Cultural hybridity vs. cultural essentialism

Stuart Hall, Black British cultural theorist and “anti-essentialist” thinker

Your in-class final exam asks you to write a short essay (roughly 4-6 paragraphs) discussing how the excerpts from White Teeth represent themes of cultural essentialism and cultural hybridity. We should, therefore, define these terms and begin thinking about how they apply to White Teeth.

At risk of defining the concept in a circular way, in cultural studies, “essentialism” refers to the idea that cultures have unchanging “essences.” An “essentialist” argument would assume that there are distinct, separable, and “natural” elements that define a given culture.

By contrast, the term cultural hybridity refers to an “anti-essentialist” position: the idea that cultural “essences” do not exist. Anti-essentialists deny that cultural identity is inherent and instead focus on how culture is historical—that is, how cultures are socially constructed and change over time. Cultural hybridity, by extension, names the ways that cultures and cultural identities are always “mixed” and “fragmented” and never “pure” or “stable.”

As we turn to White Teeth, we can see that the main character of this section of the novel, the Bangledeshi immigrant Samad Iqbal, struggles to negotiate his “essentialist” sense of cultural identity with his “hybrid” existence in London. Let’s consider, in more detail, how.

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