Describe the cultural politics of assimilation in White Teeth.

Quick answer:

White Teeth is all about the challenges of assimilation into a society that doesn’t always live up to its ideals or the expectations of generations of immigrants with a myriad of stories and motives. Zadie Smith takes on questions of identity, actualization, and belonging when the new millennium promised a new era of human potential, just as it represented to many a modern techno-apocalypse. The generational sagas comprising the narrative expose the contingency and ambiguity belying the immigrant mythology.

Expert Answers

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In order to better understand the cultural politics at work in the novel, let’s start by taking a step back to have a wide-angle understanding of Smith’s intersecting intergenerational saga about the possibility of assimilation, the possibility of resistance, and the possibility of authentic self-creation in multicultural London at the turn of the millennium.

One motif prevalent in the novel that addresses your question of cultural politics is in the two sets of parents sending their first-generation children back to the old country in order to connect them with their parents’ cultural heritage. Magid is sent back to Bangladesh to be exposed to his religious and ethic roots, but the plan backfires when he returns home instead even more thoroughly anglicized than before. Then there is Irie, who, despite her multiracial British roots, finds her ultimate happiness and the book’s hopeful resolution with her grandmother in Jamaica, raising her half-Bangladeshi daughter with Josh, the thoroughly assimilated and atheistic offspring of English parents from different religions.

This was Smith’s first novel and it betrays a youthful optimism for the future of the increasingly globalized, connected, and technologically driven twenty-first century liberal melting pot that this generation currently sees unraveling before its eyes. Reading the novel twenty years after its writing and setting, its vision seems positively utopian amid the ongoing dismantling of the global order that underpinned the social, economic, and political conditions that facilitated the variously motivated migrations of families like those depicted in the story from the far-flung corners of the former British Empire.

This historical perspective adds another layer of ironic implication to your political analysis, as nativism and nationalism have been the global trend, with the UK as no exception in the time of Brexit. The mythology of the “good” immigrant and belief in the alchemical potential of the urban multicultural melting-pot at the story’s heart seem like a fable now as new tensions raise geopolitical stakes and further undermine the assurances on which the characters’ choices have been based.

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