The novel deals with the many different facets and expressions of black identity through various characters. The novel takes place in an upper class, predominantly white college town. This causes conflicts for many characters. Kiki, for example, feels very isolated as the wife of a white professor. She tells Howard that in Wellington, "[Her] whole life is white. [She doesn't] see any black folk unless they be cleaning" (pg 206). Kiki feels the pressure to conform to this community, but her clearly visible blackness prevents her from truly doing so. Similarly, Kiki and Howard's son Levi doesn't see blackness present in the academically elite society of Wellington. "To Levi, black folk were city folk," and his admiration and identification with the idea of inner city blackness leads him to change the way he speaks, and fosters an interest in rap music (pg 81). By contrast, the character of Monty rejects the notion that blackness cannot exist unchanged in the context of an elite university. He believes that the policy of Affirmative Action patronizes the black community. While Levi understands his black identity through the struggle with systematic oppression and resistance to assimilation, Howard's identity is seen more through the lens of his class loyalties.
We also see Kiki's complex understanding of her blackness through her interactions with others. When Kiki speaks with the Haitian vendor she feels over-sexualized because of her voluptuous figure, but she also feels distance from him because he is Haitian and because of their class difference. In previous scenes Kiki's only interactions with Haitians has been in a boss-employee context. When Kiki talks with Warren she feels like a comedic Aunt Jemima-like character, where her size becomes unattractive and she embodies a caretaker role when speaking with Warren.
As the novel's title would suggest, "On Beauty" deals with issues of physical appearance, particularly through the black female characters. Victoria and Kiki are foils in this regard. Kiki is a large, black woman, whose size and skin color make her feel out of place in Wellington. After Kiki discovers Howard's affair with Claire, she tells him that he humiliated her by sleeping with someone significantly smaller than her, to which Howard replies, "I married a slim black woman" (pg 207). This thinly veiled accusation demonstrates that Howard believes to an extent that Kiki's weight gain was the real reason for his infidelity. Howard also sleeps with Victoria Kipps, who unlike Claire, is black. However, Victoria is very different than Kiki. She is slender and yet still very curvy, and is incredibly beautiful. Many male characters are enraptured by her, including Howard's own son, Jerome. This difference in appearance between Kiki and Victoria demonstrates the consequences black women face when they are not deemed beautiful enough or do not conform closely enough to Eurocentric beauty standards. The title of Zadie Smith's work is called "On Beauty" and throughout the work many of the characters look at beauty in different ways or some, like Monty and Howard, fail to look at the beauty in anything. Even in the materials that they teach in their art history classes. Instead choosing to focus on politics.
Not only does Zadie Smith's work focus on physical beauty but it also looks at the concept of beauty itself and its value. Throughout the work many of the characters look at beauty in different ways or some, like Monty and Howard, fail to look at the beauty in anything. Even in the materials that they teach in their art history classes. Instead choosing to focus on politics. One character that only shows up once in the book is Katie Armstrong. It is through her view that the reader can see what Howard is missing in his classes. The material that he presents has such a high impact on her, is so beautiful to her, that she breaks down into tears (pg 250–253).
Monty's wife, Carlene, sees beauty better than her husband, as seen when she and Kiki discuss the painting of the 'Maitresse Erzulie,' "Black Virgin" (pg 174–175). Carlene does not love the painting because of the price but instead because of what it means to her and what it symbolizes, "She represents love, beauty, purity, the ideal female and the moon.." as well as the contradiction of representing "jealousy, vengeance and discord" (pg 175). Giving insight into what Carlene herself sees as beautiful in what makes the people she loves. The painting later becomes a controversial matter between the families when it is left to Kiki by Carlene while Monty and the Kipps only see the price of the painting for its value and not how much it mattered to their loved one (pg 277–280).
Smith intersects issues of class and race throughout the novel in order to bring to light the relationship between the two. For example, Kiki's race becomes an obstacle against her ability to fit in with the community and world surrounding her, one that is white, affluent, and educated. The eliteness of the academic world is directly tied to its whiteness, creating a clash between Kiki's racial identity and class identity. Class directly ties into education and race, and this is reflected in the way that the characters of color interact with the predominantly white world that surrounds them. Levi struggles with his mixed race identity and blackness because of the primarily white world of academics that he lives in. Howard and Kiki's family is a combination of stereotypically "white" attributes and those that are stereotypically "black," including physical traits, creating complexities within the family that reflect the complexities within academia and the relationship it has with race and class.