The story mixes pathos and humour while illustrating the dilemmas of immigrants and their offspring as they are confronted by a new, different society. Contrasted in the setting of a different host culture, disparate aspects of non-British cultures emerge. Middle-and working-class British cultures are also satirised through the characters of the Chalfens and Archie.
As part of the characters' experience as immigrants, they are confronted with conflicts between assimilating and preserving their cultures. The novel depicts the lives of a wide range of backgrounds, including Afro-Caribbean, Muslim, and Jewish. In keeping with Smith's epigraph, “what is past is prologue,” the characters and their various cultural backgrounds show the complexity involved in immigration and replanting one’s roots. For instance, first-generation characters are confronted with conflicting pressures both to assimilate into British society and to preserve their native cultures. Consequently, many find it difficult to claim a place in their new surroundings. Alsana, Samad, and Clara all face complications when assimilating into British culture and as a result experience a continued sense of ‘unrootedness’: they are unable to replant their roots in a new territory.
Smith uses second-generation characters Irie, Magid, and Millat to demonstrate how the impacts of immigration are augmented over time. These characters do not feel any more strongly connected to Britain despite being born there. To the contrary, Irie, Magid, and Millat are greatly affected by their parents’s unrootedness while also experiencing difficulty themselves in finding a place in British society. Their assimilation process is in some ways more complex because they are farther removed from their native cultures. While migration makes lineage and culture more difficult to trace, each character also demonstrates the theme that knowing one’s roots is not always liberating. For instance, Samad feels that English life is not conducive to an adequate Muslim upbringing. He attempts to preserve Magid’s faith by sending him to Bangladesh, yet Magid grows up to be a believer in science instead of faith. On the other hand, Millat, despite staying in London, becomes involved with the militant Muslim group KEVIN.
As a second-generation immigrant, Clara introduces her parents to new facets of British culture and her peers to her Jamaican heritage. This interchange is shown by Clara and Ryan’s relationship and Ryan’s eventual bond with Clara’s mother, Hortense Bowden. Ryan is the catalyst for Clara’s diversion from her background, while Clara in turn serves as the medium for Hortense’s introduction to whiteness and Ryan’s to blackness (as well as his conversion to a new religion). Similarly, Samad ironically meets his mistress Poppy Burt-Jones, the twins’ teacher, when he becomes involved in a PTA battle to incorporate Muslim holidays into the elementary school curriculum. The actions of these second-generation immigrants reflect the idea that the past and present are in dialogue, as their present lives disrupt their parents' connection to the past.
Irie is conflicted about her own roots. She starts saving money to travel to Jamaica with her grandmother while simultaneously hating her kinky African hair and her Jamaican curves. She dreams of a future when roots will not matter; when she gets pregnant and realizes she'll never know who the father is, she is almost happy her daughter will not have to deal with problem of roots. Roots are a pervasive theme in White Teeth. Samad clutches onto them, viewing them as sacred and necessary. He worries that he or his family will lose their roots. Samad once says to Archie regarding his children losing their roots, "People call it assimilation when it is nothing but corruption. Corruption!" Archie doesn't have any roots, and Clara tries to escape hers. She leaves her mother and Jehovah's Witness past behind, but can never truly purge it. "But how fragile is Clara's atheism! Like one of those tiny glass doves Hortense keeps in the living-room cabinet—a breath would knock it over." Religion is a large part of both the Bowdens' and the Iqbals' roots. Hortense is preoccupied with continuing the Jehovah's Witness tradition, and Samad worries about losing his Muslim faith.
Multiple narrative viewpoints
Smith's ensemble cast of characters allows her to approach the idea of multiculturalism from multiple viewpoints. For instance, readers witness both Alsana's and Clara's first-hand encounters with the prejudices of London society. On the other hand, readers also witness Alsana subscribing similar prejudices to Clara: “Black people are often friendly, thought Alsana, smiling at Clara, and adding this subconsciously to the short ‘pro’ side of the pro and con list she had on the black girl. From every minority she disliked, Alsana liked to single out one specimen for spiritual forgiveness." The white, Jamaican, Bengali, and interracial main characters of White Teeth allow the reader to examine the ecosystem of one community from many diverse perspectives. Smith commented, "I just wanted to show that there are communities that function well. There's sadness for the way tradition is fading away but I wanted to show people making an effort to understand each other, despite their cultural differences."
The leitmotif of teeth and in particular the white teeth of the title play a recurring role throughout. While the families in the book have numerous things that set them apart, white teeth is an overarching quality. No matter the colour of their skin, the religion they follow, or the country they come from—they have white teeth. Although Clara loses her teeth in a moped accident early on in the narrative, and they are replaced by a set of false ones, the existence of which is only discovered by her daughter when she is a teenager. Irie's decision (if it can be classed as her own decision) to become a dentist is another recurrence of this theme. Irie, by becoming a dentist and looking after the teeth of her community, shows that she is trying to look after a unifying, not differentiating, element in society. The theme of attempting to unify elements of different cultures in a new host culture is typical of literature by and about the offspring of immigrants in different cultures.
Referencing the theme of “teeth” in the novel, Smith uses the term "root canal" as a metaphor to show the examination of a character’s history. For instance, when Samad tries to send Magid back to his Bengali roots, the narrator uses the root canal metaphor to comment on the action: “To Samad,... roots were roots and roots were good. You would get nowhere telling him that the first sign of tooth decay is something rotten, something degenerate, deep within the gums." Recovering the teeth’s root, like in a "root canal," does not automatically save the tooth; similarly, Samad does not prevent Magid from conforming to English culture by sending him back to his roots in Bangladesh.
Most of the critical relationships in the lives of the main characters are ones developed by chance. Archie and Clara Jones stumble upon one another at a New Year's Eve party. They are drawn together by “accidental” similarity, as both Clara and Archie have just survived an apocalypse (Archie a suicide attempt and Clara – an escaping Jehova's witness – the predicted Armageddon of January 1st 1975). Samad's failed attempts to control his sons' destinies only pushes his sons further away, as Millat becomes a rebel and Magid "more English than the English." Millat and Magid are subjects of constant coincidence and chance: for instance, both brothers mysteriously break their noses at the same time. Ultimately Samad, Millat and Magid have no control over their destinies. Archie too relies heavily on chance, making major life decisions by flipping a coin. Even Clara and Ryan are bound together by chance: they are united by their difference, both being the only students at St. Jude’s that are “neither Irish nor Roman Catholic.”
Though race is a major theme in the novel, Smith’s characters are not just ethnicized beings: they do not fall neatly into assumptions of how persons of a particular racial group are supposed to behave. Characters of differing races often have more in common than characters of the same race. For instance, Archie and Samad remain best friends despite their different cultural backgrounds, while twin brothers Magid and Millat never approve of each other's lives and Alsana and Samad never have a fully happy marriage.
Second-generation children Irie, Millat and Magid struggle to find a way to fit into mainstream white British society. Irie chemically straightens her hair and desires a thin white body. Millat initially refuses to follow Islam, his father's religion. The children are drawn to the Chalfens, who physically manifest their idea of proper British whiteness. They align themselves with the Chalfens despite numerous hints that something is not quite right with the family, especially the overbearing mother Joyce. The quest for assimilation eventually alienates the children from their parents. In the end, Irie and Millat show signs of rebuking assimilation and attempt to navigate their place in the world as individuals.
Fundamentalism is shown in three contrasting manifestations throughout the second half of the novel: KEVIN, FATE, and Jehovah's Witnesses. Many of the characters who join FATE and KEVIN are drawn by the sense of security inherent to fundamentalism or the excitement of extreme action, rather than the doctrine of the groups themselves. The members of these groups often have ulterior motives: Millat's desire to participate in hip-hop or mafia culture was fulfilled by his membership in KEVIN; Mo Hussein-Ishmael joined KEVIN for status; Joshua is less concerned about eliminating animal cruelty than rebelling against his father, Marcus, and being close to the attractive Joely. Ironically, to become fundamentalists, Millat and Joshua both had to reject an element of their roots—their fathers. Conversely, the Jehovah’s Witness characters do not exhibit any ulterior motives: Hortense and Ryan Topps are committed to the Jehovah’s Witness doctrine and are satisfied by their simple, isolated lives.
Sex and sexuality
Sex is explored in many different ways in the series. For example, the audience first sees Clara as an innocent Jehovah's Witness passing pamphlets with information about the end of the world, yet a few scenes later, she is having sex in the bathroom of a club with a man she'd only just met. She is later seen having sex with the same man in her bedroom under the eye of the cross that hangs right above her bed. In later episodes, Samad is seen having a fantasy about his sons' white school teacher, and later trying to repent his sins in a sacred place. However, he and the schoolteacher later succumb to their desires and demonstrate their lust in her apartment. The sexual acts are important because they serve as a sense of rebellion against the systems that are oppressing or repressing the characters. The characters either walk away feeling satisfied with themselves and their actions or ready to repent.