Literature Study GuidesWhite TeethPart 3 Chapter 11 Summary

White Teeth | Study Guide

Zadie Smith

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White Teeth | Part 3, Chapter 11 : Irie 1990, 1907 (The Miseducation of Irie Jones) | Summary



Part 3 opens with a quote from Russian American novelist Vladmir Nabokov, which invokes the intricate web of causality that links the past to the present—and in which Irie Jones finds herself enmeshed, full of questions and hungry for answers. Part 3 focuses on the experiences that define Irie Jones's identity: one that occurs before her birth, in 1907, and the other that occurs in 1990.

At 15, voluptuous Irie Jones is ashamed of her Jamaican features. Her English class reads Shakespeare's sonnet on the fair-skinned Elizabethan beauty ideal and women's attempts to fit this ideal by changing their appearance. Irie asks if the woman beloved by the speaker in the sonnet is black, citing "the curly hair thing, black wires"; her teacher says the woman was merely dark skinned, adding, "Never read what is old with a modern ear."

Wanting to catch Millat Iqbal's eye, Irie goes to an "Afro Hair" salon in pursuit of straight, dark red hair. Despite the stylist's warnings that hair must be unwashed to be straightened, Irie insists on having the procedure on her recently washed hair. The stylist gives Irie extensions after the painful relaxer burns off Irie's hair. Irie is "bewitched by her own reflection." She goes to the Iqbals' house, and Neena, visiting with her girlfriend Maxine, laughs and berates her for getting rid of her beautiful natural curls to please Millat.

Samad Iqbal is troubled by a recent letter and photograph from Magid indicating he intends to pursue a law career to promote progress in the East. Magid writes, "We must be more like the English. The English fight fate to the death"; and the photograph shows him standing by the Indian historian Sir R.V. Saraswati, whom Samad considers an "English licker-of-behinds." In disgust, Irie tears out her extensions.

At their school Irie tries to warn Millat of an upcoming raid to catch smokers. Millat is speaking with Hifan, who is trying to recruit Millat into KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation). Millat dismisses Irie's warning and passes her his joint. Irie encounters Joshua Chalfen, a white nerd with a crush on Irie. Millat joins them, hoping to retrieve his joint, just as the raid committee surrounds the three of them. As punishment Millat and Irie must go to Joshua's house twice a week for a study group. If it is successful the school will implement other programs "bringing children of disadvantaged or minority backgrounds into contact with kids who might have something to offer them."


Irie is unable to see her own beauty because her curly hair and her voluptuous frame, gifts of her Jamaican heritage, do not fit the British beauty ideals of slimness and straight hair. Smith illustrates how racial inferiority is perpetuated in academic contexts, where the children of immigrants are made to read the literature of white men and discouraged from any interpretations of such literature that might validate their own perspectives. Similarly, the headmaster, unknowingly promoting the historical idea that the "white man's burden" is to bring British culture to uncivilized colonial subjects, sees Joshua Chalfen's Britishness as a remedy for the supposed waywardness of brown kids like Irie and Millat.

Such ideals are perpetuated in the beauty industry, which exploits the self-hatred of ethnically diverse women with its false promises that an ultimately unattainable beauty ideal might be reached, if one is willing to spend enough money and suffer enough pain. And to Samad's dismay, Magid's relocation to Bangladesh has not prevented him being "corrupted" by British influence. The hegemony, or dominance, of British culture is perpetuated from all angles and all around the world, despite the supposed end of colonialism during the mid-20th century. Irie doesn't understand the implications of her new hairstyle until Neena, a radical feminist and lesbian, chastises her. Realizing her self-hatred is internalized racism, Irie tears out the extensions.

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