Zadie Smith’s White Teeth explores in-depth the roles of gender, race, and class in post-colonial Britain as it follows the lives of Samad and Alsana, and Archie and Clara. Alsana clearly holds very traditional views, which transfer to her idea of gender roles, though they may not line up with English society. When first meeting Clara, Alsana notes her shorts, “red shorts of a shortness that [she] had never imagined possible, even in this country” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 1238). Because she is shocked by the length of Clara’s shorts, Alsana shows her view that women should dress modestly. This quote also shows that English society is not as rigid as Indian society in reference to women’s dress. Alsana also shows the view of gender in English society during her conversations with Neena and Clara. First, her nickname for Neena of “Niece-of-Shame” because of her sexuality shows that English society is more liberal and accepting than Alsana’s native Indian culture (Greenblatt, 2018, 1244). In addition, she tells Clara that she should “choose Sarah [as the name of her baby] and let that be and end to it. Sometimes you have to let these men have it their way” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 1245). This idea is instantly rejected by Neena, who advocates for communication between husband and wife and generally holds more feminist views. Neena goes on to say that she would have to consider abortion if she were pregnant with a boy and Smith mentions her ascribing to feminist views, which shows that abortion and feminist ideas may be accepted in English society. Because Zadie Smith presents Alsana’s views of gender as antiquated and traditional, we can presume English society is more liberal, allowing the acceptance of homosexuality, abortion, and independence for women—vastly different from the oppression and control over women in Alsana’s homeland.
Alsana also shows the view of black people in Britain with her comments about Clara. At their first meeting, Alsana thinks, “So some black people are friendly,” as if she expected it impossible for people with that skin color to be friendly (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 1238). She further expresses these prejudiced views when she fights with Samad about her unhappiness in London and disagrees about their having friends: “I don’t know them! You fight in an old, forgotten war with some Englishman…married to a black!...These are the people my children will grow up around? Their children—half blacky-white?” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 1242). Her disbelief at Archie’s marriage to a black woman, her disapproval of her children growing up around that family, and her derogative adjective for Archie and Clara’s children all show her prejudice and view of black people, translated through post-colonial society.
Zadie Smith also portrays the importance of class in English society through Samad’s experiences at the restaurant he serves at. Shiva, another waiter who pulls big tips, “abuse[s]” Samad, while his cousin Ardashir, the owner, constantly gives Samad “condescension” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 1240). When forced to share a five pound tip with the entire wait staff, Shiva exclaims, “You all live off my back!” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 1240). Just paragraphs before this explosion, Samad debates keeping a fifteen pence tip for himself since he is struggling so much to provide for Alsana and their future children. Shiva looks down on Samad for being a forty year old waiter who lives off shared tips, shown through his abuse and degrading remarks. Ardashir’s greediness and condescension toward his cousin further show the importance of class and the experience of those in a lower class. Just the condescension alone shows that he looks down on Samad, as English society does on all in the lower class. When Samad asks for a pay raise to finance a new home in a better neighborhood, Ardashir “want[s] his cousin to feel that he ha[s] at least considered the case in all his friendly judiciousness before he decline[s]” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 1241). Clearly, he has no intention of giving Samad a pay raise, wanting to keep his wealth, but he wants him to think he considered it even though he didn’t. He justifies this inconsideration and lack of concern by saying, “If I made allowances for every relative I employ I’d be walking around like bloody Mr. Ghandi. Without a pot to piss in” (Greenblatt, 2018, p. 1242). Ardashir is more concerned with his social class and wealth than with the financial stability of his cousin, which shows his greed and the influence of society on his views. Zadie Smith expertly uses White Teeth as a landscape to explore gender, race, and class within post-colonial English society.
Greenblatt et. al., (Eds). (2018). The Norton Anthology of English Literature The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Minor Characters. Retrieved from www.shmoop.com/white-teeth/minor-characters.html.