Cultural Diversity: Negotiating Mixed Cultural Identities in White Teeth

In this discussion of identity and history in White Teeth, third-year undergraduate Derica Shields considers the novel's interest in the competing claims of cultural purity and assimilation.

What’s Samad’s Problem? The men of White Teeth’s Iqbal family are forced at various junctures to grapple with their identities and negotiate the challenges of making England their home. Samad is a wannabe patriarch and his struggle to reconcile his ethnicity with his identity as a British subject causes him considerable inner turmoil and precipitates many of the main dramas of the novel. His sons Magid and Millat are also conflicted. As Neena, 'Niece of Shame', comments, Millat does not 'know who he is', 'just like his father' (p. 284). Yet, unlike their father Millat and Magid have grown up in a community where cultural mixing is commonplace, and for this reason they envisage identity in relation to their nationality, ethnicity, and religion quite differently from their father. This generational gap sees a shift in the perception of cultural belonging between first- and second- generation immigrants. Millat and Magid inhabit a microclimate where cultural hybrids are the norm. Their father on the other hand clings to the essentialist notion of cultural purity. It is this ideal of cultural purity which causes Samad the most difficulty in the course of the novel, as the notion is continually challenged and finally exposed as fallacy in the central irony of White Teeth.

One might reasonably ask how Samad is able to reconcile his ethnic identity as a Bengali man with serving in the British Army during the second world war. Britain, as the colonising nation, must naturally be his enemy, and the conflict this causes for Samad becomes clear as he is in one moment an outspoken Bengali radical and in the next the embodiment of the obedient colonial subject. Without questioning the contradiction he snidely remarks: 'give Bengal independence... leave India in bed with the British, if that’s what she likes’ (p. 88), earlier having entreated his colleagues to unite with him to 'fight together as British subjects’ (p. 86). He is clearly proud to serve in the British army, only wishing that he were 'soaring in the Royal Airborne Force’ (p. 87) rather than trundling along with the affectionately named 'Buggered Battalion’. Samad appears to have simply accepted duality as the condition of colonial subjectivity; he embraces his racial identity as a Bengali and also identifies with the British Empire which has endowed him with his colonial education and sense of patriotic duty. As long as Samad views himself as a colonial subject he is able to keep his racial and national affiliations separate.

Yet this duality goes on to anguish Samad as he experiences ever more difficulty in conclusively delineating the two cultures. Crucial to his construction of identity is that his two affiliations be kept separate; one allegiance must never be allowed to 'corrupt’ or overpower the other. This preoccupation with keeping the lines of demarcation intact is manifest in his reaction to being called 'Sultan’ and, later, Sam:

"Don’t call me Sam," he growled . . . "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." (p. 112)

He is sensitive to the inaccuracy of the 'sultan’ nickname, perhaps objecting to the arbitrary grouping of all brown-skinned peoples it denotes. Yet this also betrays the roots of what will become his main problem. He is obsessed by the idea of ethnic purity, and his violent reaction to Archie’s Anglicization of his name is also symptomatic of this. These incidents are, for Samad, verbal assaults on his precariously balanced identity. Samad believes that if he accepts either of these epithets he would effectively relinquish his Bengali allegiance. While he can negotiate the coexistence of national and racial affiliations as independent categories, he resists the erasure of one for the sake of the other. It is crucial that he keep his identity compartmentalized in order to avoid nullification of either.

When Samad decides to move to England he cannot sustain this colonial way of thinking for long. As London transforms itself from colonial metropolis to postcolonial cosmopolis, Samad must similarly refashion his identity from colonial to postcolonial subject. His inability to do this is what drives him toward fundamentalism. While the colonial structure allowed, and even encouraged, Samad to keep his identity compartmentalized, the hybrid nature of London’s culture is bewildering for Samad and ranks among blasphemy and wanton promiscuity in his estimation. But what is at the root of this determination to keep the two cultures with which he is affiliated so completely separate? The belief underlying Samad’s doggedness is revealed in a wry exchange with Archie:

"I don’t eat [pork] for the same reason you as an Englishman will never truly satisfy a woman."

"Why’s that?" said Archie, pausing from his feast.

"It’s in our cultures, my friend." He thought for a minute. "Maybe deeper. Maybe in our bones." (p. 96)

Samad’s mistake is to define culture as something inherent rather than environmental. Rather than in the 'bones’, culture is exposed as being characteristically hybrid and mutable, not fixed and eternal as Samad would like to believe. This thinking leads him to imagine that unless he manifests all the traits of a typical Bengali man he does some disservice to his ethnic heritage. This means that dress, speech, and religion are paramount for him. Instead of realising that all people are shaped by their environment, Samad is determined to seal himself off, claiming that he does not want to be 'a modern man.’ However, his assumption that certain characteristics are innate and not dependent on context or environment results in Samad’s painfully humorous, almost schizophrenic behaviour. He retreats into an intolerant fundamentalism which alienates his sons, who rather than attempt to fashion cultures as separate from one another, are quite accustomed to the kind of hybridity of which Irie is a physical example. Samad even reacts against her appearance, assessing her as 'not a pretty child: she had got her genes mixed up…’. The reality is waved at him by Alsana, his sons, Archie and the thronging, increasingly hybrid London around him, but Samad remains stubbornly fixed.

As a result of this personal philosophy, Samad feels increasingly as though his mixed cultural identity is destroying him. His attempts to adhere to the teachings of Islam, while keeping the company of Archie – an unbeliever – and during a brief affair with Poppy Burt-Jones, lead him down a path of self-accusation and self-loathing. While he believes that being a 'true Bengali' requires that he be a devout Muslim, religion, as Shiva observes, 'doesn’t suit’ him. He becomes fearful of what he perceives as Western 'corruption’ and invests in the idea that as a Bengali man there are certain ideals and characteristics all individuals of that ethnicity must possess. He holds himself, and his family, answerable to this ideal; he remarks to Alsana: 'You’re a Bengali. Act like one.' When she retorts 'And what is a Bengali, husband, please?', he has no answer. In reality, the idea of cultural separation between the East and West is an illusion, as Alsana points out when she reads from the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

… The vast majority of Bangladesh’s inhabitants are Bengalis, who are largely descended from Indo-Aryans who began to migrate into the country from the west thousands of years ago and who mixed within Bengal with indigenous groups of various racial stocks….

"Oi, mister! Indo-Aryans . . . it looks like I am Western after all! … It just goes to show," said Alsana, revealing her English tongue, "you go back and back and it's still easier to find the correct Hoover bag than to find one pure person, one pure faith on the globe. Do you think anybody is English? Really English? It’s a fairy-tale!" (p. 236)

Alsana, like her sons, recognises that the notion of cultural purity is one of the most prevalent illusions of our time.

Unlike their father, Millat and Magid have never set foot in the 'homeland’ and therefore their connection to it is tenuous at best. Their idea of home is restricted to Willesden Green, the community in which they have grown up. These second-generation immigrants face new challenges as they construct identities for themselves. Physically they are different in appearance from their peers, but aside from this, as Irie moans, 'Everyone’s the same here’ (p. 377). The second-generation of immigrants do not share the racialized world of their parents, because they have grown up in a world where hybridity is the norm:

Everyone at Glenard Oak was at work; they were Babelians of every conceivable class and colour speaking in tongues… (Brent Schools Report 1990: 67 different faiths, 123 different languages). (p. 292)

While construction of an identity proves challenging for both Millat and Magid who tend to go to extremes, they have grown up in a community where cultures are not sealed off from each other. Millat is part of a gang called 'Raggastani… a new breed… manifesting itself as a kind of cultural mongrel… Raggastantis spoke a strange mix of Jamaican Patois, Bengali, Gujarati and English’ (p. 321). The second-generation immigrants are constantly constructing new identities based on composites of the interpenetrating cultures of East and West. The ultimate irony of the novel intends to explode Samad’s essentialism once and for all, as Magid returns from the 'homeland’ an anglophile dandy who shatters Samad’s illusions of cultural purity. Samad’s anger at this springs out of the knowledge that he has been misled by the false notion of a pure identity: 'a real Bengali, a proper Muslim' is simply a comforting fantasy.

Further Thinking

In this account of White Teeth, history turns out to be a false friend for Samad – instead of justifying his anxious grip on his identity, it seems to expose that identity as a sham. Does the 'history' of the book's narrative hold similar surprises for its characters, do you think?

From names to religions to races, labels are very important for some of the people in the mixed urban environment of this novel. What kinds of liberties – or what kinds of confusions – are created by this novel's breakdown of categories and classifications?

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