Some of the most interesting characters that we did not have time to discuss in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth were the members of the Chalfen family. What interested me most about the Chalfen clan was the way that Irie saw them, “She wanted to, well, kind of merge with them. She wanted their Englishness. Their Chalfenishness. The purity of it” (Smith 272-73). She saw them as picture of perfect Englishness and she strove to be more like the family and spend more time with them despite the fact that they were just as dysfunctional as the rest of the families that were portrayed in the novel. I couldn’t decide whether Irie’s fascination with the Chalfens was due to their supposed lack of being immigrants, although Smith does reveal they are immigrants from Germany and Poland (273), that they are middle class, or that their family seemed “normal” on the surface. The reader finds that all of the airs that the Chalfens put on are just an act, and that just because they are white and middle class does not mean they don’t have issues.
The omnipotent narrator gives an advantage to the reader, because the reader can see into all of the issues that the Chalfens have, like Joyce needing the attention of her family, but also ignoring them, or the way that Marcus lusts after Irie. Irie cannot see these defects, or she chooses to look past them, and it makes the Chalfens appear perfect in her eyes. I think that Irie’s blindness to the Chalfen’s problems was done intentionally by Zadie Smith in order to show how blind society can be simply based off of skin color. The Chalfen family was a white middle-class family, and to Irie, and probably to most English citizens, the Chalfens were perfect because they looked the part of what Britishess should look like. It did not matter that they were also descended from immigrants, or that the family was dysfunctional in their own way. As long as they looked the part, they were British. At least more British than Irie, Milliat, or any of their other family members could hope to be perceived as. I think Archie is included in this because although he is white, he married Clara, very un-British.
This trend of stereotyping people by the color of their skin is an unfortunate trend that continues to happen. I’ve heard countless stories of colored people being targeted in stores by security or management, simply because they are not white. In my own experience, I have walked out of a store with a cart full of items that I bought and was not stopped by the greeter, but the Hispanic person behind me was stopped and asked for a receipt. Maybe it is because I look sweet and innocent, or maybe it is because I am white. And for many, despite it being 2016, as a white person I embody what an American is. I think that Zadie Smith was criticizing this characterization of skin color and showing the dangers of assuming authenticity based on race.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. Vintage International Books, 2001