When asked why she chose to create a multi-ethnic portrait of London in White Teeth, Zadie Smith responded that any other kind of portrayal would not make sense. After all, Britain, and especially the ethnic hub of London, has been multi-cultural throughout its history. The following is a brief history of immigration to Britain.
Before the 18th century, blacks and other minorities had a small presence in the British Isles, but treaties between European powers after 1713 began to drive Britain toward its current ethnic diversity. The United Kingdom began to have more access to resources in the New World, including slaves. British merchants were among the most prolific expanders of the slave trade, and by 1770 there were about 14,000 black men, women, and children living in England. Of course, even those who were not slaves had little opportunity. In 1883, slavery was finally abolished throughout the United Kingdom, though it secretly continued for some time. Once slavery was abolished, black immigration to Britain all but ceased. However, at the same time, European immigrants were flocking to Britain in increasing numbers. Most notable was the large scope of Irish immigration between 1830 and 1850, numbering in the tens of thousands. Indian immigrants began to arrive in Britain in great numbers during the First World War, totaling 1.3 million. Many stayed during the inter-war years, creating a permanent Indian presence on British soil. With no official rules on immigration, thousands upon thousands of immigrants arrived from the sub-continent as well as Bangladesh. Racial tensions began to increase, coming to a head in an infamous series of race riots in 1919.
Britain's connections with India at home and abroad help explain why Samad was so easily transferred from the Indian army to the English army, where he met Archie.
Despite immigration during World War I and the interwar years, Britain found itself in need of workers during World War II, and began to encourage immigration. When thousands of Poles and Italians did not prove enough to end the labor shortage, British officials turned to the West Indies. June 22, 1948 iss a landmark in the history of Britain's ethnic and cultural diversity. On that day, a ship called the Empire Windrush landed in London carrying with it hundreds of West Indian men, particularly Jamaicans. Therefore, when Clara's family arrived in Britain, they would have found themselves a minority, but by no means alone. After the arrival of the Empire Windrush, mass immigration to Britain increased exponentially along with cultural diversity and unfortunately, racial prejudice. In response to worsening racist violence, the British government made it harder for non-white immigrants to enter the country. By 1972, just three years before Archie met Clara, even British passport holders born overseas could not establish residence in Britain unless a parent or grandparent was born there. Thus, had Clara tried to immigrate to London at that time, she would have been allowed into the country only because of her white grandfather, Captain Charlie Durham. Legislation on immigration became stricter during the 1980s. To balance these policies, the government established committees to help stem racist violence, but afro-Caribbeans and other non-whites continued to experience racial prejudice.
Today, Britain, and especially London, is an ostensible cultural collage. However, as black British MP Diane Abbott observes, "For millions of people all over the world, Britain is the land of tradition, the Royal Family, Beefeaters, Bobbies on the beat and, above all, white people. In much of middle America, it comes as a shock for them to hear that there any black people in Britain at all." Therefore, many of Smith's readers may be surprised by the diversity in her cast of characters, with names ranging from Alfred Archibald Jones to Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubtasim Iqbal. In reality, by including English, Bengalis, and Jamaicans in her narrative, Smith presents more or less accurately the truth about British diversity. She examines a cross-section of the collage.
Furthermore, Smith is right to acknowledge the racial tensions that stem from cross-cultural and cross-class relationships, inclduing Alsana's distrust of the Chalfens, Samad's desire to raise his sons in Bangladesh, and Joyce Chalfen's assumption that Irie cannot have inherited her intellect from her working-class parents. MP Diane Abbott might even say that by publishing White Teeth, Smith participates in the movement to make Britain, "...a more open, more multi-racial society than ever before. And one where different races and cultural influences are beginning to be positively acknowledged and given equal respect." Indeed, at the end of the novel, race, class, and culture mix more than ever before. Irie's daughter, symbol of the uninhibited future, is one quarter afro-Carribean, one quarter half old-stock white English, and two quarters Bengali.