Literature Study GuidesWhite TeethPart 3 Chapter 12 Summary

White Teeth | Study Guide

Zadie Smith

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Course Hero, "White Teeth Study Guide," July 20, 2017, accessed September 18, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/White-Teeth/.

White Teeth | Part 3, Chapter 12 : Irie 1990, 1907 (Canines: The Ripping Teeth) | Summary

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Summary

Joyce Chalfen, Joshua's mother, is a gardener, writer, and self-proclaimed liberal feminist. Her husband, Marcus, is a scientist whose research involves the manipulation of genes with the goal of curing disease. The happily married Chalfens are raising their four sons according to "Chalfenism," with "its gorgeous logic, its compassion, its intellect."

Upon meeting the Chalfens, Irie Jones is immediately taken by their liberal culture and intellect, while Millat Iqbal sees opportunities to exploit them. Joyce expresses sympathy for the kids, noting the inadequacy of their parents. Over the months Irie notices that Joyce's interest in her wanes the more she conforms to Chalfenism, while Joyce's interest in Millat grows the more wayward and manipulative he becomes.

Irie sees the Chalfen family tree, which goes back to 1675, while she lacks any definitive knowledge of her ancestors. Marcus shows Irie pictures of tumor-ridden mice; his project, FutureMouse, involves the manipulation of DNA to induce predictable cancers in mice. He tells her, "you eliminate the random, you rule the world" and jokes about world domination. Marcus hires Irie to organize his files.

Clara Jones and Alsana Iqbal, uneasy about the Chalfens' influence, send Neena to suss out the Chalfens. Neena and her lover, Maxine, go to their house; the Chalfens treat them with jovial condescension and homophobic fascination. The Iqbals and Joneses are powerless to reign in Irie, who idolizes the Chalfens, and Millat, who splits his time between the Chalfens and KEVIN. When Irie and Millat do well on their exams, Clara goes to meet Joyce and thank her. Joyce, forcing Clara to admire portraits of the Chalfens' accomplished ancestors, says, "it's in the genes" and that she believes in "the Responsibility of Intellectuals."

Analysis

Smith uses the Chalfens to critique the racism, classism, misogyny, homophobia, and hypocrisy of the modern British intellectual elite, which claims to be progressive and open minded. This sort of privileged white intellectualism is blind to the numerous ways in which it devalues the experiences of other cultures and treats members of those cultures with condescending paternalism. The Chalfens' embrace of Irie and Millat is a modern incarnation of the old concept of the "white man's burden," reimagined as the responsibility of white intellectuals to help underprivileged brown people be more like them. The Chalfens' influence on Irie and Millat smacks of neocolonialism: Chalfenism is not forced upon the children but is willingly adopted by them as more attractive and relevant than their own families and cultures.

For all her self-proclaimed feminism, Joyce reduces Neena and Maxine to a sexual curiosity because they are lesbians, while Marcus calls them "dykes" and makes misogynistic comments. Both Joyce and Marcus objectify Irie by frequently commenting on her body, and Marcus assumes Irie is capable of organizing his files but not capable of understanding his genetic research. Joyce, bewitched by Millat's exotic beauty, thinks she is saving Millat, filling a role his parents are unable to fill; Millat takes advantage of her "white savior" complex to manipulate her for his own ends. Marcus's comment about his genetic research leading to the possibility of world domination is ostensibly a joke, but there is something sinister in it. It stands in direct opposition to traditional ways of knowing, such as Samad's Muslim faith, which posits that man must submit to divine will and not attempt to control things that aren't rightly his to control.

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