The Question of Cultural Diversity in White Teeth

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About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1800 |

Pages: 4|

9 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 1800|Pages: 4|9 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018


Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Fluidity of Names in "White Teeth"
  3. The Older Generation's Resistance to Cultural Shifts
    The Younger Generation's Adaptation to Multiculturalism
  4. Nicknames as Reflections of Cultural Disapproval
  5. Names as Symbols of Institutional and Cultural Movements
  6. Conclusion


Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" delves deeply into the complex and multifaceted theme of cultural identity. In this novel, the quest for identity is an omnipresent thread that weaves through the lives of each character, compelling them to grapple with the profound question of "Who am I?" This exploration takes shape through their experiences with names, nicknames, and epithets. Through these designations, Smith allows her characters to authentically examine, choose, or even deny their cultural identities. This essay will delve into the rich tapestry of cultural identity in "White Teeth," highlighting the evolution of names and their significance across generations and individuals.

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The Fluidity of Names in "White Teeth"

The ever-changing nature of names in the novel mirrors the fluidity of cultural identities and reflects how different generations perceive multiculturalism. For the older generation, names and nicknames often represent a threat to the cultures they brought with them from their homelands. Kris Knauer's examination of intergenerational adaptation provides a valuable lens through which to understand these dynamics (Knauer 177-178).

The Older Generation's Resistance to Cultural Shifts

Samad Miah Iqbal, a character deeply rooted in the older generation, hails from an era when Bangladesh was still under British colonial rule. Consequently, he experienced racial and cultural insensitivity from his British peers during his military service. His fellow soldiers, in an act of derogation, nicknamed him "Sultan," underscoring his status as an "other" within the British military hierarchy (Smith 73). In response, Samad countered with a derogatory nickname of his own, exposing the cultural insensitivity and ignorance of his comrades (73). These early interactions foreshadow how Samad grapples with the concepts of multiculturalism and assimilation when he later immigrates to London.

Samad's resistance to British culture is further evident when his friend Archie attempts to foster camaraderie by addressing him with the more British-sounding nickname, "Sam." Samad vehemently rejects this overture, asserting his distinctiveness and cultural separation from his British peers (94). He resists the idea that he can ever be one of Archie's "English matey-boys" because of the stark cultural and racial differences highlighted by his earlier nickname, "Sultan." Samad's experiences exemplify the challenges posed by entrenched notions of race and culture, as discussed by Nick Bentley in his essay on "Re-writing Englishness" (499).

The Younger Generation's Adaptation to Multiculturalism

In stark contrast, the younger generation in "White Teeth" displays a greater willingness to embrace British culture. Unlike their parents, who are more acutely aware of constructs such as "otherness" and "difference," characters like Irie and Samad's children navigate the terrain of hybridity and multiculturalism with more ease (Knauer 180). Glenard Oak, the secondary school in Willesden Green, reflects this shift by making "difference" a part of the lived experience for the younger generation, demonstrating the evolving attitudes toward multiculturalism (177).

For example, Samad's son Magid embarks on a journey to Anglicize himself, beginning with a transformation of his unfamiliar, non-British birth name. Magid's attempt to assimilate into British culture is evident when he introduces himself as "Mark Smith" to a group of white boys who visit his home. His decision to adopt a British persona underscores his desire to fit in seamlessly with his British peers (Smith 126). Magid's dual identity, where he embraces both his Bangladeshi heritage at home and a British persona at school, reflects the complex interplay between cultural backgrounds faced by many second-generation immigrants.

Samad's resistance to this blending of cultures is evident when he insists that Magid accompany him on a pilgrimage to reaffirm their Bangladeshi cultural ties (127). This insistence reflects Samad's inability to comprehend the nuances of Magid's dual identity, stemming from his own reluctance to embrace British culture in their Willesden home.

Nicknames as Reflections of Cultural Disapproval

In "White Teeth," nicknames also serve as reflections of disapproval for certain lifestyle choices that deviate from cultural norms or heritage. Neena, Alsana Begum Iqbal's niece, earns the derogatory epithet "Niece-of-Shame" not solely for her embrace of British culture but primarily due to her homosexuality (53). This nickname, originally part of longer sentences condemning her actions, ultimately becomes a succinct label encapsulating her perceived betrayal of cultural traditions. Alsana's disapproval of Neena's liberal views and homosexuality, though born out of a conservative upbringing, demonstrates the cultural conflicts that can emerge in a country like Britain (53).

Names as Symbols of Institutional and Cultural Movements

Names in the novel also carry broader significance, representing various institutions and movements that seek to define aspects of multicultural Britain. Samad's son Millat, influenced by American gangster movies, attempts to construct a Westernized identity, which he cannot cultivate within his own home due to his father's resistance to British culture. Millat's affiliation with the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (KEVIN) highlights his struggle to reconcile his Western interests with his Muslim heritage (224-225). The acronym "KEVIN" and the gangster-style attire adopted by the group symbolize the clash between Western influences and traditional values. This serves as a poignant reminder that prominent members of such organizations are still products of English upbringing.

Samad's fervent belief in the unity of generations, expressed in his declaration that "One generation! Indivisible! Eternal!" reflects his inability to recognize the cultural differences that emerge across generations (241). However, the evolving narratives and names within the Iqbal family underscore how traditional categories of race fail to accurately describe the ethnic diversity of contemporary England (Bentley 496). Even Millat Iqbal's middle name, "Zulfikar," which symbolizes the clash of two swords, highlights the complex interplay of cultures within the younger generation (Smith 291).

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In conclusion, Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" offers a profound exploration of cultural identity within the context of multicultural Britain. Through the evolution of names, nicknames, and cultural attitudes across generations and individuals, the novel provides a nuanced portrayal of how individuals navigate the complexities of their cultural identities in a diverse and ever-changing society. As names shift and evolve, they become powerful symbols of the dynamic nature of cultural identity and the ongoing dialogue between tradition and adaptation. "White Teeth" invites readers to consider the multifaceted nature of identity and the ways in which individuals and generations grapple with the question of "Who am I?" in an increasingly multicultural world.


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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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The Question of Cultural Diversity in White Teeth. (2018, Jun 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from
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