Cultural Diversity in White Teeth

November 23, 2020 by Essay Writer

The search for identity in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is one of the threads that Smith continually weaves throughout her novel. At one point or another, each character deals with the inevitable question of “Who am I?” From Irie’s search for an identity through her family history to Samad’s futile resistance to all things British, it becomes clear that the multiculturalism of modern London is making it increasingly difficult to align one’s self with a singular culture or background. Through the designation of names, nicknames, and other various epithets, Smith allows her characters to explore, choose, or deny their cultural identities in earnest. For somebody like Samad, these “nicknames” are considered slurs because they essentially insult the importance of his cultural background. But for his son, Magid, his attempts at Anglicizing his given birth name are simply attempts to adapt and blend into the multicultural British scene. Such differences, due to the “intergenerational adaptation” that Kris Knauer examined in his essay, are examples of why several characters respond in various ways to their names and nicknames. From “Mark Smith” to KEVIN, names in White Teeth serve to illustrate the difficulty of defining the multicultural British identity.In White Teeth, the characters’ names are constantly altered. The significance of these name changes reflects the fluidity of cultural identities, and how different generations consider the idea of multiculturalism. For the older generation, nicknames and various monikers are perceived as a threat to take away the culture they had brought with them from their homelands. According to Knauer, Smith demonstrates how difficult it was for older generations to accept anything other than their fundamental views of how race and culture are to be socially constructed (177-178). No more is this apparent than in Samad Miah Iqbal. Samad comes from an era in which Bangladesh is still colonially subjected to the British crown; hence, he becomes subjected to the racial and cultural ignorance of his fellow British comrades. In the waning days of World War II, the other men in Samad and Archibald Jones’s tank give Samad the crude nickname of “Sultan.” This nickname is meant to put Samad in his place among the crew, and serves as a constant reminder that he is still essentially an “other” in the British army. “He’ll shut it if he knows what’s good for him, the Indian Sultan bastard,” Roy Mackintosh says to Captain Dickinson-Smith, speaking about Samad as if he were an inherently different species and dumping him into a general ethnic category (Smith 73). Samad takes this incorrect use of culture and throws it back at them, giving them a derogatory nickname of their own. He responds, “To call me Sultan is about as accurate, in terms of the mileage, you understand, as if I referred to you as a Jerry-Hun fat bastard” (73). In such context, Samad’s interactions with these white British men are setting the stage for how he will handle the concepts of multiculturalism and assimilation when he later immigrates to London.Already having been belittled for being from a different culture, Samad also finds it insulting when Archie tries to show solidarity and friendship by calling him the more British moniker, Sam. By trying to use a friendlier nickname for Samad, Archie wants Samad to know that although he is from a different cultural background, it is still possible for them to be friends under the umbrella of British culture. But Samad has already had enough. “Don’t call me Sam… I’m not one of your English matey-boys. My name is Samad Miah Iqbal. Not Sam. Not Sammy. And not – God forbid – Samuel. It is Samad,” he growls (94). Samad feels that he cannot be one of Archie’s “English matey-boys” because he is so culturally and racially different from their “Englishness,” a belief that has been ingrained in him because of his earlier nickname, “Sultan.” Overall, Samad cannot fathom a possibility where Bangladeshi and British identities can come together harmoniously. The nicknames he has had to deal with during his time in the British army give him ample reasons for resisting the idea of multiculturalism. According to Nick Bentley’s essay, “Re-writing Englishness,” new ways of thinking about ethnicity are made more difficult by the fact that “old ideas about race and culture are difficult to shift” (499).In contrast, the younger generation in White Teeth seems to have a more eager grasp of becoming British. Whereas their parents “know more about constructs such as ‘otherness’ and ‘difference,’” (Knauer 180) Archie and Samad’s children are more familiar with concepts such as hybridity and multiculturalism. Knauer explains that Glenard Oak, the secondary school in Willesden Green, “is a school in which the word ‘difference’ is not a demonized mumbo jumbo that we somehow have to incorporate… to show how liberal and progressive we are, but it is a part of lived experience of the young crowds” (177). For example, such sentiments arise when Samad’s own son, Magid, embarks on a journey to Anglicize himself, starting with his unfamiliar, un-British birth name.A few months earlier, on Magid’s ninth birthday, a group of very nice-looking white boys with meticulous manners had turned up on the doorstep and asked for Mark Smith. “Mark? No Mark here,” Alsana had said, bending down to their level with a genial smile. “Only the family Iqbal in here. You have the wrong house.” But before she had finished the sentence, Magid had dashed to the door, ushering his mother out of view. “Hi, guys.” “Hi, Mark.” “Off to the chess club, Mum.” “Yes, M-M-Mark,” said Alsana, close to tears at this final snub, the replacement of ‘Mum’ for ‘Amma.’ “Do not be late now.” (Smith 126)As Magid becomes more involved with his British school and white British friends, he feels that in order to fit in properly, he has to publicly shed his given name. At home, Magid still understands and participates in his Bangladeshi background, since his parents were clearly unaware of the British persona that Magid uses to mask himself while at school. It might be that Magid does not want to completely reject his cultural identity, however; it is just that he is searching for another part of it – the British part. Samad himself fails to understand that Magid comes from two worlds, having been born in London to immigrant parents, and therefore cannot be expected to only bind to the Bengali Muslim world that dominates their household. “I told you, Magid, I told you the condition upon which you would be allowed. You come with me on hajj. If I am to touch that black stone before I die I will do it with my eldest son by my side,” Samad fiercely declares to his son in an attempt to show Magid what particular culture he must adhere to (127). It is Samad’s own unwillingness to let British culture seep into their Willesden home that leads to Magid searching for the British part of his cultural identity outside the private sphere.In a different vein, nicknames in the novel are also given in disapproval of certain lifestyle choices that disagree with aspects of one’s culture or heritage. Neena, Alsana Begum Iqbal’s niece, is given the unfavorable epithet of “Niece-of-Shame.” This is in response not specifically to Neena’s embrace of British culture, but to her homosexuality. The nickname “used to come in longer sentences, e.g., You have brought nothing but shame… or My niece, the shameful… but now… it had become abridged to Niece-of-Shame, an all-purpose tag that summed up the general feeling” (53). Rather than being directly designated to Neena, this particular epithet grows out of a gradual process, shrinking down from longer sentences to “an all-purpose tag.” The tag of being someone who has let down the strict traditions of her culture has been firmly affixed to Neena, even though she can still speak Bengali and manages to spend time with her ethnic family. But Alsana, by giving such a nickname to Neena, is demonstrating a disapproval of Neena’s liberal views and homosexuality that can only be possible in a country like Britain. Continuing the theory of intergenerational adaptation, as Samad’s wife, she is also part of the older generation, for Alsana “really was very traditional, very religious, lacking nothing except the faith” (53).Speaking in even broader perspectives, particular names also give significant meaning to various institutions and movements that attempt to define some facet of multicultural Britain. Samad’s other son, Millat, whose British upbringing is due to a complete immersion in pop culture rather than education like his twin brother, finds himself at a crossroads in the middle of the novel. His love for American gangster movies instills in him a desire to construct his own identity as a Western icon, something he cannot develop at home because of Samad’s resistance to British culture. Millat is searching to expand his persona as the leader of the Raggastanis, fellow weed-smoker of the black kids, hero and spokesman for the Asians (224-225). Enter the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation. The initial appeal of this youthful organization to Millat begins with his old mate Hifan as “the don. Look at the suit… gangster stylee!” (245). The members of this group believe they are fighting for fundamentalist Islam against the tyranny of British imperialism, but who can ignore the fact that their acronym, KEVIN, spells out a common Western boy name? Even their uniform, the gangster-style suits that Millat admire, can be considered distinctly Western. In essence, KEVIN serves as an outlet for the conflicted individuals of Millat’s generation. Having largely ignored his Muslim heritage throughout his whole life in favor of Al Pacino and The Godfather, Millat is trying to compensate for his Westernization by taking part in an extremist Muslim brotherhood. KEVIN’s acronym problem, in fact, reminds readers that prominent members such as Millat are still English born and bred.Undoubtedly like many older generation immigrants like him, Samad is completely unable to grasp the concept of intergenerational adaptation because he fails to see his children as culturally different from him. He cries out, “Don’t speak to me of second generation! One generation! Indivisible! Eternal!” (241). It worries him that his children either will become completely British or not Bangladeshi at all. But times are changing. Smith regards the evolving tales – and indeed, names – of the Iqbal family as an example of how “old categories of race are an inaccurate way of describing the ethnic diversity of contemporary England” (Bentley 496). Even Millat Iqbal’s own middle name is a play on different cultures set on a crash collision course. Millat “lived for the in between, he lived up to his middle name, Zulfikar, the clashing of two swords” (Smith 291).

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