Originally published on Muftah on June 3,2016.
Over the last two years, the hit ABC sitcom “Black-ish” has deftly explored issues of race, class, and gender in the United States through the eyes of an upper-middle class, African-American family. The show has received rave reviews for portraying the unique struggles of the Johnson family, offering an incisive critique of racism in modern America without being too preachy.
What few people know, however, is that the role of Zoey, the Johnson’s eldest daughter, is played by a sixteen-year-old, Iranian-American actress. Born to an Iranian father, Afshin Shahidi, and a mother of mixed African-American and Native Choctaw heritage, Keri Salter, Yara Shahidi lived in Minneapolis before moving to California at a young age.
Yara’s father was personal photographer to famed (and recently-deceased) musician, Prince, and toured extensively with the artist. Her mother, Keri, is an actress. Yara’s grandfather works in the most Iranian of all professions: he runs a Persian carpet shop in uptown Minneapolis. Yara’s cousin also happens to be famed rapper, Nas.
There are somewhere between 500,000 to 1 million Iranians in the United States today, including both first-generation immigrants and those of Iranian descent. While the majority live in California, a few thousand Iranian-Americans have settled in the Minneapolis area.
There is a large community of Iranians of African heritage in Iran itself, but the majority of Iranian immigrants in the United States are predominantly of Persian origin. While there are no statistics on the number of second generation Iranians who are of mixed-race, as an Iranian-American of mixed heritage myself, I can attest to the fact that the phenomenon is not uncommon. It is undoubtedly becoming even more commonplace the longer this diaspora, which largely began immigrating to the United States in the 1970s, sinks its roots into this country.
Whether of mixed heritage or otherwise, Iranian-Americans rarely see themselves represented in American pop culture. When they do, the portrayals are often unflattering and exploit the worst stereotypes and biases. Many Hollywood films vilify Middle Easterners and Muslims – including disproportionately casting actors from the region in terrorism-related roles. Exacerbating this problem, the more positive Middle Eastern characters – like those in Gods of Egypt, Exodus, or Prince of Persia – are almost exclusively played by white actors.
These trends have increasingly come under attack in recent years, and Yara’s work on “Black-ish” is pushing those criticisms even further. Yara is not only one of the few Iranian faces appearing on mainstream U.S. television today, but one of the even fewer also making a splash in a show that isn’t about terrorism or plastic surgery. Although Yara’s Middle Eastern heritage does not take center stage in the show, if you watch closely, you’ll notice a few references to her Iranian roots. In episode 15 of season 2, for example, Yara talks back to her father in Persian, after he refuses to let her drive the car he’s bought for her.
Of course, Yara’s work also confronts prejudices that have subjected African-American actors and actresses to widespread whitewashing and exclusion from American pop culture. But, the young woman’s impact reaches even deeper. On and off screen, Yara is helping increase awareness about racism and social justice issues. Although her character, Zoey, can sometimes come off as apathetic, she frequently demonstrates a mature wisdom and understanding about the structural racism upon which the United States is built. In her personal life, Yara has fearlessly engaged with political topics, at a time when many famous Iranian-Americans seem intent on avoiding appearing political in public, for fear of backlash.
Yara has frequently used Twitter to voice her views about race in America. She has blasted Eurocentric beauty standards forced on young women of color, noting, for example, that: “Our current society is not designed to account for us.” She also condemned Columbus Day as a celebration of the genocide of Native Americans, calling for an end to the holiday.
Yara has spoken out in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, lambastingthe biased “representation [of African Americans] in the media, courts of law and the court of public opinion.” The image at the top of her Twitter profile is an excerpted quote from Cleveland BLM activist, Elle Hearns: “When our children’s lives are taken and there’s no accountability for anyone, that actually is something that will continue to fuel the [BLM] movement, There’s no trust that the people could ever have for a city that is willing to stand behind officers who are killing their kids.” Hearns made the comment in December after the killing of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old African-American child, at the hands of Cleveland police.
For her work in “Black-ish,” Yara won an award from the NAACP in 2014 for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy. She was recently honored by the Young Women’s Leadership Network for her efforts in helping underprivileged students succeed. She is dedicated to reading and studying history, and has somehow managed to maintain a 4.6 GPAthrough it all.
At a time when African-Americans are pushing back against entrenched structural racism and Iranian-Americans are struggling to be recognized as more than a collection of stereotypes, Yara Shahidi is taking on these challenges with the effortlessness of a seasoned advocate, everywhere she goes.