Are Iranians People of Color? Persian, Muslim, and Model Minority Race Politics

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Originally published by Ajam Media Collective on December 3, 2013.

In the lead up to the 2010 US National Census, campaigns emerged across the country calling for Iranian-Americans to stand up and be counted. One of the most memorable of these was “Check it right, you ain’t white,” a movement that targeted Arab- and Iranian-Americans, urging them to write in their ethnic identification instead of checking the box for “White,” as forms generally ask those of “Middle Eastern” descent to do.

Awkwardly, the campaign somehow backfired, and the number of Iranian-Americans who wrote in “Iranian,” “Persian,” or “Iranian-American” in the census was 289,465, significantly less than 10 years before. Given that unofficial estimates of the current Iranian-American population run between 1 and 1.5 million, the vast majority of Iranians probably identified themselves as “White,” or else didn’t bother turning their forms in.

The Iranian-American voting campaigns of 2010 US Census speak volumes about the complexities of race and racial politics, not only in the Iranian-American community but also of Iranians more broadly. Iranians in Iran and elsewhere tend to identify with Whiteness as a result of the history of race formation and ethnicity politics back in Iran, particularly as developed under the Pahlavi regime until 1979. Those Iranians who immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s and onwards, meanwhile, have had this identification with Whiteness drilled into them as a result of the experiences of discrimination they have faced in this country since the 1979 Hostage Crisis.

And yet, identifying as White does not erase the problems of discrimination faced by generations of Iranians in the United States, and has instead merely led to a perplexing situation whereby Iranians are discriminated against based on their ethnic background but continue clinging to the myth of Whiteness with the desperate hope that claiming Whiteness will somehow save them.

The material success that many Iranians have enjoyed in this country, meanwhile, has obscured their connections with other discriminated groups, and instead fostered an attitude of “lay low, don’t make trouble,” that idealizes financial success as the key to realizing the American Dream. “We’re good Persians,” community leaders seem to say, not like those “Bad Iranians” over there that we all hate so much. Despite the racial discrimination Iranians regularly face as a community in the United States, many continue to insist upon their own Whiteness, refusing to even consider the question, “Are Iranians People of Color?”

Are Iranian-Americans People of Color?

“Person of Color” (POC) is a phrase that emerged out of political struggles against ethnic and racial discrimination in the United States, and exists in contrast to the identity “White” and the racial privileges that identity carries. POC explicitly recognizes the commonalities of experience shared by those who are not of the dominant racial group in this country, and expresses the need for solidarity among these groups in order to dismantle the existing system of racial privilege and hierarchy. Importantly, the term POC does not suggest that the experiences of all people of color are similar, but instead it recognizes the diversity of experiences of racial discrimination between groups. Using the term POC, however, insists upon the importance of recognizing the shared struggle of peoples of color for an equality and liberation that is predicated upon the equality and liberation of all.


As a light-skinned, biracial Iranian-American, however, the supposedly clear lines dividing White from POC are a bit difficult for me to parse. On one hand, I almost always pass as just White, and rarely if ever experience the feeling of being targeted, singled out, or discriminated against based on my looks alone. Despite increasingly bushy eyebrows, my light skin tone has long ensured that I enjoy substantial racial privilege for my ability to pass as (fully) White.

Passing as White meant I looked like “the norm” and was never made to feel out of place, saw people who looked like me whenever I turned on the television, and never had to fear or suspect that negative experiences I had were a result of racism (among many other privileges I enjoyed). I knew for certain that my father’s ability to pass as a well-tanned White man had ensured his own ability to succeed professionally at a time when his Iranian name had closed many doors. I was sure of this because his ability to pass, as well as my own, meant that we were both “privileged” to hear the secret racist and Islamophobic comments directed towards others that happened in the lily-white boardrooms and classrooms that we each navigated.

And yet the more I spoke with White folks about race, the more I began to understand that many of my experiences of bullying throughout childhood were directly tied to my ethnicity in ways I hadn’t previously realized. As obvious as it now sounds, it had never occurred to me before that being harassed for supposedly being a terrorist or being called “Saddam” or “Osama” in middle school hallways was not a universal experience for American children, and that these experiences were not merely unpleasant but were in fact definitively racist.

As an Iranian-American, my visits to see Grandma crossed “enemy” frontiers and bags thoroughly inspected by US customs officials to ensure I did not bring back too many pistachios, lest I incur a $250,000 fine for violating US sanctions on Iran. The desire to send back money to purchase Grandma’s medicine or help a cousin in dire financial straits had to always be weighed against the possibility of jail time in a US prison for engaging in financial transactions with the “enemy.”

US President Obama’s admission of the existence of a domestic spying apparatus far more widespread and pervasive than previously thought came as a major surprise to many Americans. Few of those surprised, however, were Middle Eastern Americans, for whom the announcement came as less of a shock and more of a “well, duh” kind of moment. After 9/11, elders whispered about being rounded up and put in concentration camps like the Japanese during World War II, and the childhood diary of my 11-year-old self merely noted at the time that things seemed to have gotten “worse.”

When thousands of men of Middle Eastern descent were called up for questioning a month after 9/11 and subsequently scheduled to be deported en masse, many of us breathed a collective sigh of relief that we still had some time to prepare before our turn came. Since the community has been on the receiving end of a great deal of attention from the various branches of the government’s spying apparatuses for years and especially since 9/11, the fact that the United States spies on its citizens and residents and suspends their constitutional rights for reasons they are not required to disclose had practically become common knowledge in Middle Eastern communities.

Racial profiling as interpreted by Family Guy.

Although “flying while brown” (a riff on the classic, “driving while black”) has become an increasingly visible form of discrimination faced by Americans of Middle Eastern and Muslim backgrounds, few realize that other forms of targeting are extremely pervasive.

The first great wave of Iranian immigrants to the United States in the 1970s and 80s did little to prepare the next generation for the rise of anti-Iranian racism and Islamophobia in the years following 9/11. Many of this generation never quite got over the collective trauma of becoming “terrorist sympathizers” overnight following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Hostage Crisis. For over a year, Walter Cronkite ended every single segment of the CBS Evening News by telling Americans how many days had transpired since Iranians had taken the over the US Embassy in Tehran, reminding Iranians in the US on a nightly basis just how much the marker “Iranian” had become a liability.

And yet, many members of the generation of Iranian-Americans who experienced the wave of discrimination following 1979 continue to remain silent about their experiences. Some Iranians were beaten up on the street and called “sand niggers,” and “towel heads,” while others experienced the racism and xenophobia in more insidious ways, like discrimination in job hiring practices.

Even today, a 2008 survey indicated that nearly half of Iranian-Americans surveyed have experienced personally or personally know victims of discrimination due to country of origin. And through it all, community members by and large sought to keep their heads down and doggedly pursue the American dream, their lives collateral damage in a war between Iran and the United States that they had never asked to be a part of. It is difficult to bring up the memories of those years among Iranian families without provoking embittered silences and harsh rejoinders to not reopen the wounds of a fading nightmare.

Anti-Iranian student protest in Washington D.C., 1979 (Marion S. Trikosko / Library of Congress)

The “Aryan Myth” and the History of Race Formation in Iran

One of the hardest aspects of discussion about racial discrimination against Iranian-Americans is how wound up in embarrassment and shame the whole topic is due to the history of racial discourse in Iran.

The specific form of nationalism formulated by the Pahlavi regime until 1979 insisted upon the racial superiority of the Iranian Persian people over their neighbors of all ethnic stripes. The regime aligned itself closely with the racialist White European superiority politics espoused by colonial empires, and generations of Iranians were taught to be pleased with themselves for occupying a low rung of the Aryan race ladder.

Although Iran is a multiethnic nation of Persians, Azeri Turks, Kurds, Baluchis, Arabs, Armenians, and many other groups, Iranians were taught to pride themselves for their Aryan blood and white skin and to look down on the supposedly “stupid” Turks and “backward” Arabs. As educated Iranians widely bought into this European system of racial hierarchy, Iranians began to see themselves as White in a global perspective and many carried this identification with them into the United States.

This narrative of race formation in Iran makes it extremely difficult for many Iranians to recognize themselves in the racist and Islamophobic discrimination they experience, often faulting Americans for being ignorant in ways that implicitly support racist and xenophobic targeting of non-Iranians.

This is probably best exemplified in the common assertion that Iranian-Americans should not be targeted because they are not Arab or because they are generally lax in their Islamic practice, and thus do not pose a “real” threat to Americans. The implicit argument, of course, is that Arabs and practicing Muslims should in fact be subject to surveillance and targeting because they do constitute a “real” threat.

Not even the internet knows!
Not even the internet knows!

“The Safe Kind of Brown”

Alas, informed discussions of race and racial privilege among Iranians and other Middle Eastern Americans often gloss over how histories of racial formation in our homeland as well as White passing privilege for many of us complicated attempts to subsume ourselves into the People of Color label. Many accounts of race politics and discrimination fail to recognize how for many Middle Eastern Americans, the ability to pass as White shields them from the forms of discrimination based on visible difference from Whites that are an integral part of daily life for many People of Color.

Although this passing privilege is by no means the rule for Middle Easterners in this country, it does inform the experiences of broad swathes of the various communities that fall under this umbrella. The experience of a dark-skinned, southern Iranian racialized by Americans as Black can hardly be compared to that of a light-skinned, green-eyed northern Iranian racialized by Americans as White.

These ambiguities and complexities are by no means limited to the Middle Eastern- or Iranian-American communities, but instead are an integral part of any identity politics based on a binary.

As Janani Balasubramanian brilliantly argues in relation to the South Asian Diaspora in the article, “I’m the Safe Kind of Brown,” the category Person of Color is not predicated on a uniformity of experience among those who take this label, and attempts to erase or ignore the differences among and between People of Color will without fail merely reify hierarchies of racial privilege and oppression that are much more complex than just national origin or visible markers of race or shade. As the author explains:

“Let’s stop buying into this narrative that our families all got here because we ‘worked hard and made it to the America’. Especially since those of us who came to the US in that first wave of professional South Asian (largely Indian) immigrants largely benefited from our caste and class positions in South Asia. Our families had access to the education and capital it took to enter those professional spheres.”

Similar arguments can be made for the Iranian-American community as well.

Solidarity is not predicated on sameness, but instead must be informed by an open and honest acknowledgement of difference. This difference must also include an understanding of how contextual all of these phrases are; in the United States, I may be a mixed Person of Color who passes as White, while in Iran I am a member of the dominant ethnic group and enjoy the privilege of American citizenship that sets me apart even further.

The complex legacies of race politics in the US and Iran as well as the very specific history of Iranian migration to the United States and discrimination against the Iranian-American community have combined to lead us directly into the model minority trap. While “Shahs of Sunset” and the “Persian palaces” of Beverly Hills are celebrated as emblems of Iranian success, the very real struggles faced by Iranians in this country are swept under the proverbial Persian carpet in an effort to give others and ourselves the most perfect, idealized image of Iranians possible.

When the only mainstream American television show starring Iranian-Americans depicts us as a bunch of rich idiots whose biggest goal in life is picking out the right plastic surgeon, we cringe a little but say to each other, “well, at least in this show we’re not terrorists.” Is this really how we measure our success and well-being as a community?

You get two choices. Pick!
These are your two options. Pick one!

Identifying as White does not erase the problems of discrimination faced by generations of Iranians-Americans, nor does it aid in the struggle to dismantle the systems of oppression that structure US society as a whole. Iranian-Americans in this country today are a diverse lot and are confronted by a wide variety of pressing issues, ranging from legal status to poverty and religious discrimination. The issues of race and racial discrimination outlined in this article are but two lenses with which to understand and interpret the position of the Iranian community in the US today.

But the failure of Iranian-Americans to recognize their own complicated racial position in the United States risks doing our community a great disservice. We must be brutally honest with ourselves and with each other about systems of race and racial oppression in this country as well as how we fit into them, both in terms of privilege and oppression.

Only through this honest discussion can we begin to imagine more clearly how solidarities can emerge among Iranian-Americans and other communities of color in this country in the struggle to confront and dismantle institutionalized racism.

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