Among the responses to the wave of anti-government protests in Iran in late 2017 and early 2018 was a reignited Western curiosity about Iranian life before the Islamic revolution. Photographs circulated on social media from a 1969 Vogue spread showing models in exotic outfits posing in historic mosques and among ancient ruins. On New Year’s Eve, the British tabloid Daily Star ran a piece headlined “Bikinis, beer and beauties: Stunning photos reveal Iran before Islamic Republic,” which juxtaposed tranquil photos of long-haired, bell-bottomed co-ed students against recent footage of government forces dispersing protesters with water cannons. We see Shah Reza Pahlavi circa 1966 smiling at his wife, Farah Diba (sporting a towering beehive hairdo), above a picture of chador-wearing women holding assault rifles during the 1979 revolution that deposed him. The photo spreads and stories ostensibly evoke a past when Iranians were more free, but they are taken from the reign of the U.S.-backed shah, whose secret police surveilled, tortured, and murdered thousands of civilians. Read against that history, their pre-revolutionary nostalgia involves another, more unsettling sentiment: wistfulness for a time when Iranians were more Western, and along the way, more white.
While numerous sociological studies have examined how Jewish, Italian, and Irish Americans have “become white” over time, University of Toronto assistant professor Neda Maghbouleh is interested in how Iranian Americans and those of other Middle Eastern backgrounds have moved back and forth across the colour line. Her new book, The Limits of Whiteness, which integrates the study of immigration with the study of race, is ultimately an investigation of what whiteness is, and how it’s “intermittently granted and revoked” for non-Western groups.
Quite literally so in some ways. In 1978, to provide standards for the collection and tabulation of data for government programs, the U.S. for the first time classified American residents into four racial categories: white; black; Alaskan Native or American Indian; Asian or Pacific Islander. All persons from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East were classified as white. At the time, demonstrations were spreading across Iran that would culminate in a revolution the following spring. The hostage crisis that began the next year occasioned television’s first late-night news program, now known as Nightline, which broadcast footage of stern-faced ayatollahs and mobs of angry Iranians into millions of American homes. In a period of two years, Iranians in America were made “white by law, [and] brown by popular opinion,” according to Maghbouleh.
These days there are anywhere from 1.5 million to 2 million Iranian Americans living in the U.S. (and more than 210,000 Iranian Canadians in Canada). The first wave came in the mid twentieth century as university students, and by the mid 1970s Iranians outnumbered all other foreign students in American universities. The next big wave arrived in the years after the Islamic revolution. The U.S. is currently home to the largest population of Iranians outside of Iran, but even before they had a significant presence in the country, their racial status was debated in American courts.
Until 1952, the granting of naturalized citizenship in the United States was tied largely to whiteness, a result of the Naturalization Act of 1790. “Liminally raced claimants,” Maghbouleh writes, argued their whiteness before a judge in “racial prerequisite” cases throughout the first decades of the twentieth century. She opens the book with an examination of some of these proceedings, and her excerpts paint a bizarre, fascinating, and at times exasperating picture: would-be immigrants attempted increasingly extreme contortions to fit into the limits of whiteness before judges whose definition of that boundary was effectively incoherent. Armenians and Syrians would use their dissimilarity from “fire worshipping” Iranians as evidence of their own whiteness. Meanwhile Parsi Indians, whose ancestors migrated to the subcontinent from Persia in the eighth century, argued that they were “like ‘clearly white’ Iranians” rather than like their brown-skinned compatriots in India. In one case from 1923, an Indian Sikh scholar named Bhagat Singh Thind argued that his ancestral connection to “Aryan” Persia “rendered him more white than the European American white judges adjudicating his case.”
Maghbouleh refrains from editorializing, but it seems the claimants’ attorneys understood the extent to which race is in the eye of the beholder, and the more arcane their arguments got, the closer the court’s explanations came to laying bare the socially constructed nature of whiteness. In rejecting Thind’s argument, the court employed “a racial historiography in which Europeans (white) and South Asians (brown) evolved apart from any possible common ancestor into dialectical racial extremes.” The convoluted and sometimes contradictory rulings—Thind’s citizenship was granted and revoked twice before being granted for good in 1936—reflect a society that had begun to grasp evolution, but still adhered to the pseudoscientific tenets of racial biology.
To complicate matters, Iranian Americans have trafficked in racist pseudoscience themselves. In the early twentieth century, opportunistic nationalists in Persia (as Iran was known until 1935) promoted the premodern word arya (noble), a non-racial self-designation that appeared in a sacred Zoroastrian text, as “an antecedent to the ‘Aryan’ racial science coming out of Europe,” the book notes. One objective of contriving connections between Iranians and Europeans was to back up “racial claims of Iranian superiority to Arabs, Jews, and other Semitic groups.” Some of these myths found their way into Iran’s first mass-education historical textbooks in 1928 and are perpetuated to this day. When 17-year-old Donya, the American-born daughter of Iranian immigrants in Los Angeles, confided to her parents that she was being bullied at school—“kids would say, ‘Wow, you have a unibrow. You have really bushy eyebrows. You’re so hairy’…They said Bin Laden is my dad”—her mom told her to inform the bullies that Iranians were “the original white people!”
Donya is one of more than eighty Iranian American adolescents and young adults Maghbouleh interviewed over five years, in coffee shops and dormitory lounges throughout America, as part of her research for The Limits of Whiteness, and her findings comprise the middle chapters. The author, born in Oregon to Iranian immigrants, doesn’t attempt to her erase her presence from the narrative, but occupies her own liminal space. Her experience of growing up Iranian in America would be different from but comparable to that of her subjects. Maghbouleh is older than them, younger than their parents, and able to move between fluent English and casual Persian. Considering how overbearing Iranian parents can be, it’s easy to imagine youth like Donya speaking candidly to the sociologist—here, for once, is an Iranian adult asking them about their experiences, rather than telling them who they are.
The second-generation Iranian Americans Maghbouleh spoke with came of age after 9/11, as did “1.5-generation” immigrants, of which I count myself one (I was born in one country, Iran, and raised in another, Canada). Unlike the German, Polish, Italian, and Irish immigrants of the twentieth century who were raised in ethnic neighbourhoods in major cities, Iranian-American kids these days are more likely to go to school in mostly white, “racially homogenous, highly class-privileged neighbourhoods,” Maghbouleh writes. Their parents are doctors, engineers, and university professors. With the exception of those raised in Iranian enclaves in southern California (or, in Canada, the northern suburbs of Toronto), they have few, if any, Iranian classmates. For these youth, 9/11 had an acute and seemingly irrevocable “browning” effect.
The post-9/11 racialization of Iranians is also indicated by the phenomenon of non-Iranian people of colour being subjected to ostensibly anti-Iranian hate crimes. Most recently, a man admitted to shooting two Indian men in a Kansas bar in February 2017, one of them fatally, because he thought they were Iranian.
Near the end of The Limits of Whiteness, the author visits Camp Ayandeh (Camp Future), a two-week summer camp entirely staffed and attended by 1.5- and second-generation Iranian-American youth. The place sounds unabashedly, almost creepily utopian. Through group activities and guest speakers, the camp aims to cultivate a new Iranian identity that both celebrates and remixes existing cultural norms, and to instill solidarity with other liminal and racialized communities—as many as one third of the participants are from mixed-background households. The curriculum—ultimately the camp is more like school—includes sessions where they read and analyze classical Persian poems, impersonate their parents in improv sketches, and watch movies depicting (or purporting to depict) Iranian characters. Endeavours like Camp Ayandeh provide a model for young “liminally raced” immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa—like the thousands of Syrian children who have arrived in Canada since 2015—to normalize their presence in North America without whitewashing their complex identities. It’s both heartening and sad to encounter, in the long passages Maghbouleh includes from the participants’ discussions, their palpable relief at being in a room full of others like themselves for the first time. It’s a reminder that the social alienation felt by immigrants is not limited to the first generation.
Maghbouleh’s book illustrates the inadequacy of existing studies of American whiteness. North Americans from the Middle East and North Africa will not necessarily “become white” over time. A Middle Eastern male who passes for white on the street might feel very different when he hands his passport to an airport security officer. (Any illusions I had about becoming white were dispelled in 2004 when my teenage cousins and I were arrested by a police tactical unit in Mississauga, Ontario, while playing in the yard with an orange-tipped BB gun.) Despite the aspirations of their parents, second-generation Iranians in North America aren’t getting any whiter, and this is probably for the best.