What is a critical analysis of the theme of racial discrimination in Small Island by Andrea Levy?  

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The theme of racial discrimination infiltrates the lives, decisions, and experiences of the characters that inhabit the world of Small Island, but it is also a reflection of the attitudes of post–World War II English society towards race and differences.

Small Island tells the story of Caribbean migrants Hortense...

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The theme of racial discrimination infiltrates the lives, decisions, and experiences of the characters that inhabit the world of Small Island, but it is also a reflection of the attitudes of post–World War II English society towards race and differences.

Small Island tells the story of Caribbean migrants Hortense and Gilbert, who lodge with Queenie and Bernard in their London home. In her homeland of Jamaica, Hortense was valued due to the colonial emphasis on lighter skin signifying superiority. Although Hortense’s mother is a dark-skinned woman, Hortense is separated from her and placed with the wealthy, light-skinned relatives of her absent father. Hortense has no significant connection with these relatives beyond their shared skin color and is effectively torn from her immediate roots—a theme that is mirrored later in the novel when Queenie feels forced to give up her mixed-race child to Hortense and Gilbert. It is, therefore, not feelings or even biological origin that comes to define family in Small Island, but rather embracing similarity and rejecting those which are deemed “other.”

Hortense imagines post-war England as offering a myriad of opportunities, but this utopian vision does not come to pass, and after being rejected as a teacher despite her skill, she is left with the conclusion that England is “a very cold country.”

Queenie, whose husband is away at war for the duration of Hortense and Gilbert’s stay, is portrayed as one of the more open-minded characters in the novel. As a child, she recollects attending the British Empire Exhibition of 1924, which displayed “building after building, that housed every country we British Owned… Practically the whole world to be looked at.”

Even as a child, Queenie demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the power the British Empire yields, but like many British people during this time, she is also afraid of the “otherness” represented by black skin. When she sees a black man for the first time at the exhibition, she describes how he “could have swallowed [her] up,” clearly associating the man with the traditional colonial image of blacks as savages and cannibals. When the man speaks in “clear English” the child Queenie is surprised by the disjuncture between her image of the black man and his apparent “Englishness.”

As an adult, Queenie has an affair with a black man named Michael Roberts, which results in her becoming pregnant and giving birth to a mixed-race child. Knowing that much of English society is racially prejudiced, including her own husband, Bernard, Queenie gives away her child to Hortense and Gilbert to raise as their own. Once more, skin color takes precedence over all else, with the hint of Queenie's child's “blackness” being a manifestation of both interracial relationships but also signaling the threat of the “other” infiltrating respectable British society. By giving the child away, this threat, though not vanquished, is diminished.

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Systemic racism is a prominent theme in Small Island. While it is shown to have the strongest negative effects on the numerous black characters, the author also shows how it shapes society overall.

In Jamaica, Michael's affair caused a scandal because he was black and she was white. The military offered him an option to leave and took him to England, where he met and had an affair with Queenie, a white Englishwoman. In restaurants and movie theaters, they face public discrimination.

The idea of finding greater opportunity propels Gilbert, who is black, to move to England from Jamaica. There he meets Queenie and takes a room in her boarding house. She is criticized for accepting black boarders.

The most heart-wrenching aspect of racism presented is Queenie's rejection of her child. When her baby is born, she decides she cannot raise him, because he is black, being Michael's son; Michael is now MIA. Gilbert and his wife, Hortense, who is black and also Michael's mother, agree to raise the child.

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