Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 303
Set in London, the novel explores the city’s racial and ethnic diversity. Many of the characters are Asian and African immigrants and their England-born children. They often find the atmosphere unwelcoming and point out some of England’s other shortcomings.
[Y]ou make a devil's pact when you walk into this country. You hand over your passport at the check-in, you get stamped, you want to make a little money, get yourself started . . . but you mean to go back! Who would want to stay? Cold, wet, miserable; terrible food, dreadful newspapers--who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated.
In Willesden, a neighborhood with immigrants from many countries and backgrounds, Alsana feels relatively safe from the racist violence that occurs elsewhere in the city.
Mali's Kebabs, Mr Cheungs, Raj's, Malkovich Bakeries--she read the new, unfamiliar signs as she passed. . . . In Willesden, there was just not enough of any one thing to gang up against any other thing.
Exploring immigration to different countries, Smith offers “original trauma” as a contrast to “original sin.” For the Iqbal family from Bangladesh, the situation did not improve as they kept making
a dash . . . from one land to another, from one faith to another, from one brown mother country into the pale, freckled arms of an imperial sovereign.
The “white teeth” of the title refer to the racism that people face in their everyday lives, often from white English people who seem oblivious to the implications of their statements. Mr. Hamilton, an elderly veteran, associates teeth with race in reference to his own experience in Africa.
Clean white teeth are not always wise, now are they? Par exemplum: when I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the n------- was by the whiteness of his teeth.