“Where Are You From?” Identity and the Spirit of Ethno-Futurism

15 February, 2022

 

Regard­less of our indi­vid­ual eth­nic back­grounds, pol­i­tics or reli­gious beliefs, Ira­ni­ans in the Unit­ed States are uni­fied by the com­mon expe­ri­ence of being fun­da­men­tal­ly alien­at­ed — legal­ly white, but social­ly brown.

 

Bavand Karim

 

The first time I heard the term “eth­no-futur­ism” was years ago at a poet­ry read­ing. Not in the lan­guage of the poem itself, but in the cri­tique of the poem. This cri­tique was made in the form of an analy­sis, but it was essen­tial­ly a search for knowl­edge about the ‘truth’ with­in the lit­er­a­ture. Eth­no-futur­ism as a con­cept is exact­ly that – a cri­tique – a search for knowl­edge in which the largest con­cern is the truth of ourselves.

Accord­ing­ly, the eth­no-futur­ist per­spec­tive occu­pies a unique space with­in the tran­si­tion­al peri­ods of human cul­tur­al his­to­ry. As a civilization’s cul­tur­al mono­liths expire and new tra­di­tions emerge, the onto­log­i­cal, social, and his­tor­i­cal van­tage points of real­i­ty shift. The long-term rip­ples of events like the cre­ation of mar­kets in the 13th cen­tu­ry or the French rev­o­lu­tion can still be felt today. As mankind con­tin­ues to evolve through tech­no­log­i­cal ages, a philo­soph­i­cal approach is need­ed that con­sid­ers the pre-his­tor­i­cal pasts and poten­tial futures of nation­al and inter­na­tion­al cul­tur­al iden­ti­ties as part of a larg­er inves­ti­ga­tion into the con­cept of human­i­ty. These are the large-scale approach­es of eth­no-futur­ism, but some­times much small­er shifts occur, with­in the micro­cosms of our lives.

A micro-shift occurred in my life on a sum­mer evening in 2009, after a bas­ket­ball game, when an acquain­tance of many years engaged me in a con­ver­sa­tion. After a bit of small talk, he leaned over, and with an inquis­i­tive, arguably pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al expres­sion he asked me, “So, where are you from?” To be fair, this is a com­mon ques­tion. But this instance felt dif­fer­ent, as if meant to draw bound­ary lines between us. And one of the main rea­sons I remem­ber how I felt in that moment is because of where it took place: on the bas­ket­ball court.

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, sports rep­re­sent a great equal­iz­er, impar­tial and objec­tive, where only ath­let­ic per­for­mance mat­ters. As a life­long bas­ket­ball play­er, the game has tra­di­tion­al­ly been a safe space for me, where the per­ceived lim­i­ta­tions of my eth­nic­i­ty and socio-eco­nom­ic sta­tus were no longer deter­min­ing fac­tors in my suc­cess. On that par­tic­u­lar sum­mer evening, that group was one that I had played with, in the same gym, for many years. I was the only Iran­ian Amer­i­can among a group of white Amer­i­can play­ers. To me, the games rep­re­sent­ed a white-dom­i­nat­ed space where there was actu­al fair play in terms of social hier­ar­chy, and I did not feel dis­crim­i­nat­ed against, dom­i­nat­ed, or ren­dered infe­ri­or by what I per­ceived as the inher­ent exclu­sive­ness of white­ness. On the con­trary, I felt accept­ed in that space, and had even been cel­e­brat­ed for my agili­ty, which is exact­ly why my acquaintance’s osten­si­bly innocu­ous ques­tion felt like such an insid­i­ous accu­sa­tion — it threat­ened to alien­ate me this group that I val­ued so deeply. In that moment, I cer­tain­ly felt like an out­sider. Worse yet, it shat­tered my ide­al­ist notion that an unbi­ased, non-par­ti­san space could exist at all.

As my avant-garde pro­fes­sors from the late ’90s would say, “there’s a lot to unpack there,” espe­cial­ly in terms of iden­ti­ty, rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and self-accep­tance. What I did not real­ize at the time was that I need­ed to take a larg­er per­spec­tive than assign­ing myself to a space with­in the cul­tur­al bina­ry of white­ness v. every­thing else. There is a bet­ter answer to my truth. But for a num­ber of rea­sons, it is just hard­er to find.

A tra­di­tion­al simorgh — the bird of Per­sian leg­end — carved on a pump­kin (cour­tesy Bavand Karim).

My answer to “where are you from” is a com­pli­cat­ed one. I was born in New Mex­i­co. I was raised in Texas. I live in Los Ange­les. But none of these are ever the cor­rect answer, because when peo­ple ask me — who is osten­si­bly white but appar­ent­ly not quite white enough to pass as Amer­i­can — “where are you from,” it is nev­er about home­towns or alma maters or favorite teams.

These indi­vid­u­als want to know my eth­nic­i­ty, to under­stand it as a win­dow into the truth about me, and by asso­ci­a­tion, affirm some truth of their own. They want to hear that I am Iran­ian, even if I am not from Iran. And this in turn makes me won­der, if out of noth­ing oth­er than a sense of self-preser­va­tion, why.

Amer­i­ca is inher­ent­ly divid­ed along any num­ber of social and polit­i­cal lines, and quite promi­nent­ly by race and class. When it comes to our nation­al fix­a­tion with race, the need to define and cat­e­go­rize nation­al­i­ty and eth­nic­i­ty is espe­cial­ly prob­lem­at­ic for Iran­ian Amer­i­cans, for whom legal sta­tus does not reflect social sta­tus. There is an idea of us as a cul­tur­al group, but whether or not our lived truths align with that idea is a mat­ter of per­spec­tive and debate. What is clear­er is how Iran­ian Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty has been defined exter­nal­ly by white­ness. “The idea of cul­tur­al rel­a­tivism,” attor­ney Shirin Eba­di warns, “is noth­ing but an excuse to vio­late human rights.” Regard­less of our indi­vid­ual eth­nic back­grounds, pol­i­tics or reli­gious beliefs, Ira­ni­ans in the Unit­ed States are uni­fied by the com­mon expe­ri­ence of being fun­da­men­tal­ly alien­at­ed — legal­ly white, but social­ly brown.

Think about that for a sec­ond: Ira­ni­ans are legal­ly white. Accord­ing to the U.S. Office of Per­son­nel Management’s form SF-181, “A per­son hav­ing ori­gins in any of the orig­i­nal peo­ple of Europe, the Mid­dle East, or North Africa” is ‘white.’” This def­i­n­i­tion has reper­cus­sions: By hav­ing our iden­ti­ties legal­ly jum­bled into a mis­cel­lany of white and Arab nation­al­i­ties, Iran­ian Amer­i­cans are nev­er ful­ly grant­ed a sense of authen­tic legit­i­ma­cy. Speak­ing from expe­ri­ence, it can be daunt­ing to search for a place of one’s own with­in America’s tra­di­tion­al­ly white cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions. In the pro­fes­sion­al world, for the most part, my iden­ti­ty has been acknowl­edged by my col­leagues in two forms: oth­er­ness and invisibility.

I’m not alone.

“Peo­ple think because I’m from the Mid­dle East, I’m an expert on the Mid­dle East,” come­di­an Maz Jobrani jokes. “I got a friend, and any time gas prices go up, he’ll always ask my opin­ion about it.” Jobrani’s jok­ing, but he’s also describ­ing a larg­er prob­lem: gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, the inter­ests and val­ues of the aver­age Iran­ian Amer­i­can do not align with the com­mon pub­lic per­cep­tion of Iran­ian Amer­i­cans as a group.

In Amer­i­can soci­ety at large, Ira­ni­ans are gen­er­al­ly under-rep­re­sent­ed and rarely cel­e­brat­ed. To some, Per­sian-ness is rich with exot­ic mys­tique and his­tor­i­cal depth that white Amer­i­can cul­ture lacks. In anoth­er pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive, Ira­ni­ans are hard-work­ing immi­grants chas­ing the Amer­i­can dream. This dichoto­my between rich and poor reflects the larg­er divides in Amer­i­ca, but it also places Ira­ni­ans at two polar oppo­site ends of a spec­trum when it comes to rep­re­sen­ta­tion in pop­u­lar cul­ture: we are either tycoons and CEOs or bode­ga own­ers and taxi dri­vers. The com­mon, mid­dle class Iran­ian Amer­i­can fam­i­ly equiv­a­lent to those seen on Full House, Fam­i­ly Mat­ters or Mar­ried with Chil­dren is nowhere to be found. Amer­i­ca wants Per­sian rugs and cats, but it doesn’t want us — it wants Prince of Per­sia star­ring Jake Gyl­len­haal. For some, white­wash­ing and era­sure may be prefer­able to the neg­a­tive stereo­typ­ing pre­sent­ed as Iran­ian Amer­i­can “real­i­ty” on Shahs of Sun­set. “Low-income Ira­ni­ans are under-rep­re­sent­ed,” says author Porochista Khakpour. “I get that, more than any­thing from Iran­ian Amer­i­can read­ers, when they’re like: ‘Thank you for speak­ing out about being a poor Iran­ian.’ There’s just no rep­re­sen­ta­tion with that.”

Let’s be clear: Amer­i­ca is a cul­tur­al melt­ing pot where there are no rules — I mixed a tamale with my lubia polo last week and it was delicious.

Iran­ian-Amer­i­can. It is sym­bol­i­cal­ly fit­ting that a hyphen sep­a­rates our two cul­tur­al affil­i­a­tions, because our lives are inter­rupt­ed by a sym­bol­ic racial­iza­tion that places us between the tra­di­tion­al bina­ries of white­ness and black­ness. As a teenag­er in the sub­urbs of North Texas, my iden­ti­ty depend­ed on who was sit­ting across the table. Black friends saw my white­ness first say­ing, “You pass for white; you’re white.” But “pass­ing” is sub­jec­tive, and man­u­fac­tured white­ness is a spec­trum. An even more appro­pri­ate anal­o­gy might be that white­ness is a lad­der, gatekept by elu­sive forms of val­i­da­tion. “Where are you from?” is what peo­ple usu­al­ly ask me when they want to deter­mine my place on that lad­der, shift­ing my posi­tion from “pass­ing” to an ambigu­ous “brown — but not Black.” Emo­tion­al­ly, it is rem­i­nis­cent of the 2018 film Green Book, when Dr. Shirley, por­trayed by Maher­sha­la Ali, laments “So if I’m not black enough, and if I’m not white enough … then what am I?”

A num­ber of schol­ars have chron­i­cled expe­ri­ences like mine. I most recent­ly read Neda Maghbouleh’s The Lim­its of White­ness: Iran­ian Amer­i­cans and the Every­day Pol­i­tics of Race, but John Tehranian’s White­washed: Amer­i­ca’s Invis­i­ble Mid­dle East­ern Minor­i­ty and Nilou Mostofi’s arti­cle “Who We Are: The Per­plex­i­ty of Iran­ian-Amer­i­can Iden­ti­ty” also rumi­nate on the issues at hand. All three texts rein­force the same idea: Despite the brown­ing that our nation­al iden­ti­ty endures in the Unit­ed States, Iran­ian Amer­i­cans are staunch­ly root­ed in a racial­ly lim­i­nal ter­ri­to­ry, occu­py­ing a unique cul­tur­al space of our own that seem­ing­ly exists simul­ta­ne­ous­ly on both sides of the thresh­old of whiteness.

Like many Iran­ian Amer­i­cans, the true native cul­ture of my house­hold brings togeth­er the best of two worlds to cre­ate a sort of Zoroas­tri­an Amer­i­cana. We dec­o­rate a Christ­mas tree in Decem­ber and put out a Sofreh Haft-Sin in March. We have our own unique lin­guis­tic mod­el that min­gles Eng­lish words and phras­es into our Far­si con­ver­sa­tions, and vice ver­sa. We make Per­sian recipes for Amer­i­can palettes, lis­ten to Iran­ian music on the way to foot­ball games, dec­o­rate our McMan­sions with Per­sian art, and adorn our­selves with jew­el­ry and acces­sories that hint at our con­nec­tion to Iran. Let’s be clear: Amer­i­ca is a cul­tur­al melt­ing pot where there are no rules — I mixed a tamale with my lubia polo last week and it was delicious.

On a deep­er lev­el, our cul­tur­al dual­i­ty is a form of defense and refuge against the endem­ic alien­ation cre­at­ed by the ubiq­ui­tous pow­er of white­ness. It pro­vides a safe place for us — a des­ig­na­tion as “one of the good ones” — when we apply for jobs or loans, attempt to pur­chase homes, or seek out the best oppor­tu­ni­ties for our chil­dren. In this way, white­ness coerces us into cov­et­ing it and the priv­i­leges it sig­ni­fies. The gold­en gen­er­a­tion of Iran­ian-Amer­i­cans remem­bers abrupt­ly being tar­get­ed and oth­ered after the hostage cri­sis in 1979. Author Firoozeh Dumas describes the shift in sen­ti­ment in her mem­oir, Fun­ny in Far­si: “Overnight, Ira­ni­ans liv­ing in Amer­i­ca became, to say the least, very unpop­u­lar. For some rea­son, many Amer­i­cans began to think that all Ira­ni­ans … could at any moment get angry and take pris­on­ers.” My gen­er­a­tion reached adult­hood in the post‑9/11 zeit­geist, where racial pro­fil­ing has drawn renewed scruti­ny to our nation­al­i­ty and activ­i­ties that were once sim­ple and straight­for­ward — like pass­ing through cus­toms — have become cru­cibles gatekept by whiteness.

“The first time I flew after Sep­tem­ber 11, I was hon­est­ly a lit­tle para­noid,” Jobrani says in one of his rou­tines. “I was look­ing at my duf­fel bag, and I’m like, ‘Do I have any­thing that’s like a weapon?’ I was real­ly para­noid they were gonna find some­thing sharp, and I was gonna get in trou­ble.” He is pre­sum­ably only half-jok­ing. In a coin­ci­dence that is in no way relat­ed, my own father’s name is Moham­mad and he is always ran­dom­ly select­ed by the TSA for addi­tion­al screen­ing. He is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly white and not-white; he is Schrödinger’s Citizen.

The fact is that the oblig­a­tory racial clas­si­fi­ca­tion imposed on Ira­ni­ans is a dam­ag­ing form of coer­cion, and worse yet, dele­tion. The con­vo­lut­ed cen­sus sit­u­a­tion is dan­ger­ous. It cre­ates a form of alien­ation that has a mul­ti­tude of con­se­quences that can poten­tial­ly impact Ira­ni­ans’ social equi­ty, health out­comes, and our treat­ment in the eyes of the law. The true harm of mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion and under-count­ing is the increased poten­tial for the denial of jus­tice to the Iran­ian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty as we are forcibly assim­i­lat­ed into the very cul­tur­al par­a­digms that oppress us.

How can we address the dis­crim­i­na­tion we face when our own diver­si­ty is not legal­ly recognized?

“One prob­lem with hav­ing Mid­dle East­ern­ers lumped in as white is that in a lot of cas­es Mid­dle East­ern­ers are not treat­ed as white,” says Tehran­ian. “When one talks about diver­si­ty hir­ing or when one talks about dis­crim­i­na­tion, if we’re look­ing at secu­ri­ty stops at air­ports, for exam­ple, and we cat­e­go­rize Mid­dle East­ern peo­ple as white peo­ple, we’re not going to see any data that Mid­dle East­ern­ers are being tar­get­ed more than any­body else. In oth­er words, it impacts our data and makes it hard to mea­sure dis­crim­i­na­tion. And in some cas­es, it’s made it hard for Mid­dle East­ern­ers to claim dis­crim­i­na­tion at all, because then the defense some­times is, ‘Well, you’re white, how could you be dis­crim­i­nat­ed against?’ But tech­ni­cal­ly they are.”

The cul­tur­al research per­formed by var­i­ous Iran­ian Amer­i­can authors, come­di­ans, film­mak­ers, and artists offer impor­tant insight into the ways Iran­ian Amer­i­cans are haunt­ed by the micro-aggres­sive revenants of America’s colo­nial antecedent. Ours is a world where “Where are you from?” is always poten­tial­ly much more than a friend­ly ice­break­er; it is the gate­way to dis­af­fec­tion, estrange­ment, and ani­mos­i­ty over pol­i­tics, reli­gion, and a mul­ti­tude of oth­er man­u­fac­tured dif­fer­ences. “I remem­ber I was in a San Fran­cis­co night­club,” Jobrani says, “and I start­ed talk­ing to some girl, and it was like, ‘Hey, what’s going on, what’s your name?’ You know, ‘Where are you from?’ I go, ‘I’m from Iran.’ And lit­er­al­ly, she just looked at me and walked away.” Expe­ri­ences like Jobrani’s, although humil­i­at­ing, are impor­tant to share. Doc­u­ment­ing the com­plex­i­ties and para­dox­es of the Iran­ian Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty through first-hand accounts of sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Ira­ni­ans in the Unit­ed States affirms our alien­ation as a wide­ly-shared com­mu­nal expe­ri­ence which, although sin­gu­lar to each of us, is not unique among Ira­ni­ans. Our shared real­i­ty is sym­bol­i­cal­ly pow­er­ful, for it sig­ni­fies that there may be hope for a cohe­sive sense of iden­ti­ty among the Iran­ian Amer­i­can community.

For most of us, any claim to white­ness is a revolv­ing door. White­ness is less a legal clas­si­fi­ca­tion than a shift­ing iden­ti­ty politic — a social­ly con­struct­ed des­ig­na­tion that can be cir­cum­stan­tial­ly or arbi­trar­i­ly acti­vat­ed and revoked. “Part of the priv­i­lege of white­ness is not need­ing to reflect on white­ness,” says jour­nal­ist Ren­ni Eddo-Lodge. “Pos­i­tive affir­ma­tions of white­ness are so wide­spread that the aver­age white per­son doesn’t even notice them.” If the para­dox of being Iran­ian Amer­i­can lies in lim­i­nal racial­iza­tion, then the para­dox of white­ness is that it derives pow­er from the con­stant­ly shift­ing ground upon which it sits.

In the Unit­ed States, the inher­ent priv­i­lege of white­ness derives its strength not only through sheer hege­mon­ic force, but also through a resilient flex­i­bil­i­ty; it ebbs and flows, it adapts over time, evolves, and defines itself by dis­tin­guish­ing itself from what it is not. Unde­sir­able groups are social­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly sub­ju­gat­ed by the pow­er of this exclu­sion. For some sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Ira­ni­ans, the alien­ation runs even deep­er, as the lack of full flu­en­cy in Far­si or first-hand knowl­edge of Iran leaves them estranged from their Iran­ian peers as much as being oth­ered sep­a­rates them from whiteness.

The author’s fam­i­ly Sofreh Haft-Sin from a recent Nowruz — the Haft-Sin is an arrange­ment of sev­en sym­bol­ic items tra­di­tion­al­ly dis­played at Nowruz, the Iran­ian New Year, which is cel­e­brat­ed on the day of the ver­nal equinox.

For the Iran­ian immi­grants who arrive in Amer­i­ca with an inher­ent sense of white iden­ti­ty, the con­tra­dic­tion and result­ing ambi­gu­i­ty of being legal­ly white but social­ly brown can be espe­cial­ly con­found­ing. Iran­ian immi­grants meet the tra­di­tion­al cri­te­ria of accept­abil­i­ty in white Amer­i­ca; gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, they are high­ly edu­cat­ed, work white col­lar jobs, and live mid­dle-class lifestyles. Many have risen to promi­nence in their respec­tive fields. Yet as a peo­ple we remain on the mar­gins of accep­tance in white Amer­i­ca. The ram­i­fi­ca­tions of mar­gin­al­iza­tion rip­ple through gen­er­a­tions, con­tra­dict­ing the­o­ries of race and assim­i­la­tion that claim that suc­ces­sive immi­grant gen­er­a­tions will devel­op stronger attach­ments to white­ness as a social iden­ti­ty. Instead, first-gen­er­a­tion Iran­ian par­ents are rais­ing a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of hyphen­at­ed indi­vid­u­als who are increas­ing­ly aware that Ira­ni­ans are not white. Not quite. Not in America.

If we Iran­ian Amer­i­cans are to nav­i­gate America’s racial­ized rhetoric with integri­ty, we should acknowl­edge that white­ness and the priv­i­lege it espous­es comes at the expense of a mul­ti­tude of racial­ized groups — which could accu­rate­ly be char­ac­ter­ized as every­one else includ­ing our­selves. While we may take com­fort in being legal­ly includ­ed in the def­i­n­i­tion of white, Amer­i­can main­stream media con­tin­ues to demo­nize Iran and Iranians.

The foun­da­tion­al idea that there is a group of orig­i­nal, ances­tral Whites or Aryans — the Cau­casians who descend­ed from the Cau­ca­sus moun­tains — is inef­fec­tu­al in any prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion, and poten­tial­ly harm­ful to sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions of Iran­ian Amer­i­cans. No mat­ter how pre­cise­ly we frame our Aryan cul­tur­al her­itage, Cau­casian geo­graph­ic ori­gin and Indo-Euro­pean lan­guage, or how strong­ly we desire the con­comi­tance of a white racial iden­ti­ty, or how pas­sion­ate­ly we cov­et the accep­tance of hege­mon­ic white groups, these beliefs are not trans­mutable to life in the Unit­ed States unless they are accept­ed by the hege­mo­ny and inte­grat­ed into the sta­tus quo. Until then, Ira­ni­ans will be per­pet­u­al­ly nego­ti­at­ing and rene­go­ti­at­ing our posi­tion on the periph­ery of whiteness.

There are ways in which we can help or hurt our­selves. It is prob­lem­at­ic when Ira­ni­ans selec­tive­ly link to the ances­tral Aryan nar­ra­tive as a means to ele­vate their social sta­tus and sep­a­rate them­selves from stig­ma­tized groups, espe­cial­ly if this sep­a­ra­tion is nego­ti­at­ed as being dis­tinct from the racist iden­ti­ty fram­ing used by white suprema­cists. As author Ta-Nehisi Coates says, “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” Giv­en the inher­ent anti-Black sen­ti­ment that is preva­lent in Iran­ian cul­ture, any attempt by Ira­ni­ans to claim Aryan her­itage is vul­ner­a­ble to being inter­pret­ed as a poor­ly-veiled if not trans­par­ent attempt to ille­git­i­mate­ly secure the pres­tige of white priv­i­lege, and there­fore labeled as a form of inter­nal white­wash­ing that uti­lizes the same log­i­cal mech­a­nisms that uphold white supremacy.

If we Iran­ian Amer­i­cans are to nav­i­gate America’s racial­ized rhetoric with integri­ty, we should acknowl­edge that white­ness and the priv­i­lege it espous­es comes at the expense of a mul­ti­tude of racial­ized groups — which could accu­rate­ly be char­ac­ter­ized as every­one else includ­ing our­selves. While we may take com­fort in being legal­ly includ­ed in the def­i­n­i­tion of white, Amer­i­can main­stream media con­tin­ues to demo­nize Iran and Ira­ni­ans. As a result, Amer­i­can white­ness – its val­ues, con­no­ta­tions, and all that it sig­ni­fies – must remain incon­gru­ent with who we are. This is why, for myself and many of my peers, our iden­ti­ties align less with white­ness and more with those racial­ized groups. Come­di­an Negin Farsad relates this phe­nom­e­non in her book, How to Make White Peo­ple Laugh, where she writes, “I’m actu­al­ly an Iran­ian-Amer­i­can Mus­lim Female … But here’s the thing: I used to feel black.”

En route to defin­ing what it means to be Iran­ian Amer­i­can there is a prox­i­mal objec­tive of also describ­ing what it means to be Amer­i­can. Amer­i­ca, as a nation, is more than a geo­graph­ic loca­tion or polit­i­cal enti­ty. It is more than a com­bi­na­tion of val­ues. Amer­i­ca is an idea. For many, that idea is root­ed in the belief that any­thing is pos­si­ble, and that per­se­ver­ance and hard work can lead to immense achieve­ment, mate­r­i­al suc­cess, and social recog­ni­tion. To the Iran­ian immi­grants who fled the Islam­ic Repub­lic, Amer­i­ca might rep­re­sent a safe har­bor for human and civ­il rights, or the poten­tial to enjoy cul­tur­al, reli­gious, or polit­i­cal freedom.

Franklin D. Roo­sevelt famous­ly said that “Amer­i­can­ism is a mat­ter of the mind and the heart; Amer­i­can­ism is not and nev­er was, a mat­ter of race and ances­try. A good Amer­i­can is one who is loy­al to this coun­try and to our creed of lib­er­ty and democ­ra­cy.” This rings true to many of us sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Ira­ni­ans, for whom iden­ti­ty is a per­mu­ta­tion of tra­di­tion­al cul­tur­al fam­i­ly val­ues inter­twined with Amer­i­can con­cep­tions of per­son­al liberty.

The eth­no-futur­ist man “explores the future to bet­ter under­stand the present” (cour­tesy ethnofuturisme.com).

Of course, Amer­i­ca is often char­ac­ter­ized a melt­ing pot — an exper­i­ment where a pletho­ra of dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions come togeth­er to form a com­mon theme. By this def­i­n­i­tion, it is the per­fect sand­box for eth­no-futur­ism. In becom­ing Amer­i­can, we detach from our native cul­tures. We no longer have ances­tors. We sub­mit to the hege­mon­ic nature of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture and its shift­ing def­i­n­i­tions of who we are. America’s own iden­ti­ty is an inher­ent­ly tran­si­tion­al and divid­ed one, and so con­cor­dant­ly in tem­po we fol­low, cease­less­ly diverg­ing and meld­ing, nev­er com­ing to rest, and remain­ing for­ev­er divid­ed with­in our­selves. As our iden­ti­ties are per­pet­u­al­ly being nego­ti­at­ed and re-nego­ti­at­ed with each new inter­ac­tion, how many hands touch us and influ­ence our being? By the time we reach adult­hood, our ful­ly formed selves, are we tru­ly any longer our own?

Back to that sum­mer night in 2009, in my vul­ner­a­ble state of post-ath­let­ic exhaus­tion, the ques­tion “where are you from?” caught me like a deer in head­lights. I had no choice but to answer him hon­est­ly: “Iran,” I said, pro­nounc­ing it authen­ti­cal­ly as “e‑ron.” He blinked back at me for a moment, then: “Oh,” he replied, “You mean I‑ran?” I could only smile polite­ly back at him. “Neat,” he said. My answer seemed to con­firm some­thing that he already knew: that I was indeed dif­fer­ent from him and his friends. But them know­ing the truth about me and who I was didn’t mat­ter. I knew the truth about who I was. I just didn’t have the right par­a­digm to com­mu­ni­cate it at the time. But I know bet­ter now.

A human­is­tic demo­c­ra­t­ic cul­ture should respect indi­vid­ual eth­nic iden­ti­ties and encour­age dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al tra­di­tions to devel­op ful­ly their poten­tial for expres­sion of the demo­c­ra­t­ic ideals of free­dom and equal­i­ty. The ide­al form of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism attempts to pro­mote a chang­ing under­stand­ing of our nation, its val­ues, and its faults — but to what pur­pose? Iran­ian Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty rep­re­sents a form of eth­no-futur­ism in that is inher­ent­ly lim­i­nal, tran­si­tion­al and there­fore not eas­i­ly defined. An eth­no-futur­ist per­spec­tive asks: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? It seeks to answer these ques­tions by cre­at­ing a bridge between the nation­al and the inter­na­tion­al, between and beyond the col­lec­tive pasts and futures of our eth­nic cul­tures as Ira­ni­ans. It rec­og­nizes that we live in a frag­ment­ed space in-between Iran and Amer­i­ca, and encour­ages us to cre­ate our own authen­tic cul­tures and iden­ti­ties, sim­ply by being.

Fram­ing the dis­cus­sion of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics through eth­no-futur­is­tic con­texts gives us Iran­ian Amer­i­cans an oppor­tu­ni­ty to define our­selves in inno­v­a­tive ways that are authen­tic and inde­pen­dent of any pri­or con­no­ta­tions or restric­tions sur­round­ing race, cul­ture or pol­i­tics. To resolve the scruti­ny of “Where are you from?” the eth­no-futur­ist posits sim­ply, “I am.”

 


Sources & Fur­ther Read­ing:

Avaness­ian, Armen, and Moale­mi, Mahan. “Eth­no­fu­turisms: Find­ings in Com­mon and Con­flict­ing Cul­tures.” Eth­no­fu­tur­is­men, Merve Ver­lag, 2018, pp. 8–39.
Dumas, Firoozeh. Fun­ny in Far­si: A Mem­oir of Grow­ing Up Iran­ian in Amer­i­ca. Ran­dom House, 2007. 210pp. ISBN13: 978–0812968378.
Farsad, Negin. “I’m an Iran­ian Amer­i­can and I Used to Feel Black.” Time Mag­a­zine, June 8, 2016. Online.
Jobrani, Maz. I’m Not A Ter­ror­ist, But I’ve Played One On TV. Simon & Schus­ter, 2015. 240 pp. ISBN13: 978–1476749983.
Kreuger, Anders. “Eth­no-Futur­ism: Lean­ing on the Past, Work­ing for the Future.” After­all Jour­nal, 43, March 17, 2017. Online.
Magh­bouleh, Neda. “From white to what? MENA and Iran­ian Amer­i­can non-white reflect­ed race.” Eth­ic and Racial Stud­ies, Vol. 3, No. 4, 2020, pp. 613–631.
Magh­boueh, Neda. The Lim­its of White­ness: Iran­ian Amer­i­cans and the Every­day Pol­i­tics of Race. Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2017. 248 pp. ISBN: 9781503603370.
McK­night, Matt M. “Iran­ian in Amer­i­ca: Immi­grants share their hopes, fears, and frus­tra­tions.” Cross­cut, Jan­u­ary 20, 2020. Online.
Mechan­ic, Michael. “Bombs Some­times, Kills Often, But Maz Jobrani Swears He Isn’t a Ter­ror­ist.” Moth­er Jones, Feb­ru­ary 3, 2015. Online.
Min­niyakhme­to­va, Tatiana. “Eth­no-Futur­ism as a New Ide­ol­o­gy.” Pol­i­tics, Feasts, Fes­ti­vals, No. 4, 2014, pp. 217–223.
Mostofi, Nilou. “Who We Are: The Per­plex­i­ty of Iran­ian Iden­ti­ty.” The Soci­o­log­i­cal Quar­ter­ly, Vol. 44, No. 4, Autumn 2003, pp. 681–703.
Nasir, Noreen, and Con­tr­eras, Rus­sell, “Renewed Polit­i­cal Ten­sions Have Iran­ian Amer­i­cans Iden­ti­fy­ing As Peo­ple Of Col­or.” WBEZ Chica­go, Feb­ru­ary 3, 2020. Online.

 

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