The thin white line

The shifting boundaries of racial identity

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...