Are Iranians—Restricted by the Trump Era Muslim-Country Ban—White?

15 November, 2020

Local Not Local” gallery show at the old Markaz on Pico in L.A. fea­tures Iran­ian Amer­i­can poster art in an exhib­it of Iran­ian and Arab Amer­i­can artists, curat­ed by Pouya Jahan­shahi and Maece Seirafi. Clear­ly first- and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Iran­ian artists remain deeply con­nect­ed to Iran­ian cul­tur­al identity.

Rebecca Allamey 

When my par­ents told me as a child that I was white, I believed them. How­ev­er, as a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Iran­ian Amer­i­can liv­ing amongst a white major­i­ty, I soon came to real­ize that my kind of white is not the same kind as those who espouse white supremacy. 

When I first read Neda Magh­boule­h’s The Lim­its of White­ness: Iran­ian Amer­i­cans and the Every­day Pol­i­tics of Race I felt as though the author was speak­ing direct­ly to me and my expe­ri­ence. An asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, Magh­bouleh explores a key para­dox in the racial iden­ti­ty of Iran­ian Amer­i­can immi­grants. Native Iran­ian self-iden­ti­ty, sup­port­ed by genet­ic lin­eage, inter­est­ing­ly aligns with a U.S. clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem that care­less­ly groups most Mid­dle East­ern immi­grants togeth­er with a white major­i­ty dom­i­nat­ed by Euro­peans. How­ev­er, despite this inter­nal and exter­nal white-wash­ing, the lived expe­ri­ence of Iran­ian Amer­i­cans con­stant­ly rein­forces a notion of non-white otherness. 

Magh­boule­h’s thought-pro­vok­ing work from the soci­o­log­i­cal per­spec­tive offers a fresh take to explain how racial iden­ti­ty of eth­nic groups is often defined through social inter­ac­tions, rather than exter­nal or inter­nal clas­si­fi­ca­tions. Based on years of ethno­graph­ic research and inter­views with 80 sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Iran­ian Amer­i­cans, the author engages the read­er through art­ful sto­ry-telling that rein­forces how the descrip­tions of racial issues play out at the micro-lev­el. Focus­ing on the expe­ri­ences of sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Iran­ian Amer­i­cans, Magh­bouleh brings to life the nar­ra­tives of those who have to deal with the issues of con­tra­dic­to­ry racial def­i­n­i­tions of grow­ing up in America. 

Racial Self-Iden­ti­ty 

For many Ira­ni­ans liv­ing in this coun­try whose par­ents made the nec­es­sary sac­ri­fices to immi­grate to Amer­i­ca, life is a con­tra­dic­tion where ele­ments of cul­tur­al and eth­nic iden­ti­ty are pre­served, while the pres­ence of an inde­pen­dent racial iden­ti­ty are large­ly ignored. Sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Iran­ian Amer­i­cans are unique because they can often blend into Amer­i­can soci­ety cul­tur­al­ly and lin­guis­ti­cal­ly in a way that is not fea­si­ble for native Iranians. 

Ira­ni­ans who immi­grat­ed to Amer­i­ca around the time of Islam­ic Rev­o­lu­tion and the hostage cri­sis were faced with a great deal of sus­pi­cion and even anger, such that they often adapt­ed by cam­ou­flag­ing them­selves with name changes and try­ing to pass for oth­er eth­nic­i­ties — lying about her­itage became a form of self-preser­va­tion. One way that this phe­nom­e­non broad­ly occurs across many immi­grant groups upon being grant­ed U.S. cit­i­zen­ship is the encour­age­ment of adopt­ing Amer­i­can names that serve to facil­i­tate assim­i­la­tion in Amer­i­can soci­ety. My par­ents Mojta­ba and Mehri, who immi­grat­ed to the U.S. in the late 1980s, will com­mon­ly intro­duce them­selves to Amer­i­cans as Michael and Megan, the names they were encour­aged to legal­ly adopt upon becom­ing nat­u­ral­ized citizens. 

Despite the incur­sion of racial episodes into dai­ly life for Iran­ian immi­grants, these expe­ri­ences are often con­cealed from the younger gen­er­a­tion grow­ing up in this coun­ty. Magh­bouleh shares the sto­ry of Yara, who apt­ly describes how racial dis­crim­i­na­tion is often a non-top­ic in the Iran­ian-Amer­i­can house­hold while also being a hyper-vis­i­ble, ever-present issue in society:

“In gen­er­al, I don’t know to what extent [my par­ents] even want to bring [being harassed] up with me. But it’s like, obvi­ous­ly, they face it. If I face it, and I have no accent, but my mom and dad have real­ly thick accents, espe­cial­ly my mom, it’s more promi­nent. If most peo­ple can tell that I’m not Amer­i­can, then what does that mean about them? In a way, maybe I’m get­ting less of it. And they’re not going to tell my broth­er or me about it.” 

Many Iran­ian chil­dren born in the Unit­ed States learn, either explic­it­ly from their par­ents or implic­it­ly as part of grow­ing up in this coun­try, that they are clas­si­fied as mem­bers of the white racial major­i­ty. How­ev­er, the legal, bio­log­i­cal, and (some­times) inter­nal absence of race coex­ists with expe­ri­ences of racial­iza­tion in soci­ety. Magh­bouleh illu­mi­nates this dual­i­ty through the eyes of sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Iran­ian Amer­i­can youth across the coun­try. While the spe­cif­ic details of each sto­ry are unique, they share an under­ly­ing theme where Iran­ian Amer­i­cans are caught between for­mal legal invis­i­bil­i­ty and infor­mal eth­no-racial extra vis­i­bil­i­ty. The racial dis­crep­an­cies faced in soci­ety force Iran­ian Amer­i­cans to grap­ple with these issues with­out the sen­si­tiv­i­ty typ­i­cal­ly engen­dered by oth­er minor­i­ty racial groups. 

Magh­bouleh writes, “Con­trary to what they hear from elders… sec­ond gen­er­a­tion youth are most­ly skep­ti­cal and often crit­i­cal of self-iden­ti­fy­ing as white. If they once believed it, their more incon­tro­vert­ibly white peers have dis­abused them of the notion. Instead, Iran­ian-Amer­i­can youth describe a pro­found con­flict between the white iden­ti­ties assert­ed with­in their fam­i­lies and the stig­ma­tized racial­iza­tion they (and their fam­i­lies) actu­al­ly expe­ri­ence in the world out­side the home.” 

Sociologist Neda Maghbouleh

Soci­ol­o­gist Neda Maghbouleh

In an inter­view with the LA Times, Magh­bouleh notes that when her book first came out in 2017, old­er Ira­ni­ans did not agree with or under­stand her desire to explore Ira­ni­ans’ com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with white­ness. After all, they were taught in school that Ira­ni­ans descend­ed from the Aryans and were there­by the orig­i­nal white peo­ple of the world. Recent glob­al events, includ­ing the Mus­lim trav­el ban, have shift­ed this belief and forced Iran­ian-Amer­i­cans to grap­ple with the real­iza­tion that despite under­ly­ing self-iden­ti­ty and legal sta­tus, they are not viewed as white in a coun­try frag­ment­ed by racism.

Racial Clas­si­fi­ca­tion and Erasure 

For most groups in soci­ety, eth­nic and cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty falls under the umbrel­la of racial iden­ti­ty. For Iran­ian Amer­i­cans, embrac­ing a rich cul­tur­al back­ground is in direct con­flict with the monot­o­ne racial clas­si­fi­ca­tion that is forced on them. In an inter­view with The Iranist, when asked why it is prob­lem­at­ic that the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau decid­ed not to include a Mid­dle East­ern or North African (MENA) cat­e­go­ry on the 2020 cen­sus, Magh­bouleh explained that the MENA com­mu­ni­ty has long viewed that “… being lumped togeth­er into a white box [is] an era­sure of their com­mu­ni­ty.” This type of racial era­sure is typ­i­cal of the views in Trumpian America. 

The ram­i­fi­ca­tions of belong­ing to an unrec­og­nized eth­no-racial cat­e­go­ry include being denied minor­i­ty rights and equal access to mate­r­i­al resources. How­ev­er, the rela­tion­ship that Ira­ni­ans have with racial clas­si­fi­ca­tion is one of dis­trust, often avoid­ing fill­ing out gov­ern­ment cen­sus forms in a way that would draw atten­tion to their oth­er-ness. Many soci­ol­o­gists attest that race is a made-up social con­struct, but it is clear that for Iran­ian Amer­i­cans, it con­tin­ues to have very real consequences. 

His­tor­i­cal Basis of Iran­ian Race in America 

So how did Iran­ian Amer­i­cans end up in this posi­tion of racial con­tra­dic­tion? Pri­or to legal changes in the mid-1900s, the Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Act of 1790 dic­tat­ed that only peo­ple who were offi­cial­ly clas­si­fied as white were able to be grant­ed US cit­i­zen­ship. Before large-scale Iran­ian immi­gra­tion into the Unit­ed States, the Iran­ian eth­nic group was already being impli­cat­ed in oth­er groups’ racial strug­gles and ref­er­enced as an inflec­tion point in attes­ta­tions of whiteness. 

On the one hand, East­ern Euro­peans and oth­er Mid­dle East­ern­ers point­ed to Ira­ni­ans and Zoroas­tri­an prac­tices an exam­ple of non-white belief sys­tems to dis­tin­guish them­selves in the hopes of acquir­ing US cit­i­zen­ship. Con­verse­ly, South East Asians and groups from the Indi­an sub­con­ti­nent ref­er­enced over­lap­ping genet­ic lin­eage with Ira­ni­ans to cast them­selves as shar­ing white her­itage in the eyes of the law. To char­ac­ter­ize this dual­i­ty, Magh­bouleh coined the term “racial-hinge” to describe Iran­ian racial iden­ti­ty being some­where between white and non-white, capa­ble of swing­ing back-and-forth across the hypo­thet­i­cal divide to pla­cate the needs of the arbiter. 

When Iran­ian immi­gra­tion to Amer­i­ca became more com­mon after the Iran­ian or Islam­ic Rev­o­lu­tion (1978–1979), Iran­ian racial clas­si­fi­ca­tion was solid­i­fied as being on the white side of the divide. How­ev­er, this legal clas­si­fi­ca­tion has not inher­ent­ly pro­tect­ed Ira­ni­ans from racial­iza­tion and stig­ma with­in Amer­i­can soci­ety. Amer­i­can sen­ti­ment towards Iran dete­ri­o­rat­ed fol­low­ing the rev­o­lu­tion and was fur­ther exac­er­bat­ed by the Iran­ian hostage cri­sis and asso­ci­at­ed media cov­er­age. Accord­ing to a 2016 Gallup Poll, by the year 1990 over 90% of Amer­i­cans expressed neg­a­tive feel­ings towards Iran. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Amer­i­cans’ feel­ings of ani­mos­i­ty are not lim­it­ed to the Iran­ian gov­ern­ment but are often spread across the entire eth­nic group. Magh­bouleh cites fel­low soci­ol­o­gist Mohsen Mobash­er’s attes­ta­tion that, “No oth­er immi­grant group…from an ‘ene­my state’ has been so politi­cized, pub­licly despised, stig­ma­tized, and trau­ma­tized by the U.S. gov­ern­ment as have Iranians…No oth­er immi­grant group from a for­mer ally coun­try of the Unit­ed States has lost its pos­i­tive social image so quick­ly and has been so mis­rep­re­sent­ed, stereo­typed, mis­un­der­stood, and made to feel so unwel­come despite its over­all high socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus and record of accom­plish­ment in a short peri­od of time as Ira­ni­ans have.” 

Cit­ing the law­suit Pourgho­raishi v. Fly­ing F, Inc. (2006), Magh­bouleh details how Iran­ian-Amer­i­cans fall vic­tim to a legal clas­si­fi­ca­tion that dis­agrees with lived real­i­ty — and is fur­ther com­pli­cat­ed by the appre­hen­sion that Ira­ni­ans feel in bring­ing atten­tion to their oth­er-ness. In the case, Pourghouraishi expe­ri­ences what seems like a clear case of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion at an Indi­ana truck stop, the Fly­ing J, where he is refused access to the restroom. The case hinged on whether plain­tiffs could prove that Fly­ing J per­ceived Pourghouraishi’s race as the basis for the dis­crim­i­na­tion. Plain­tiffs assert­ed that, “any rea­son­ably aware and knowl­edge­able per­son would have iden­ti­fied Mr. Pourghouraishi as mid­dle east­ern [sic], both by his appear­ance and speech.” How­ev­er, the case fell through when Mr. Pourghouraishi him­self took the stand and repeat­ed­ly denied that he looked dif­fer­ent from any­one else at the truck stop and that there was no inher­ent way for defen­dants to iden­ti­fy him as from a dif­fer­ent ori­gin than the Unit­ed States. 

It is dif­fi­cult to assess the extent to which Mr. Pourghouraishi was act­ing in his own self-inter­est dur­ing this case. On the one hand, if he had sim­ply tes­ti­fied that his appear­ance pre­empt­ed the dis­crim­i­na­tion, the under­ly­ing cause of racial big­otry would have been sup­port­ed. But why was Mr. Pourghouraishi forced to state this obvi­ous racial delin­eation that runs con­tra­dic­to­ry to the fed­er­al cat­e­go­riza­tion? By being sub­ject to a clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem that dis­agrees with soci­etal por­tray­al and emo­tion, Iran­ian Amer­i­cans have fall­en vic­tim to racial loop­holes, where harm is incurred due to a lack of dis­tinct racial identity. 

Per­cep­tion of Iran in Amer­i­can Society 

Due to the com­plex his­tor­i­cal rela­tion­ship with white Amer­i­cans and the neg­a­tive por­tray­al of Iran in west­ern media, Iran­ian Amer­i­cans today deal with direct and indi­rect dis­crim­i­na­tion that is typ­i­cal of racist ide­ol­o­gy. In one pas­sage, Magh­bouleh intro­duces the read­er to Donya, the daugh­ter of Iran­ian Amer­i­can immi­grants who faces racial­ly moti­vat­ed dis­crim­i­na­tion at school. Donya shares her experience: 

I thought I was ugly. I go to a most­ly white school. And kids would say, “Wow, you have a uni­brow. You have real­ly bushy eye­brows. You’re so hairy: you’re a goril­la.” And I would be like, “Okay dude, I know. Thanks for the reminder.” Soci­ety kept remind­ing me. I told my par­ents, “The kids in my class are mak­ing fun of me, and they’re call­ing me goril­la, mak­ing ‘ooh ooh’ nois­es. They said Bin Laden is my dad.”

This made me won­der how many Iran­ian Amer­i­cans chil­dren in school have been bul­lied and unfair­ly accused of sup­port­ing Bin Laden and Mus­lim extrem­ism. I know I have. Despite being an ele­men­tary school stu­dent at the time, my opti­mistic rela­tion­ship with this coun­try fun­da­men­tal­ly changed after 9/11. My peers did not shy away from call­ing me a ter­ror­ist and my teach­ers did not seem to mind either, even tak­ing part in this mis-direc­tion of racial big­otry. These issues ranged from con­do­lences on the pass­ing of “fam­i­ly mem­bers” (after the exe­cu­tion of Sad­dam Hus­sein) to being ques­tioned on the direc­tion of oil prices from a teacher who found humor in mak­ing these types of asso­ci­a­tions about my heritage. 

I remem­ber con­fid­ing in a POC who held an admin­is­tra­tive role at the school, ask­ing for help nav­i­gat­ing the racial dynam­ics that were impact­ing me. With­out con­fid­ing his own per­son­al expe­ri­ences with race, he rein­forced the idea of observ­able vs. unob­serv­able racial dif­fer­ences. In his mind, I was lucky to have an Amer­i­can name and a lighter skin that could enable me to pass as Ital­ian or Greek. After all, would­n’t it be eas­i­er to avoid the issue of racial dif­fer­ences that lead to dis­crim­i­na­tion? While racial bias is often cor­re­lat­ed with the dark­ness of one’s skin, the Iran­ian expe­ri­ence in soci­ety is more akin to an on/off switch where sim­ply know­ing or not know­ing of the exis­tence of Iran­ian her­itage plays a major role in any poten­tial dis­crim­i­na­tion or lack thereof. 

One of my worst mem­o­ries deal­ing with racial dis­crim­i­na­tion was when I was forced to change my home­room class half-way through high school when my teacher found out I was of Iran­ian descent. I will nev­er for­get his utter dis­gust and his promise that I would be out of his class by the next day. Of course the change hap­pened over night forc­ing me to rec­on­cile with the embar­rass­ment. In my new Home­room class, I revealed why the sud­den and rare change occurred, to which my new teacher said, “yeah, he is like that. That’s just who he is.”

This kind of treat­ment con­tin­ued even out­side of acad­e­mia. In col­lege I was invit­ed to my boyfriend’s fam­i­ly’s house for din­ner. I remem­ber the excite­ment I felt about being invit­ed as I sat down to join them. Know­ing that my par­ents were Iran­ian immi­grants, min­utes into meal his father asked, “So did your dad used to ride a camel to school?” While clear­ly a mis­guid­ed attempt at humor, this expe­ri­ence is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the dilem­ma faced when deal­ing with racial­ly-moti­vat­ed state­ments. Either laugh along at the expense of my her­itage or stand up for myself and be viewed as the aggres­sor who can’t take a joke. I stayed silent. 

Por­tray­al of Iran of West­ern Media 

Magh­bouleh touch­es on the under­ly­ing sen­ti­ments that many Amer­i­cans feel towards Iran by ref­er­enc­ing an episode of the pop­u­lar game show Fam­i­ly Feud (per­haps coin­ci­den­tal­ly aired on 9/11 in 2012) where con­tes­tants were asked to name a place where no one would want to vis­it. Along­side rea­son­able answers such as “jail” and “hell”, two spe­cif­ic geo­graph­ic loca­tions were includ­ed as accept­able answers: Iran and Siberia. Magh­bouleh apt­ly explains that while the notion of vis­it­ing Siberia is relat­ed to broad­er con­cepts (cold, vast, remote tun­dra), the idea of Iran being an unat­trac­tive des­ti­na­tion is direct­ly tied to the pol­i­tics of the coun­try, and ulti­mate­ly, its people. 

This exam­ple illus­trates the mis­con­cep­tions that Amer­i­cans have about Iran while also rein­forc­ing the con­fla­tion that occurs when neg­a­tive sen­ti­ments (that may fair­ly be cast against the Iran­ian gov­ern­ment) are spread over the coun­try and peo­ple as a whole. For any sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Iran­ian Amer­i­can watch­ing the episode, the inclu­sion of Iran is like­ly to have been quite a con­tra­dic­tion to their per­son­al per­cep­tion. Magh­bouleh com­ments on this dis­crep­an­cy by observ­ing that “Sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Iran­ian Amer­i­can youth are, for the most part, born into homes where Iran is roman­ti­cized while grow­ing up in a coun­try, with few excep­tions, in which Iran is stigmatized.”

The con­found­ing of neg­a­tive west­ern stereo­types onto Iran as a des­ti­na­tion rang espe­cial­ly true based on my expe­ri­ence. As some­one who is lucky enough to have vis­it­ed the native coun­try of my par­ents and ances­tors, I have won­der­ful mem­o­ries of my time in Iran and being immersed in the most beau­ti­ful land­scapes, awe-inspir­ing archi­tec­ture, and deli­cious cui­sine. The Iran­ian stereo­types that speak to me and my expe­ri­ence are based on the gra­cious­ness and hos­pi­tal­i­ty of its peo­ple and are in direct oppo­si­tion to those encoun­tered in the west­ern world. 

Less explic­it neg­a­tive exam­ples in the media that may seem harm­less or light-heart­ed can unfor­tu­nate­ly impact or col­or a naive view­er’s per­cep­tion of Iran. In an episode on the food com­pe­ti­tion show Chopped that fea­tured for­mer mil­i­tary mem­bers, con­tes­tants were tasked with mak­ing a meal using Per­sian food/drink sta­ples “tor­shi” and “doogh”. The comedic relief occurred as the con­tes­tants tried small sam­ples and expressed their dis­gust while the less tone-deaf judges explained that these com­modi­ties are trea­sured in Per­sian cui­sine. Sim­i­lar­ly, doogh was the main sub­ject of one of the most watched videos on Barstool (post­ed Sep­tem­ber 2020). In the video, many peo­ple are seen tast­ing doogh and most of them react­ed extreme­ly poor­ly by gag­ging and spit­ting up the drink (not to men­tion repeat­ed care­less pro­nun­ci­a­tion of the coun­try of ori­gin as “eye-ran”). See­ing one of my favorite drinks ridiculed in a way that felt racial­ly moti­vat­ed under the guise of humor was dis­heart­en­ing, and I was­n’t alone. The video was the sub­ject of con­tention on Twit­ter and one user cap­tured the essence of my con­cern, com­ment­ing that this type of activ­i­ty only serves to “light a xeno­pho­bic fire.” 

In the sum­mer of 2012, New York Times con­trib­u­tor Nicholas Kristof trav­eled to Iran and upon his return wrote in his report named Pinched and Grip­ing in Iran (June 2012): “…with apolo­gies to the many won­der­ful Ira­ni­ans who show­ered me with hos­pi­tal­i­ty, I favor sanc­tions because I don’t see any oth­er way to pres­sure the regime on the nuclear issue or ease its grip on pow­er. My take­away is that sanc­tions are work­ing pret­ty well.” While one can debate the util­i­ty of eco­nom­ic sanc­tions to achieve a polit­i­cal goal, Kristof­f’s lack of human­i­ty towards Iran­ian peo­ple in favor of pro­mot­ing nation­al secu­ri­ty was a dis­heart­en­ing moment that fur­ther con­tributed to the dehu­man­iza­tion of Iranians. 

While most por­tray­als of Iran in mod­ern media have been neg­a­tive and stress cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences, the late Antho­ny Bour­dain pro­vid­ed a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive in a 2014 episode of his show Parts Unknown. Trav­el­ing to Iran to explore and indulge in the local cui­sine, Bour­dain cen­tered the episode around expos­ing the strik­ing mis­con­cep­tions that west­ern­ers have of Iran­ian peo­ple, show­cas­ing the friend­ly and hos­pitable nature of the major­i­ty of the Iran­ian pub­lic. The episode cul­mi­nates with Bour­dain being invit­ed to din­ner in an Iran­ian house­hold and being treat­ed to a home-cooked meal, serv­ing to show Amer­i­can view­ers that the sto­ries they have been told about ter­ror­ists and bombs are the prod­uct of weaponized polit­i­cal mes­sag­ing more so than a reflec­tion of cul­tur­al reality. 

The typ­i­cal­ly neg­a­tive por­tray­al of Iran­ian cul­ture in the U.S. media has a direct impact on the way Iran­ian-Amer­i­cans are viewed and treat­ed in soci­ety. Grow­ing up when­ev­er I had a birth­day par­ty friends would come to me after­wards and say, “Wow! Your fam­i­ly is so much dif­fer­ent than I thought.” While meant to be some type of com­pli­ment that we’re “not that bad,” it was a harsh reminder of how mis­un­der­stood and stig­ma­tized Iran­ian cul­ture has become. As a young child, I was forced to grap­ple with dif­fi­cult ques­tions on my fam­i­ly’s place in Amer­i­can soci­ety: What did they think about us before that led to such a sur­prise when in the pres­ence of such a nor­mal hap­py envi­ron­ment, sim­i­lar to their own home life? Did they not think we were as human as they are? 

Lived Expe­ri­ence – Life Defines Racial Identity 

In some of the most grip­ping pas­sages in The Lim­its of White­ness, Magh­bouleh details episodes of direct dis­crim­i­na­tion that Iran­ian-Amer­i­cans have expe­ri­enced in this coun­try. When the mem­o­ry of a stu­den­t’s expe­ri­ence in a 5th grade class­room is ren­dered, Magh­bouleh has the read­er feel­ing the pain and strug­gle that is all to famil­iar for sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Iranians: 

“Sima took a deep breath. ‘I’m nev­er going to for­get this,’ she said, before describ­ing what hap­pened next. She deliv­ered her cam­paign speech and reeled with adren­a­line and nerves. Then a boy named Tom­my stood i[ at his desk to ask her a ques­tion. ‘In front of the entire class,’ Sima remem­bered, he said, ‘So if you win, are you going to make us say the pledge of alle­giance like this?’ while tak­ing his right hand from his heart and putting his index fin­ger across his eye­brows. ‘He was mak­ing fun of my uni­brow,’ she remem­bered. The room became elec­tric to her as gig­gles erupt­ed out of all her class­mates. All eyes were on Sima to see how she would react. No friends stood to defend her, nor did the teacher inter­ject with any sort of admo­ni­tion to Tommy…” 

Magh­bouleh tells the sto­ry of a Lati­no man named Miguel who was attacked by white men, in his own words, “because he looked Iran­ian.” The main­stream media often char­ac­ter­izes dis­crim­i­na­tion against Ira­ni­ans and oth­er Mid­dle East­ern­ers as “any­thing but race,” point­ing to eth­nic, cul­tur­al, or lin­guis­tic dif­fer­ences as the moti­vat­ing fac­tors. How­ev­er, the case of Miguel’s attack and asso­ci­at­ed “racial mis-recog­ni­tion” shows us that the ethnic/cultural iden­ti­ty of Ira­ni­ans is not a nec­es­sary com­po­nent to ignite ani­mos­i­ty or vio­lence. As Magh­bouleh con­cludes, “That these types of ‘racial mis-recog­ni­tion’ cas­es con­sis­tent­ly involve white Amer­i­cans enact­ing vio­lence against racial minori­ties whom they inac­cu­rate­ly per­ceive to be Iran­ian points to an on-the-ground cog­ni­tive racial sta­tus of Ira­ni­ans as not-white, at least in the present-day white Amer­i­can imaginary.”

Although per­haps not as straight for­ward as police bru­tal­i­ty against African Amer­i­cans, the dis­crim­i­na­tion that is felt by Mid­dle East­ern­ers at large can­not hon­est­ly be con­strued as any­thing besides racial­ly moti­vat­ed acts of hate or igno­rance. View­ing this type of dis­crim­i­na­tion as a non-racial issue ignores the expe­ri­ences of Iran­ian Amer­i­cans who are imag­ined (and imag­ine them­selves) out­side the lim­its of whiteness. 

Where do we go from here? 

Sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Iran­ian Amer­i­cans con­tin­ue to cope with racial incon­sis­ten­cies that com­pli­cate their iden­ti­ty and sense of belong­ing in the Unit­ed States. With the fresh­ly-elect­ed Joe Biden in the White House, it is like­ly that the Mus­lim ban will be lift­ed through Exec­u­tive Order short­ly fol­low­ing his Jan­u­ary 2021 inau­gu­ra­tion. Although this will not change the past strug­gles for the peo­ple across sev­en coun­tries impact­ed by the ban, it will hope­ful­ly rep­re­sent a step towards reduc­ing inter­na­tion­al ten­sion. How­ev­er, as dis­cussed through­out, it remains to be seen if legal deci­sion-mak­ing is able to per­me­ate through to every­day life. 

By engag­ing the read­er with ethno­graph­ic evi­dence and cap­ti­vat­ing nar­ra­tives, Neda Magh­bouleh suc­ceeds in The Lim­its of White­ness: Iran­ian Amer­i­cans and the Every­day Pol­i­tics of Race by mak­ing a case for the new, rad­i­cal idea that a white Amer­i­can immi­grant group can (and ought to) have the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er to become brown. Acknowl­edg­ing that the social con­struct of race has failed to ade­quate­ly account for the Mid­dle East­ern lived real­i­ty in this coun­ty is an impor­tant first step in devel­op­ing prac­ti­cal solu­tions to estab­lish an inde­pen­dent racial iden­ti­ty for a group of peo­ple who have been vic­tims of racial loop­holes for far too long. 

With a his­tor­i­cal lega­cy root­ed in the glo­ry of the ancient Per­sian empire and a pres­ence informed by soci­etal expe­ri­ence in the west­ern world, Iran­ian Amer­i­cans are poised to play a piv­otal role in the con­tin­ued devel­op­ment of their racial iden­ti­ty in Amer­i­can society. 

Rebec­ca Allamey is an Iran­ian Amer­i­can liv­ing in Boston, Mass­a­chu­setts. She grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rhode Island with degrees in Phi­los­o­phy and Bio­log­i­cal Sciences