The University of Toronto’s Assistant Professor of Sociology Neda Maghbouleh talks to The Iranist about why Iranians are considered “white,” the Aryan Myth, and the importance of comradery amongst minorities.
THE IRANIST: What compelled you to write The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race?
NEDA MAGHBOULEH: I was born in New York City and raised in the United States my whole life. My parents were born in Iran. As a second generation Iranian-American, I was always acutely aware in the U.S. that Iranians and others with Middle Eastern backgrounds are counted by the federal government as “white.” In this white ethnic and racial category, they are pulled together with groups that have roots in Europe and North Africa. I also knew that in my own family and community, there are a series of racial and ethnic narratives or myths that had to do with an Iranian sense of whiteness—what’s called the “Aryan myth.”
Once I became a college student, I started taking courses in sociology and political science, and saw in literature that Iranians in particular had been a group that U.S. researchers would look at and say, “Well look at the high levels of education and the median income this community has. They sort of meet the criteria of what we call ‘assimilation,’ and they are integrating into this white American mainstream so well.” So I had different forms of information and knowledge circulating about this concretization of Iranian-Americans as white. And yet, I was also aware both through my own observations and in this constant running stream of examples—such as documented workplace harassment, policing and surveillance, discrimination in the housing market, and hate crimes—that Middle Eastern Americans experience exclusion and persistent forms of racialization, countering the idea of Iranians being a perfect fit in the white racial category. For me, it was a really exciting opportunity to develop an evidence-based research project to make sense of this fundamental contradiction.
THE IRANIST: You mentioned the “Aryan myth.” Tell us more about that.
NEDA MAGHBOULEH: As historian Dr. Reza Zia-Ebrahimi describes in his book, The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism: Race and the Politics of Dislocation, the myth relies on a premise of Iran having been “dislocated,” as if Iran was a piece of Europe that was airlifted and transported to a different region of the world and that there are ethnic and linguistic commonalities with Europe that represent shared “racial” lineage. He pulls together evidence that these ideas are an invention of the modern Iranian nationalist state in the past century or so, and maintained across different forms of government and leadership. In other words, that an Aryan white nationalism is a through line that exists across regimes. Zia-Ebrahimi unpacks the narrative to say that it is a willful misrepresentation of ancient historical texts and artifacts. In the context of my research, this material is the back story of what first generation immigrant parents to the U.S. grappled with as children when they were being taught the history of Iran in their schooling. So it is a myth that immigrants bring with them, and what happens once Iranian immigrants have children on American soil is where I make my contribution to this conversation.
THE IRANIST: What surprised you the most about your research?
NEDA MAGHBOULEH: There were many moments when I was surprised and shocked. Something that blew my mind as an undergraduate student was learning about racial prerequisite cases. From the turn of the 20th century to the 1950s, in order to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, an immigrant had to prove he was white. For different groups that were at that borderline of white or non-white, there were cases that were taken to local and federal immigration courts, where a judge would make an adjudication based on a variety of evidence that determined whether the individual is white or not. They then became a test case for the entire community—the whole group was interpreted as one race or another depending on how one individual’s case turned out.
Because all the Iranian immigrants in my own life were part of a permanent migration following 1979, evidence of an earlier Iranian presence in the U.S. was something I was on the lookout for (I recommend checking out sociologist Dr. Ali Ferdowsi’s research for more on this). Once I started working on this project as a graduate student and looked more closely at the racial prerequisite cases that featured Armenians, Arabs, and South Asians, I saw that Iranians were conjured up like ghosts as a sort of reference group. Even though Iranians were not present to be claimants in court, they were talked about in these cases. For example, an Arab claimant would go to court and say, “I’m a Syrian Christian. If you want to know who the non-white people are in my part of the world, look at the Iranians. They are Muslims and Zoroastrians.” The flip side of this is that claimants from the Indian subcontinent would go to court and say, “My people are Parsi, they come from this eighth century migration from Iran. You may think of India as a brown country, but the ethnic group I belong to were migrants of Persia out of Iran, so we are white.” Or they would say, “Sanskrit and Persian have this ethnolinguistic similarity, therefore we are white.” That was so surprising and intriguing for me. Iranians have this in-between kind of quality today in 2018, but they also had this 100 years ago. We don’t often make this sort of historic connection, that Iranians were pushed and pulled in white or non-white naturalization cases.
THE IRANIST: Talk about the trauma of being Iranian in America during the 1979 revolution.
NEDA MAGHBOULEH: The 1979 revolution was an important turning point. Although Iranians were in America pre-1979, the majority were here temporarily, recruited as visiting students with the intent of returning to Iran after the completion of their university degrees. During the 1970s, they were the largest group of foreign exchange students earning degrees—similar to students from China studying in the U.S. today. Then the 1979 revolution brought the first wave of Iranian immigrants to the U.S., who had come as refugees or permanent residents. This was when the community began to put down roots and establish an identity through a network of organizations. At the same time, highly curated material and images coming from Iran were being broadcasted into American homes on an unprecedented level. Not just the six o’clock news, but programs like ABC’s Nightline, which came into existence because of the Iran hostage crisis. There were these very carefully selected images of U.S. flags burning and demonstrations, which were meant to characterize what was happening in Iran. In the U.S., there was backlash and demonstrations that were highly nationalistic with white European-Americans coming to rallies dressed up like the Statue of Liberty or Uncle Sam with signs and t-shirts that have expletives about Iran or Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
THE IRANIST: How did September 11 terrorist attack impact Iranians?
NEDA MAGHBOULEH: 9/11 was really the defining moment when young Iranian-Americans said, “I always felt people saw me a bit differently or as not white.” Following 9/11, it was legible and the language around bullying, exclusions, or the kinds of comments authority figures in schools were making became very explicit. Kids would be referred to as a relative of “Osama Bin Laden” at school. References were made, like, “your family blew up the Twin Towers,” or this infusion of a particular set of details or language that then became attached not just to Iranians, but anyone who was associated with the Middle East—people that are perceived to be the “brown terrorist.” There has been a very inchoate lumping of people, including the racialization of Latinos and South Asians as Iranian. In my book, I talk about a couple of hate crimes, where Latinos were specifically profiled as Iranian and faced violence and harassment based on that.
THE IRANIST: What is the dynamic of comradery between Iranian-Americans and other racial minorities?
NEDA MAGHBOULEH: Some young Iranian-Americans grow up in families or communities that tell them that Iranians are exceptional and superior in the broad region of South West Asia: “Why would you have an Arab friend? A South Asian friend? Your family isn’t from India or Pakistan, you’re Iranian.” To some older folks, finding solidarity with minorities of other heritages might seem like strange bedfellows. But to others, and to young Iranian-Americans more broadly, there’s a stronger sense of political solidarity. I think that when you grow up in the U.S. and are fully socialized through American institutions, you get a sense of pan-ethnic coalition building that characterized the Civil Rights era. Young Iranian-Americans take away from these lessons and apply it to their own lives saying, “Actually even though I’m getting these messages from the U.S. government or my parents that say I’m white, I feel a sense of exclusion and that I’m not white enough to fully kick it with the white kids. So I want to actively affiliate with peers who are children of immigrants or racialized minorities who understand what I’m facing.”
THE IRANIST: The U.S. Census Bureau has decided not to include a “Middle Eastern or North African” category on the 2020 census. Why is this problematic?
NEDA MAGHBOULEH: Since the consecration of these federal categories 40 years ago, activists and organizations that represent the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) community—whether it is Iranian or Arab-American organizations—argued that being lumped into a white box was an erasure of their community. I understand this advocacy as not just about the psychological effects of recognizing oneself on a form; this is really about material resources that communities legally are bound to receive once they have recognition as a separate ethno-racial category from white. Federal, local, and state governments must provide particular rights and responsibilities to make sure these communities have adequate and equal access to things like health care and work opportunities. By being hidden or erased in the white category, this has allowed different forms of discrimination against MENA Americans to not be exposed.
What was exciting about this past run-up to the 2020 census is that for the first time in 40 years, the Census Bureau was listening. There were always campaigns, including one surrounding the 2010 census called “Check it right; you ain’t white!” as part of a coalition building across MENA organizations. Back then, the Census Bureau said that MENA-Americans are not a sizable group, but also said on a more anecdotal level that would not expect to see more privileged sub-groups like Iranians or Lebanese, for example, choosing to occupy the same box as less-privileged sub-groups like Yemenis or Moroccans.
In 2015, for the first time, the Bureau ran what was called the MENA test. This was to find out whether in these 20-plus subgroups people would check “MENA” over “white.” The fascinating internal finding in the Bureau was that every single one of the subgroups went for “MENA” when given that opportunity to choose it over “white.” So all the anecdotal conversations about how Iranians would not check the same box as less privileged MENA groups was proved wrong. Following all recommendations, the Bureau itself was poised to implement a “MENA” category. But in recent months, the Bureau has made an official announcement that they would not be making any significant changes to the ethnic or racial categories in the 2020 census, except to include a citizenship question that hasn’t appeared for decades. This is really demoralizing and distressing. However, this is not specific to the Census Bureau. Many offices and bureaus are in chaos right now because they had leadership step down and things are generally unstable in Washington, DC, under the Trump administration.
THE IRANIST: Have Iranians reacted differently about the issue of race since the Muslim Ban?
NEDA MAGHBOULEH: Over the past ten years, when I’d be asked about what I’m working on, it would require a ten-minute preamble about why Iranians are a quirky fit with American norms of whiteness. Ever since the 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump’s presidency, the ten-minute preamble is no longer necessary. I just say the title of the book and Iranians seem to be really on board with understanding what the stakes are. The role of the Muslim Ban cannot be denied because Iranians ended up being ensnared disproportionally across the groups. This isn’t only an anti-Muslim piece of legislation, but also anti-Iranian, too.
THE IRANIST: What advice do you give to second generation Iranian-American parents on how to teach their third generation children about their cultural and ethnic heritage?
NEDA MAGHBOULEH: It is really important to support the beautiful traditions that an older generation has successfully reproduced, in places like community centers that offer Persian language classes and Nowruz festivals. Demographic data suggests that our third-generation children will likely have only one parent with Iranian heritage. So my advice for second-generation parents is to integrate—to whatever extent is possible—a sense of Iranianness that coexists with and doesn’t seek to dominate or apologize for a child’s multiple races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds. The most important thing to model for our children is how to be inquisitive about your family’s history and to be open and proud, but also clear-eyed about the complexity of our Iranian heritage.
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