By: Jessica Lao
Picture a 13-year-old sitting in a classroom, gradually consuming her weight in pencil erasers as her Georgia Studies teacher embarks on one of his infamous rants.
“Did y’all see the video of that boy going after the store clerk? He was no good, I tell you, this is what the media doesn’t show you kids… See, he was standing like this—you, stand up—and the cop was there, where Katie is. What protesters don’t get is that he had to defend himself…”
Picture a roomful of students, flinching when their teacher asks for their opinions on the matter.
“He’s always been one for political tangents,” whispers someone in the back. It was true, although after the Ferguson shooting, those spiels had taken a hard turn from debating Eleanor Roosevelt’s sexuality to challenging BLM and Black social movements in general.
Picture the sole Black student sitting in the corner of a room his teacher had joked about organizing by race, saying nothing.
Retreating into my own little bubble, I eventually do notice the words growing louder and look up in annoyance.
…no. Not louder, closer. Sure enough, as Mr. H finishes his prowl around the room, his eyes swivel around to rest on me.
“What about,” he inquires, measuring out each word, “you, Lily?”
I open my mouth—and freeze. What did I think?
It’s been several years, but in that class of thirty with one Black student, I do remember one thought flashing through my head: even so, surely our teacher was the minority? Surely this was still my classmate’s America as much as anyone’s…was it? Looking back, that afterthought was the first sign of a coming realization that so long as even a minority like Mr. H existed, this culture was for none of us to claim. The cause of that revelation? A book lying innocently on my desk throughout the exchange—White Teeth, by Zadie Smith.
Mr. H, I confess—until the discussions surrounding BLM and Smith’s novel problematized my views, I too had struggled to grasp the point of Black nationalist movements like Negritude and Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa. More than anything, I was unclear as to why one would seek refuge in a distant homeland rather than stake an aggressive, assimilatory claim in a racist society to change it. Why and how could Black Americans who might identify primarily as Americans, their ancient nations of origin blurred by the slave trade and natal alienation of long ago, seek to identify with African culture in its broadest sense? Were they not catering to the institution of oppression by erasing their individual complexities, conglomerating into a selfless mass defined only by race? Were they not drawing attention to that racial identity as inherently different? To me, rejecting American culture undermined the right that we as students of color seemingly had to lay claim to this nation. In my confused mind, that “claiming” required a complete adoption of cultural norms, an antithesis of the self-driven othering and psychological segregation I thought was occurring. I could not accept that assimilation was a quiet surrender to an intrinsically racist system. The causation was reversed by my bewildered logic; racism in American culture seemed not so much an inherent flaw as a result of refusing to assimilate. Instead, I believed that by claiming American culture, I was forcing change by taking what was mine.
Although I didn’t believe that assimilation required the whitening masks and Western surgery embodying Asian beauty standards—that was one extreme—I did believe that adopting the American customs necessary for social climbing was a business both advantageous and devoid of race.
I was wrong.
If the discussions around BLM cracked open the door to a world of questions, then White Teeth by Zadie Smith threw it wide. Picked up on a friend’s recommendation, the book reflected as varied a jumble of confused identities in my classroom as the multicultural society it strove to portray; if one book could illustrate the diversity of both culture and ways to react to it, this was it. By opening my eyes to an embedded racism lurking beneath its more extreme but rarer counterpart, White Teeth paved the way for more than a disillusionment with Western American culture; it was the key to a newfound understanding of crucial 20th century movements.
To be sure, that insight included the hidden breadth of a social exclusion characterizing the existence of all POCs, including those descended from white Brits like the character Irie. Indeed, in characters like Irie and Clara, I saw aspects of the Black experience through the eyes of a mixed-race author who had felt struggles rare to me as an outsider—which, to an extent, I’m afraid I was. Attending a mostly Asian school was a mixed blessing that, while often showcasing my peers’ complicity in antiblackness, also sheltered me in a decade-long bubble from direct racism. In that blissfully ignorant environment, I found myself plagued with questions on the nature of progress: wasn’t construing multicultural America as an inherently white culture as harmful as self-segregation? By dismissing efforts to recognize diversity like affirmative action as empty consolation cookies of the system, were we forwarding the nebulous concept of “real change,” or were we just poisoning the well for progress?
Perhaps that was why chief among Smith’s unflinching portrayals of racism was not the red herring, name-calling form of it that first comes to mind, but the insidious self-hate haunting the nonwhite members of Eurocentric societies. From Irie’s torturous pursuit of straight Western hair, to her mother Clara’s internalization of negative stereotypes—and her white husband’s acceptance of that fact—White Teeth was the beginning of my realization that this isn’t our America. This isn’t a culture that Black teens or those of any other nonwhite race can claim; no—we were for this culture to claim, to homogenize and process to their liking. The prevalence of racism today aside, the very fabric of American society is based around the Eurocentric values of its white male conquerors; if America was a melting pot like my young self naively believed, then its white citizens had dictated the measurements of that pot long ago. The psychological gymnastics required for Irie and her friends to adhere to even the most basic norms (i.e. adopting “white” names and struggling as the rare WOC in STEM) are proof enough of the inextricable ties between racism and Western cultural standards. It became clear, then, that seeking refuge in a deliberately distinct heritage instead of in a racist American culture was not so much a choice as the only option in a subtly hostile environment.
More than rejecting American/Eurocentric culture as inherently hostile and unobtainable for POC Others, White Teeth touches on yet another reason Black empowerment movements need to retrace and reclaim their history. As she puts it in an interview, Smith’s argument that assimilation is a door open only on certain terms—”you had to join the club”—opened my eyes to the reality that assimilation requires not just receiving, but giving something up as well (or more accurately, having it robbed from oneself). For the Black community, that was knowledge of the African heritage that I’d mistakenly thought had to be harder to grasp than the American culture surrounding them since birth. Looking back, my original concern that lack of ancestral data precludes concrete ties to a specific African nation was completely irrelevant. The common struggles of all the book’s characters of color, Black or otherwise, demonstrate that the experience of oppression itself is a link unifying enough to form a racial identity—one predicated on suffering.
Make no mistake, even after those revelations and more, I—or any overzealous fan of White Teeth for that matter—can’t claim to understand experiences specific to the Black people better than a member of the group, nor can I claim to be any expert on Black politics or culture. But what is true understanding (or the closest we can get) if not more and more of those moments adding up to correct our inevitable slips? Accumulating until we can approximate the graph of understanding in a sort of grotesque activist’s version of calculus?
As always, thanks, Zadie Smith—and bless your heart, Mr. H.
(Names, including author’s in the essay, have been altered)