturalism in Zadie Smith's "White Teeth", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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