Whiteness is not synonymous with greatness.
September 15, 2015 7:41 AM   Subscribe

In the wake of the murder of Shayan Mazroei by a white supremacist gang member in Orange County, Negeen Sadeghi makes the argument a lot of young Iranian-Americans are having with their elders. We are not white by American standards. We never were.
posted by BuddhaInABucket (26 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Particularly galling is the US government guideline label as "White" for "persons having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East."
posted by exogenous at 8:00 AM on September 15, 2015


To quote someone else currently on the front page, Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, July 6, 2012:
...the idea of race in American life has never been a rock, but clay fashioned as the racists of every generation need it to be.
posted by Etrigan at 8:10 AM on September 15, 2015 [12 favorites]


Is there a time when Iranians were seen as white by the west/America? I think that these days, at least, most Americans consider Iran part of "the Middle East" and thus assume that Iranians are Arab. Is this recent, stemming from the 1979 revolution, or have Iranians always been thought of this way?

I tried to articulate what my default assumption about who is "white" and who is not is in my head and realized that there are quite a bit of assumptions that need to be cleared away. I attribute it to not looking too closely at how people from North Africa/Southwest Asia are depicted in the media. I wonder if there is a bias when casting Arabian actors to look for those with darker skin, so that they cannot be confused with the good guys.
posted by Hactar at 8:10 AM on September 15, 2015


I think that at some point in America, white Americans did see Iranians as white. I base this on the Pink Panther.

But now I think the clay has been refashioned.
posted by goneill at 8:18 AM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was having nearly this exact conversation with a Persian co-worker moments ago. Clearly MetaFilter is in cahoots with the NSA and is surveilling my entire life.
posted by briank at 8:23 AM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is fascinating. I remember a comment online from a black woman about her experience telling an Iranian woman that she wouldn't be perceived as white to other Americans. I wondered why she was so pleased with herself and thought it was especially pathetic for a black person to police the whiteness category (what's in it for her?). Apparently that was an important conversation to have after all (still, not from her though).

I also had a Persian coworker who was brimming with racial animosity toward me and other black staff, which I thought was hilarious, because it clearly stemmed from ethnic insecurity. As a black American, my ethnic identity has been long established and is completely unassailable, not the least from someone mentally teetering on whether he's a part of the received race.
posted by deathmaven at 8:29 AM on September 15, 2015


Yeah, throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, people from the Middle East, North Africa and (sometimes) the Indian Subcontinent and even East Asia were considered to be vaguely white, depending on the circumstances. In Mississippi, Chinese students were allowed to attend all-white schools. Even native Americans were considered (legally) white in some places during Jim Crow.

During these years, the most important racial classification -- far more than virtually anything else -- was blackness, rather than national origin. From 1600 to 1965 or so, the only real racial distinction that mattered was between Master/Slave, White/Black, Superior/Inferior. Every other consideration was secondary.

Although the consideration of West, East and South Asians as "white" has changed once immigration from those regions increased, causing more "lines" to be drawn around whiteness, as white people begin to feel threatened by new groups.

Always shifting, racism is.
posted by Avenger at 8:29 AM on September 15, 2015 [8 favorites]


Arabs specifically lobbied to be counted white in order to immigrate more easily. It helped that Lebanese and Syrian Christians were the ones doing the lobbying.

related: Between Muslim and White: The Legal Construction of Arab American Identity
posted by BinGregory at 8:42 AM on September 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


Lots of currently white folks in America didn't used to be white. Italians and Irish for instance (and more generally Catholics), and Jews retain a somewhat equivocal position of being generally regarded as white in America, but being subject to a degree of antisemitism that denies their position within "whiteness". Or people of Mexican heritage (I've certainly done more than my share of gently teasing a friend about his theoretical otherness).
posted by wotsac at 8:55 AM on September 15, 2015 [3 favorites]


Personally, I have disinvested in whiteness (though I still benefit greatly from passing privilege), despite a strong household rhetoric of being Aryan growing up. It's both a recognition of the marginal, negotiated state of whiteness for Iranian-Americans and also solidarity with other people of color. If I was really white, why do I feel different when I'm in homogenous groups of white people? At the same time I recognize that compared to black/Asian/South Asian/indigenous peoples, I get to mostly skate along without thinking about it.

Also, I think most people don't know that Orange County- wildly diverse in places like Irvine or Santa Ana- also has a strong white supremacist presence in Dana Point, Huntington Beach, etc. It literally never occurred to me that someone might stab me for being Persian, but there you go- it happened, and not far from home.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 9:12 AM on September 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


I wonder if there is a bias when casting Arabian actors to look for those with darker skin, so that they cannot be confused with the good guys.

it doesn't even matter what their country of origin is, if their skin is dark they get cast as the criminal, the drug lord, the terrorist. Maori actor cliff curtis is a good example of this.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:20 AM on September 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


At the Canada - US border I frequently fail to pass for white when traveling alone despite being of Irish, English and French Canadian background. It's no picnic being sorted into the middle eastern group when crossing the border by train or bus.

While living in the UK I checked "White - Other" on the pay forms I had to fill out for contract work at the University which was also kind of strange.

Race is strange.
posted by srboisvert at 9:21 AM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


[A few comments deleted. Saying race doesn't matter in the US is just pretty much a fight-starter in this context.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:47 AM on September 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm with you on disinvesting in whiteness while being aware of my passing privilege, BuddhaInABucket. I'm Afghan, and 9/11 made it resoundingly obvious to me that being white is a conditional thing, that it depends a lot on how Other your ethnicity is at any given moment. I know a lot of Iranian-Americans tried to distance themselves from those other (read: browner) Middle Eastern people in the wake of 9/11, for which I can't really blame them, because it felt actively dangerous to be any variety of Middle Eastern in the aftermath of 9/11. But it's ultimately bullshit, we're none of us white enough by American standards.

And yet, still, actual skin color makes a huge impact. My brother is a lot of shades darker than I am, especially in the summer. The same goes for some of my other family members. I, on the other hand, am blindingly pale and incapable of tanning. There are tangible, immediate differences in the ways we are treated and our access to whiteness and all it entails. It's weird to navigate that.
posted by yasaman at 9:56 AM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well maybe not "white" by American standards, but by the standards of Nazi Germany (the gold standard for defining white) Persians were obviously acceptable.

IIRC, the word "Iran" means "Land of the Aryans" and was adopted by the Persia in the 1930s in order to cozy up to Nazi Germany. Indeed I seem to recall that Hitler approved of Pahlavi's blue eyes and considered him to be Aryan.
posted by three blind mice at 10:51 AM on September 15, 2015 [4 favorites]


For what it's worth, many people from the Middle East identify as "White" on official documents because there is often no option that accurately depicts their ethnicity or nationality. Probably one of the most interesting things you can do from a demographic perspective is make the "ethnicity/nationality" field a fill-in-the-blank response rather than a forced choice and see how specific everyone gets. People perform pretty differently on free-response tests and multiple-choice tests, as it were.

This post also helps me understand my misgivings about seeing "White (Non-Hispanic)" as an option in so many places. As in, why doesn't it say "White (Non-Hispanic, Non-Irish, Non-European, Non-Middle Eastern)"? Probably the same reason we don't call it terrorism when a hate group full of White people commit violent acts in order to strike fear into people who happen to have ethnic and/or religious differences from them.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 12:59 PM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Race and otherness really are fluid in the US. I'm Afghan too (Pashtun), and have family members of various fair to medium skin tones with the varying eye color/hair colors to match and sometimes I can be perceived as some vague Mediterranean person by most people here and abroad and hence I "pass" but I've still never felt like I belonged. Because just when you feel that way, someone pipes up to make sure you know your standing in this country. Growing up being regaled with lovely terms like "camel jockey" ensures that. The downside to this too is people bringing up toxic, bigoted opinions in your presence because they have no idea that you are part of that dreaded "other."
posted by nikitabot at 1:27 PM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Probably the same reason we don't call it terrorism when a hate group full of White people commit violent acts in order to strike fear into people who happen to have ethnic and/or religious differences from them."

I'm guessing by "we" you mean the mass media, right? Because a lot of those incidents are classified as terrorism.
posted by I-baLL at 1:31 PM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I get what she's saying, but the whole "and we never were" is just plain factually inaccurate.
posted by corb at 6:56 PM on September 15, 2015


She's weong about that, definitely, but the mutability of whiteness is pretty damning of the concept.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 7:35 PM on September 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I get what she's saying, but the whole "and we never were" is just plain factually inaccurate.

I can't speak to the Iranian-American experience, but consider the position of Jews in the USA. Most people (including Jews) would class most Jews as being "white". But it's not so long ago that Jews were the victims of the same restrictive covenants that prevented Blacks from purchasing the homes they desired; and they suffered all sorts of other legal and social disabilities. Even today, the KKK and the other groups that attack Black churches and institutions also attack Jewish ones.

So Jews occupy a sort of halfway point: if things are good, they get treated as White and they think of themselves as White. But it's a vulnerable position, and sensible Jews (at least ones with European ancestry) know that things can change: at that point it will be evident that Jews aren't White, and that they never had the assurance and lack of vulnerability that being "White" would imply.

James Baldwin has an essay on this: On Being White. Well worth reading.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:39 PM on September 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


IIRC, the word "Iran" means "Land of the Aryans" and was adopted by the Persia in the 1930s in order to cozy up to Nazi Germany.

That's a pretty inaccurate and misleading simplification of the history and etymology of "Iran." Iran (or "Eran") was a self-descriptor of Iranian ethnicity since almost a millennium before the birth of Mohammed, and defined Iranian nations as far back as the mid-200s. It was certainly in use by those of Iranian ethnicity and their leaders well before any western European influence. And regardless of Pahlavi's adoption, the Nazi use of "Aryan" was a perversion of the term that wasn't even a century old, based on wildly inaccurate statements that Germanic people were the "real" descendants of the original Aryans.

And yet, still, actual skin color makes a huge impact. My brother is a lot of shades darker than I am, especially in the summer. The same goes for some of my other family members. I, on the other hand, am blindingly pale and incapable of tanning. There are tangible, immediate differences in the ways we are treated and our access to whiteness and all it entails.

My family is mongrels on both sides, and depending on our tans, my brother and I have been mistaken for basically everything but East Asian and sub-Saharan African, including Indian. For all we know, we have ancestors from almost all those places. I've had people come up to me speaking in Farsi (among others), and when my brother cut his hair short and grew a beard, he was "randomly" selected by the TSA every single time he went to the airport. And on the other side of the spectrum, you have the Tsarnaev brothers from Georgia, meaning they were literally Caucasian. There's a lot of tangled racism and Islamophobia in the US (and the rest of the world) that is still seen as acceptable by the people.
posted by zombieflanders at 6:31 AM on September 16, 2015 [7 favorites]


I can't speak to the Iranian-American experience, but consider the position of Jews in the USA. Most people (including Jews) would class most Jews as being "white".

I'm Jewish, half Western European, half Eastern. Everything about me is white, there is not doubt about that. And yet, I still think of myself as White-with-an-asterisk, because there are many, many times I realize I am not American white. And that's mostly not about being Jewish, it's about not being Christian.

I think that these days, at least, most Americans consider Iran part of "the Middle East" and thus assume that Iranians are Arab. Is this recent, stemming from the 1979 revolution, or have Iranians always been thought of this way?

No, I think this specific conflation is more recent than that. There are -- what? -- two generations that only know Iran as part of the Axis of Evil. There's a huge Iranian-American community here, and I've had many Persian-American friends, so maybe that's skewed my perception, though.
posted by Room 641-A at 4:24 AM on September 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


I am not American white. And that's mostly not about being Jewish, it's about not being Christian.

That's the funny bit about how Christian Arabs crossed over. The argument in court was 1. I come from the Levant. 2. Jesus came from the Levant. 3. Jesus was White. 4. Therefore I must also be White. QED!
posted by BinGregory at 8:17 PM on September 17, 2015


The idea that Christian Levantines are definitively White is interesting, and it possibly explains why anti-Semitic propaganda insists that Jews are either (a) Not Jews (i.e., not Levantine in origin); or (b) "mongrels". I presumed it was just a way to be nasty, but perhaps it's meant to disassociate Jews from Jesus. Of course, there's a different solution: declare that Jesus wasn't White, and adopt some variety of Nordic paganism instead ...
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:38 AM on September 18, 2015


Ta-Nehisi Coates: Ben Carson. Bigot.
Ben Carson is a Christian—a fact he shares in common with all our greatest domestic terrorists and self-styled Indian-killers. From slave-holding to ethnic cleansing, Christianity has repeatedly been employed to sanctify our most shameful acts. One might counter that Christianity has also been employed to inspire our most honorable acts. But this is an exception that Carson’s ilk do not grant to Islam. To Carson, Islam is terror and nothing else.

A Christian, fulling conscious of their own pedigree, need not completely renounce their faith. (If a man seeks to plunder you, Dr. Seuss will suffice.) But you would think a wise Christian would be more prudent. But Carson is neither prudent nor wise. Carson is a bigot playing to a base which considers bigotry to be a feature, not a bug.
posted by zombieflanders at 6:39 AM on September 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


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