Intercultural Relationships

In this discussion of friendships and relationships in White Teeth, third-year undergraduate Derica Shields shows how social transactions in the novel can alter characters' assumptions about themselves - and perhaps change our minds about ourselves, too.

In the early part of White Teeth, issues of race, ethnicity or difference rarely complicate the relationships between the novel's rainbow characters. While the relations between Irie, Millat, Magid, Joshua, and others of their generation are at various times strained or difficult, this is seldom due to racial tensions. Millat, Magid and Irie are products of a hybrid and culturally mixed community, and this is something they take for granted. At Glenard Oak School they are instructed to 'respect other cultures,' yet in the light of their daily interaction with one another where 'Babelians of every conceivable class and colour' coexist with little trouble, this directive has a slightly inane ring to it. For this generation, cultural mixing is the norm, and they are accustomed to the fluidity of social formations that constitute London's multi-racial society. The idea of 'difference' seems to belong more to the older generation than it does the younger who are oblivious to the baggage that may accompany racial difference. In this depiction of a London community, which does not conform to the negative or troubled model often reported in the media, the novel appears to be opposed to the outlook of sociologists such as , who suggest that those involved can take pleasure in transgressively preserving the racial, cultural, and ethnic gaps. Divisions of race are not presented as unbridgeable in White Teeth, an open attitude not just confined to the second-generation of immigrants and their peers. The relationship between Archie and Samad endures through the 500-page novel, though it is tested at times by Samad's increasing fundamentalism. In most of the meaningful relationships of the novel, between Irie and Millat, and Samad and Archie, race or culture is no boundary at all; the characters are human beings first with culture simply an addendum.

The racial tensions that are a part of the characters' reality are rarely forefronted in the narrative, and seldom play a part in the relationships between the novel's main characters. Racist incidents are often presented retrospectively, forcing a distance between them and the reader. We are more aware of Millat's cultural hybridity than we are that he has been ' fucked with' (232) by the likes of the ticket salesman who refers to him as a 'Paki' (231). This is not to deny that there are incidents of overt racism in the novel; for instance, Mo has been 'a victim of serious attacks and robbery, without fail, three times a year', suffering at the hands of 'five policemen', 'secondary school children', 'drunks', 'teenage thugs' and 'general fascists'. These assaults are all racially motivated, and his attackers have one thing in common: 'they [are] all white' (472 - 473). These incidents are significant because they form a background to the main action, and provide motivation for the Muslim characters' ensuing radicalism. But the reader is also invited into an immediate and intimate relationship with the novel's protagonists. They are not 'other', 'alien' or 'different', nor do they perceive themselves in this way. On the contrary, these assessments come from outside, and Smith emphasises this imposition of identity by confining racist incidents to the periphery of the book's narrative. When Irie is branded a 'kinky-haired big-ass bitch' (272), she does not face this taunt directly; instead the statement is mediated by a series of 'handlers.' Smith could be accused of presenting an idealized portrait of London's inhabitants and downplaying the harmful effect of racial attacks. But by confining these incidents to the edges of the narrative the novel manages to convey that for the majority of the time intercultural relations are not as strained or fraught as we might imagine. By doing so, we can encounter the novel's characters as individuals rather than merely as victims - individuals who are perhaps perceived as 'different' or 'other', but who are, in reality, recognisable products of Britain's changing society.

The novel's focus then shifts away from the intercultural tensions and conflicts which so captivate the media, and is instead preoccupied with the humdrum nature of intercultural relationships. Samad and Archie's relationship is rather ordinary; they have traditions and customs of their own. Like middle-aged friends of the same race they are comforted by traditions; they visit the same establishment, O'Connells, religiously, and rehash shared experiences. Samad rants about Mangal Pande and his sons, Archie listens and flips a coin if it comes to crunch time. The novel is emphatic that this relationship is one between men, rather than a Bengali man and an English man. By foregrounding the relative banality of the intercultural relationships the novel deliberately undermines our assumptions regarding the 'unbridgeable gaps' between cultures. However, when we witness Samad's guilty confession that his best friend is an 'unbeliever' we are forced to confront the idea of difference, as when Millat breaks up with his white girlfriend Karina.

Shiva declares that intercultural relationships are often doomed because there is 'too much history.' However, the message of the novel appears to be that this dictum need only be true if both parties are intent on dragging that history around with them. Millat's relationship is destroyed by his radicalization because his politics mean that he can no longer enjoy his relationship as a human being.

Way-back when in the fuddle of the hash and the talk Millat remembered a girl called Karina Somethingoranother whom he had liked. And she liked him. And she had a great sense of humour which felt like a miracle, and she looked after him when he was down and he looked after her too, in his own way ... She seemed distant now, like conker fights and childhood. And that was that. (376)

The poignancy of this recollection is partly achieved by its nostalgic comparison to 'childhood' and games that connote freedom from responsibility and a kind of abandon no longer attainable for Millat. The real misfortune here is that Millat has chosen to break off his relationship with a person he clearly cared for deeply. Smith writes, 'And it may be absurd to us that one Iqbal can believe the breadcrumbs laid down by another Iqbal, generations before him, have not yet blown away in the breeze' (506), and in this instance especially it does. While Archie's relationship with Samad survives the radicalization of the latter, the same cannot be said for that between Millat and Karina and the dissolution of their relationship seems needless. Smith's novel suggests that if one does not resist the label of 'difference' imposed by racists, then radicalization is the detrimental outcome. The perception of oneself as 'other' and the decision to embrace this 'otherness' is ultimately as potentially destructive as a gun-wielding Millat in the book's final tableau.

In contrast to Millat, Irie does not become radical or fundamentalist. She is burdened by a desire to be free, to forget her perceived 'difference' and simply 'get on with it.' She expresses a wish to resist all labels and interact simply as a human being rather than be forced to negotiate between who she is and who she 'should be' (515). While Irie experiences the pressure of history and cultural expectations as negative, Millat has been unable to defend who he is from the onslaught of exterior cultural expectations and has succumbed to KEVIN's mores. Irie, however, dreams of her unborn child as a 'perfectly plotted thing with no coordinates' (516): a child without history or discoverable origin. She imagines that in this state her child will be able to interact simply as a free human being and without cultural expectations which may limit or constrain its interactions with others. Perhaps Irie's ultimate dream is of a rootless people sharing the same space, assimilating, integrating and finding new ways of seeing and being. White Teeth suggests that Britain is on its way to achieving something of that kind:

But multiplicity is no illusion. Nor is the speed with which those-in-the-simmering-melting-pot are dashing towards it. Paradoxes aside, they are running, just as Achilles was running. And they will lap those in denial just as surely as Achilles would have made that tortoise eat his dust. (466)

Further Thinking

In this discussion of intercultural relationships in White Teeth, Derica Shields shows how, in the novel, names can become acknowledged and internalized, bringing about wide-reaching psychological and ethical changes that threaten individuals as well as societies. But would you agree with Derica that the book unequivocally celebrates Irie's rootless ideal of a 'plot without coordinates', or do you think that the tortoise holds some surprises, still, for Smith's Achilles?

White Teeth is very clearly interested in the problems and opportunities of racial identity, and one of the book's important social markers is age, or generational identity. Of course many of the book's readers are neither Londoners nor immigrants of colour, and many are young people. How do the book's preoccupations with race, gender, and age include and exclude its readers?

Paul Gilroy is the author is the author of a number of important books on Black cultural identity in Britain and beyond. See There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (1987), and Between Camps: Nations, Cultures, and the Allure of Race (2000).

Comments are closed.