The Britain of Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" is one of diversity and multiculturalism. What it means to be British, or any other nationality for that matter, is hazy and ill-defined. The novel explores possible criteria for defining nationality--official status, genetics, race, culture--but undercuts each of these criteria by demonstrating its insufficiencies. Smith offers two responses to this loss of national identity, one radically inclusive, the other radically exclusive, but undercuts each of these too. Ultimately, she espouses a view of nationhood that falls between the two approaches--one that recognizes the problems inherent in defining nationality without resorting to hopeless relativism.
When Archie marries Clara they must each state their nationality. Archie writes "English" and Clara writes "Jamaican". And yet the seemingly clear-cut distinction is undercut by the very act itself. In signing the document Clara becomes a Jones and she also becomes British. The distinction is thus blurred even as it is made.
The inadequacy of this distinction is further emphasized by the ease with which Clara's nationality changes. The wedding ceremony itself is quick, simple and trivial. The passage begins: "This and little more constituted the ceremony" (50) before going on to describe the forms the bride and groom have to fill out.
The twins Millat and Magid demonstrate a further rejection of official status as definitive of nationality. We learn that Millat "stood schizophrenic, one foot in Bengal and one in Willesden ... He did not require a passport to live in two places at once, he needed no visa to live his brother's life and his own (he was a twin after all)" (219).
Smith offers genetics as an alternative for defining nationality. Irie is described as having "ledges genetically designed with another country in mind, another climate" (266). This could be seen as...