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Not white enough: 41 years of othering Iranian Americans

It took me three tries to fill out the U.S. Census. It’s not a particularly long or complicated form, but this year was different. I pass as white and have always marked white. This year, I checked “Other,” wrote in “Iranian,” and made my parents do the same.

As the Trump administration fights to end the 2020 U.S. Census count and limit those who can be counted, organizations like the National Iranian American Council and Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans have encouraged Iranian Americans to mark “Other” on their forms and write in “Iranian,” building off a similar 2010 campaign, “Check it right; you ain’t white!” In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau rejected the proposed inclusion of a “MENA” (Middle East North Africa) category as racially and ethnically distinct from “white.” Since 1977, when the U.S. Office of Management and Budget set out “race and ethnic standards” for data collection, Iranians, alongside anyone from the Middle East, have been “white.”

Iranians have a complicated relationship with race. Iranians descend from Persians, descendants of Aryans, an ancient Indo-European race, and “Iran” means “land of the Aryans”; my middle name is “Ariyan,” which derives from “Aryan.” However, its connotation of racial supremacy would come later.

Assal Rad and Nooshin Sadegh-Samimi, Research and Organizing Fellows respectively at NIAC, discussed how under the Pahlavi dynasty from 1925 to 1979, roots in “Aryanism” — a racialized concept linked to Nazi Germany — were pronounced “to build a nation premised on Aryan exceptionalism” and hence, cultural and racial hierarchies predicated on whiteness. Iranians may appeal to Aryanism to separate themselves from Arabs and appeal to whiteness as a means of citizenship and assimilation.

However, we have not always benefited from the protections of “whiteness,” and I wanted to explore why that is, as an Iranian American. I spoke with 21 Iranians and Iranian Americans who are prominent in their respective fields: academia, politics, and the arts

. Many have felt the need to prove that they belong in America — to act white and American. Others have come to understand the false equivalence of assimilation and whiteness, through personal and professional experiences, but haven’t succumbed to performative “whiteness.”

Arash Saedinia, an Iranian-American writer, artist, and professor, represents the latter. “We have to tell our stories to exist, otherwise we don’t exist, we’re absent, we’re rendered invisible,” he said.

However, “these everyday stories involving Iranian Americans are rarely understood as matters of race,” sociologist Neda Maghbouleh writes, in her book “The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race.” Those stories take us back to 1979.

Hostages to history

“The way the U.S. media covered the Iranian Revolution, they failed to see it as an anti-imperialist, anti-dictatorial response, and rather… in terms of its Islamic character, which came later,” Persis Karim, an Iranian-French-American writer and literature professor who heads the inaugural Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University, said. “It also cemented the idea that Iran was innately hostile to the United States,” she said.

After the 1979 hostage crisis, then-President Jimmy Carter ordered all Iranian students in the U.S. to register with immigration officials or face deportation. According to archived New York Times reporting, though a federal judge originally ruled the order unconstitutional, it was reversed on appeal “to resolve the Iranian crisis and to maintain the safety of the American hostages.” Iranian students in the 80s faced scrutiny, vilification, and humiliation — akin to what Iranian students faced from U.S. immigration officials in January this year, when Trump threatened via Twitter to bomb 52 cultural sites in Iran, one for each of the 52 American hostages.

“No other country was broadcast into the living rooms of American homes,” said Narges Bajoghli about coverage of the 1979 hostage crisis, noting the exception of Vietnam. Footage of chants and slogans of “Marg bar Amrika,” or Death to America, filled the news relentlessly. Bajoghli — an anthropologist, filmmaker, author, and professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS  — and others mentioned ABC’s “Nightline,” which came to the fore for its daily reports on the situation in Iran. Byron Pitts, one of two anchors of “Nightline” today, ended a broadcast in March by recalling the hostage crisis, saying the program was “born in response to a crisis, giving facts, context and, when possible, comfort as our nation dealt with the Iran hostages.”

“[It] helped set the tone for dehumanization of not only Iranians, but Muslims more broadly,” Bajoghli said. Several of the people I spoke with talked about people they knew who changed their first names following the hostage crisis to avoid discrimination.

Several renditions of “Bomb Iran,” parodies of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann,” were recorded after the hostage crisis. The late senator John McCain would sing the tune at a campaign stop in South Carolina in 2007. Popular culture would manifest the enduring impact of the hostage crisis on Americans.

Not without my anger

“The ways that Hollywood remembers Iran kept that anger alive,” Negar Razavi, a political anthropologist, said. Five interviewees recalled the release of the film “Not Without My Daughter” years after the hostage crisis. Based on a true story, it casts Sally Field as an American sweetheart with a daughter escaping an abusive Iranian husband, a hostile foreign country, and the misogynistic Islamic faith. Razavi and others who grew up in the 1990s felt the impact of this film on their identity more intensely than the hostage crisis. She recalled her AP European History teacher showing the film in class.

The film would perpetuate the “barbaric, hostage-taking” image, according to Yara Elmjouie, a producer at AJ+, and feed into the terrorist archetype that would arise with 9/11. His documentary miniseries on Iranian Americans explores their long history of stereotypes and struggle.

9/11: Guilty, until we prove innocent

“This is ten times worse. I’m stuck with this ‘John’ name for the rest of my life,” Nooshin Sadegh-Samimi said, quoting one interlocutor from her dissertation research speaking with Iranians in the U.S. in a post-9/11 context. Many interlocutors cited these junctures as “shifting perceptions of who they are in America racially,” she said.

Other Iranians I spoke with attested to their racialization after 9/11 — though Iranians were not involved then, or in any U.S. attack since the early 1980s, contrary to popular rhetoric.

“My otherness was never explicit until 9/11,” Razavi said. “I look like a white person, but my otherness was always there.”

Reza Khanzadeh, a Research Fellow at a Sharif University-based think tank in Iran, talked about “white America” targeting Iranians in the U.S. He recalled one incident in 2001 when four white men threw a can at him from the back of a pickup truck, telling him to “go back to your [his] country.”

“I am constantly reminded that I don’t belong here,” Khanzadeh said. “I am reminded that this is not my country.”

“When we have to explain to people that we are white, that just shows that we are not white,” Khanzadeh said. Arash Saedinia, who lived through the hostage crisis, spoke to “the fatigue that one accrues” from answering what we are or where we are really from. “When you spend a lifetime answering the question what are you, every time you answer it is a zarbeh, a blow.”

One show would begin to shift perceptions of Iranians.

From Shahs of the Pahlavi dynasty to Shahs of “Tehrangeles”

The Bravo reality TV show, “Shahs of Sunset,” tracks the lives of six Iranian-American friends with opulent lifestyles in Los Angeles, or “Tehrangeles.” The show has drawn the ire and disdain of many Iranian Americans who believe it unrepresentative of Iranians. Negin Farsad, a comedian and author of “How to Make White People Laugh”, was mattress shopping when she was asked about the show.

“I said ‘Iranian’ and her first connection to it was ‘Shahs of Sunset’!” said Farsad.

Nonetheless, both Farsad and Amy Malek, an anthropologist and research scholar at Princeton University’s Center for Iran and Persian Gulf studies, spoke to how a greater range of Iranian representation in media would make it more difficult for a single image, based on geopolitical tensions, to take hold.

After “Not Without My Daughter,” “Argo,” and “Homeland,” there was an urgency to “insert our own stories,” Malek said. “Shahs of Sunset” opened up some of those doors.

“Having that kind of a mainstream media presence did something for the public awareness of an Iranian American community,” Malek said. It reached a different kind of audience and demographic and finally challenged portrayals of Iranians over the last few decades. It “decentralizes the question of Islam,” Professor Evelyn Alsultany writes, and offers characters who are distinctly American and assimilated, concerned more with American consumer culture and personal freedom than the overtly Islamic lifestyles Americans assume.

Shahs of Sunset won viewers and approval by driving away from Islam in a Mercedes Benz,” she writes. But Trump drove Iranians back toward it.

Muslim Ban becomes Iran Ban

“[Obama’s presidency] was the most positive — the American perception of Iranian Americans — because they saw us on the news more… in the media more,” Khanzadeh said. He talked about people on social media supporting the nuclear deal and seeing Iran as a “nation of peace” — until Trump became president.

“What I was experiencing back in the early 2000s resurfaced,” said Khanzadeh. “That hatred and racism resurfaced.”

The majority of people affected by Trump’s travel ban have been Iranian nationals. More than half the people denied visas under the ban were Iranian nationals.

When Iranians were targeted by the Muslim ban and the MENA category was proposed, Neda Maghbouleh wrote “The Limits of Whiteness”, in which she addresses the constant non-white racialization of Iranian Americans alongside their whitewashing, examining how we literally sit at the limits of “whiteness” and how “whiteness can be intermittently granted and revoked” in the U.S., as in 2017.

Negin Farsad believes we have regressed to where Iranian Americans were in the 1980s — post-revolution and hostage crisis. But Elmjouie believes we are better equipped, with stronger civil society organizations, such as NIAC and PAAIA, that represent Iranian-American interests. There is greater Iranian representation in our communities, local businesses, and politics. Iranian Americans have “woven themselves into the fabric of American society to the point where we can write our own narrative,” he said.

Still, divisions within the community remain a challenge to political mobilization. “We can’t even agree on whether to call ourselves Persian or Iranian, let alone what kind of policies we want to enact or push forward,” Khanzadeh said. Even so, more Iranian Americans are entering public spaces and “calling … racist tropes out,” said Razavi. NIAC is leading the largest Iranian-American voter outreach campaign in U.S. history, mobilizing Iranians across the country.

We are showing we belong and that we will fight — however we choose to identify.