Learning to be Not Quite White (Part II of III)

In my last post, I sketched a phenomenological account of my experience of being “Not Quite White” as an Iranian American in the United States.

Recall that in The Racial Contract, Charles W. Mills stresses that no possible division within the category of “nonwhite” even approaches the radical nature of the white-nonwhite split. But the categories, he insists, must be “fuzzified” to allow for not only shades of nonwhiteness (including blackness), but also the historical instability of whiteness itself.

It has not always been the case that all people of European descent, including Jews, were treated as “fully” white (i.e., Anglo-Saxon). The “fuzzy” space occupied by Irish and Italian Americans into the early 20th century was a liminal position, an in-between place; I have lived my life in an even more liminal position, just on the other side of the white-nonwhite split.

It’s precisely because the racial and ethnic identity of Middle Easterners in the United States is so “fuzzy”, so shrouded in ambiguity, that my account has the potential to reveal something very fundamental about the experience of difference. So I’d like to pick up where I left off in my previous post, to develop further the phenomenology of Not Quite White, again drawing primarily on my own memory and experience.

Growing up in Illinois as a child of Iranian immigrants, the Persian and English languages demarcated not just my vocabulary, but social space itself: Persian marked the space of home, of family, and of comfort, while English was the medium through which I ventured out into the uncertain world of school, sports, television, films, and friends. Most things had a Persian name and an English name, but sometimes things were so tied to their cultural context—the dynamics of friend groups at school, or my parents’ strict ban on sleepovers—that they were difficult to translate into the other.

For most of my childhood, I couldn’t or didn’t want to bridge the gap between the world of my family and the world of my peers. I feel I’m only now excavating those memories and that history, and it’s only now that I have the language to speak the otherwise incommunicable, even the repressed.

As I mentioned previously, as a child, I had no way of linking this tension or incommensurability with questions of “white” or “black”—I only knew that I was neither of these, and that I was embarrassed to bring my friends home. As I delve into my memories from this time, it’s quite clear that what I feared most (and tried hardest to prevent) was for my family’s Iranianness to be revealed for the outside world (most importantly, my friends) to see.

The prospect of “bridging the gap” was, for me, the prospect of being “outed” as not being American enough: It offered nothing but humiliation. I was afraid my friends would sniffle and sneer at my Iranian lunch—dishes like dolme, stuffed grape leaves, and adas polow, lentil rice. I now find this food scrumptious, but for a good chunk of elementary school, more often than not, I’d discretely throw it away.

I was afraid my friends would come over to our house and see that we had no video games, no Nerf guns, no sugary cereal, and no soda. I was afraid my mom would bring us a spread of fruit and nuts (she always did), and that my friends wouldn’t eat any (they almost never did). I was afraid they would discover, to their horror, that I wasn’t allowed to watch television (except for PBS, of course), a fact I hid somewhat effectively by catching up on cartoons every Saturday morning at the house of my ever-indulgent grandmother.

So in my own interactions with peers, at school and elsewhere, I made a conscious effort to erase from my persona any traces of difference. Of course, my anxieties didn’t always stem directly or necessarily from the fact that my parents were Iranian immigrants; but my parents, as they now tell me (with some regret, having read my previous post), made very little effort to assimilate into mainstream US culture.

They distrusted not only the food and media Americans consumed, but Americans themselves: “Sleepovers” at friends’ houses were out of the question, because who knows what kind of crazy people with guns one might find in the house of an American? I took my parents’ policies not only as a rejection of my friends’ culture, but also (implicitly) as a threat directed at me personally, as an American: namely, that I, too, should take care not to internalize the behaviors and values of my friends, lest I bring them home with me.

This isn’t to say, however, that my parents were totally oblivious to the tensions of growing up with my ethnicity in the United States. One day, while I was in middle school, my mom gave me a pair of tweezers and taught me how to pluck my eyebrows. On the whole, Iranians (and Middle Easterners in general) are known for being a hairy bunch—not only compared to whites, but virtually all other ethnic groups as well. Although I wasn’t fully aware of this at the time, the more a phenotype deviates from the Northern European ideal, the more white supremacist culture devalues those “deviant” characteristics, deriding them as unattractive and abnormal.

Iranians and other Middle Easterners are, by and large, the most European-looking of the non-European ethnicities, but the differences that do exist between Europeans and Middle Easterners are marked: These include darker skin tones, ranging from “tan” (meaning tanned white skin) to cappuccino to milk chocolate; shorter statures; and the early appearance and abundance of body hair.

On this day, my mom was concerned with my nascent “unibrow”, the hair between the eyebrows that supposedly renders the brows one long strip. This is a characteristic that, I now know, is ridiculed in the media and in everyday conversation. Mockery of unibrows is particularly prominent in racist/sexist discussions of how Middle Eastern women look, where unibrows are often brought up as evidence that Middle Eastern women are brown and ugly.

Whether my mother knew it or not (recent conversations suggest that she didn’t), she had formally introduced me to a harsh reality of being Not Quite White in mainstream US culture: While we as nonwhites measure our attractiveness and desirability against an impossible white supremacist standard of beauty, we as Middle Eastern nonwhites are perhaps uniquely situated to mask or obscure our physical difference—to “pass” as white.

I was about to finish the fifth grade when my father gave me my first electric razor (James Bond uses it, he told me). None of the boys in my class—white, black, east Asian—seemed to have hair anywhere but the tops of their heads: not on their faces, and certainly not on their legs. A year or so earlier, a young boy, redheaded, freckled, and white as a sheet, saw my legs on the playground and called me “wolfman”.

I was in sixth grade when I first tried to use James Bond’s razor to shave my legs: I wanted to be rid of this curse, this overgrown shrubbery that threatened to cast me, for the rest of my life, as a wolfman—more animal than human. Over the years, I’ve tried various methods of hair removal on various parts of my body. Some hurt a little, some hurt a lot. I still pluck my eyebrows every night, and more recently I’ve started plucking them along the bottom as well, to make them look thinner and less “bushy”.

There’s an operative assumption in this and all other attempts at downplaying my ethnic identity, to which I will return: that I can control other people’s perception of me, including their perception of my ethnicity.

Body hair can be removed, or at least managed. But not everything is so mutable: A hair is a hair, but (to quote Marlo Stanfield) “my name is my name.” My name has an interesting history that’s worth recounting. On my maternal grandmother’s insistence, my name was to be an ethnic Persian (that is, not Arabic) name. In the Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”) of Ferdowsi, the national epic of Iran and the Persian-speaking world, Kumars is the name of the first human, who had the foresight to also make himself the first king.

My parents, for their part, tested this spelling out on their white friends, to see how they would pronounce it. They reportedly all got it right the first time, which by my count makes them the only white people in history to have done so. In fact, American English speakers pronounce “Ku” not as “Kyoo”, but as “Koo”. This is due in no small part to the common Indian name Kumar, which many Americans recognize from—if nowhere else—the buddy comedy Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

The “mars” is even trickier: Its correct pronunciation is the complete opposite of the English pronunciation of Mars (the planet and Roman god of war): The “a” is the same as in “cat”, the “r” is rolled, and the “s” is pronounced like “sass”.

Coaching a well-meaning friend or acquaintance through the “authentic” (correct) Persian pronunciation of my name is just that—work. It’s an ordeal. Without exception, those who undertake the challenge either fail or lapse immediately upon succeeding.

For most of my life, I never corrected anyone’s pronunciation of my name—not for lack of patience, exactly, but for fear that it would call attention to my Iranianness (As a child, I used to wish my name were Jason, which I now know to be an almost comically white name). As a result, some of my oldest friends still call me “Koo-Mars”: Despite now knowing better, they can’t shake the habit.

It’s only in the last five years or so that I’ve begun to break my own habit of quietly acquiescing to whatever embarrassing butchery follows the teacher’s longest pause during roll call. I’ve told myself the fact that no one I meet can pronounce my name doesn’t bother me, that I know better than to take it personally—but the truth is that it bothers me to no end. I rarely remember the names of people I meet, because as soon as I introduce myself to someone, instead of listening for their name, I’m already bracing to repeat mine, to spell it, to explain its origin to my well-intentioned interlocutor.

To make matters simpler—for others, too, but mostly for myself—I’ve decided that my name has a correct mispronunciation in English: As long as it’s “Kyoo” and not “Koo”, I let the rest slide. This struggle over my name is as much an internal struggle as it is an external one—for two decades, I told myself I took no pride in my name, because I took no pride in the Iranian identity it stands for.

And just as I failed to be assertive about how my name is spoken, so too did I fail to claim anything like a positive Iranian identity to fill in the gap left by my alienation from white Americanness. But with maturity and reflection has come the realization that while I’m frustrated by the difficulty people have with my name, I’m not ashamed of it.

In stark contrast to East Asian immigrants in the United States, immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia generally don’t give their children Anglo-Saxon first names: My name is a testament to my parents’ refusal to assimilate into white Americanness, and today, more than ever, I’m proud and grateful that my name isn’t Jason Salehi.

So in the final entry in this series, I’d like to take up this question: Can “Iranian American” ever be more than a hyphen, an in-between place, a signifier of lack? In other words: If I’ve disavowed part of my identity, can it also be reclaimed?


2 thoughts on “Learning to be Not Quite White (Part II of III)

  1. Pingback: Learning to be Not Quite White (Part III of III) | The Red Fury

  2. Pingback: “Blade Runner” deconstructed whiteness and masculinity before it was cool | The Red Fury

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