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

This post is the last in a three-part series about my experience of growing up as an Iranian American in the United States. Here, I tie up some loose ends from parts I and II, so if you haven’t read them, I encourage you to do so before reading this conclusion.

– KS

Last week, I wrote about how my parents, immigrants from Iran who met in Berkeley, California, refused in some very important ways to assimilate into white Americanness. But that’s not the whole story.

They also, as far back as I can remember, refused to integrate fully into the Iranian expatriate community in the US. In particular, my mother’s disdain for the so-called Persians of Tehrangeles played a role in my father’s decision to turn down a job offer from the University of Southern California in favor of a post at the University of Illinois.

There are, of course, “LA Persians” everywhere, including my hometown: Even there, my parents have relatively few close friends in Champaign-Urbana’s insular, compact circle of Iranian expats.

Over the years, my mother’s disdain became my own. I learned—first from her, but later from my own interactions—that Persians were cliquish, superficial, conservative, apolitical, materialistic, and racist. Not all Iranians and Iranian Americans in the United States are, by this definition, Persians; but in my experience, a great deal of them are.

Persians call themselves Persians because of the different associations white Americans have with the terms “Iranian” and “Persian”: “Iranian” conjures up images of the Islamic Republic, scary men with beards, the hostage crisis, oppressed women covered in bedsheets, terrorism, religious fanaticism, the threat of nuclear holocaust, the famed Axis of Evil. “Persian”, on the other hand, makes you think of cats and rugs.

The choice, for wealthy Iranians eager to accommodate the ignorance and prejudice of their gracious white hosts, is clear. But the intensity of my disgust at this attitude is, at least partially, a projection onto others of something I find deeply unsettling about myself: I use “Persian” as a derogatory term to describe a tendency of Iranians in the United States—a tendency I’m inclined to condemn as cowardice. But is the fear of those Iranians any less grounded, their masking of a potentially dangerous difference any less justified than my own anxieties?

In his Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche writes, “He who battles monsters should take care, lest he, in so doing, become a monster himself. And when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” What do people do when they look in the mirror? Do they fix their hair? Do they judge what they see? Do they confront the phantasmagorical image of shame and self-loathing gazing back into them?

What do they do? Do they cower? Do they lash out at the monstrous excess, that part of themselves that they can’t control, the unconscious, the abyss that lies at the center of their own subjectivity?

I originally wrote this essay for a seminar about representations of difference – mostly focused on issues of race and ethnicity, but also intersecting with issues of gender, sexuality, class, and so on. At the first meeting, I began a comment with the words, “I feel pretty white….” In the days and weeks that followed, I was haunted by those words. They rang hollow, and the sound of their emptiness was deafening.

This is a cathartic sort of writing for me, because as I write, I excavate realities of my experience, realities long since buried. When I was 10, the same year as the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I stopped the Persian reading and writing lessons I had been taking from my grandmother.

A decade later, I decided that my academic passion lay in the cultural traditions of Germany and Scandinavia. To call my professional interests Eurocentric is, in that sense, a severe understatement. In fact, I’ve gotten used to regarding my lack of interest in Iranian culture as a sort of virtue, an act of personal agency that subverts the expectation that an Iranian American will be concerned, first and foremost, with Iranian things.

Who can look into the murky void, the dark night of my soul, and say for sure that I only quit my Persian lessons out of laziness? Who can say for sure that it’s only my taste, temperament, and political orientation that drew me towards Brecht and von Trier, and not Rumi and Kiarostami?

Who can say? Perhaps not even I. But every day I discover more and more clues that point to the hidden flip-side of my supposed personal agency—a ravenous hunger, long suppressed, to “reconnect with my roots”.

On my most recent trip to Iran, in 2011, I resolved to relearn the Persian script. I’m still as fluent in Persian as I ever was (it was, after all, my first language, the language my parents spoke at home), but the fact that I don’t work with Persian texts has kept me at what must be, at best, a first-grade reading level—to say nothing of writing. That impulse to relearn the alphabet only hints at the true extent of my desire to recover an Iranian identity that seems never to have been fully, consciously mine to begin with.

Since I began this work of dredging up my past, I’ve started watching the Bravo reality show Shahs of Sunset, which follows the drama and hijinks of young, wealthy, attractive LA Persians. I’d been aware of this show for a couple of years, but had remained resolute in my refusal to watch it. It’s an offensive, exploitative reinforcement, I thought, of already pervasive stereotypes about Iranian Americans—and besides, I wasn’t interested in how these people lived their lives anyway.

But it only took a couple of episodes until I was hooked; to see young Iranians so comfortable with a clearly defined, explicitly non-white ethnic identity had an allure I couldn’t get anywhere else.

In one episode, the group rents a pimped-out party bus, complete with neon lights and stripper poles. “It’s so Persian that it’s actually Saudi,” one character remarks. “So Persian that it’s actually Saudi”? I grew up thinking that, in the world I wanted to be a part of, no one knew or gave a damn what the difference between “Persian” and “Saudi” even was.

These Persians might be the opposite of everything I stand for as someone who considers themselves a radical leftist intellectual – but they have something I don’t: A sense of security and community that seems to flow organically from their ethnic identification.

What box do the Shahs of Sunset check on application forms? I only check “white” when I have the option of specifying that I am not “European” but “Middle Eastern”—if not, I decline to answer. This isn’t a principled position so much as it is a reflection of my own uncertainty about the role that the source of my nonwhiteness, my Iranianness, actually plays in my life.

This year, on the day after Thanksgiving, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with two old white friends from Illinois and a new friend I met in New York. I spent most of my time there in the gallery displaying Turkish, Arab, Iranian, and other Middle Eastern “artworks” (artifacts). It was unprecedented for me to actually enjoy walking through an art gallery, but I was enthralled. I wandered from display case to display case, immediately moving on when I discerned that the object in question wasn’t from historical Iran.

That’s all I wanted to see: just Iranian things, no matter how old, now matter how inscrutable the calligraphy, no matter how little I may have in common with the people who made them.

I don’t even remember learning an interesting fact: I just looked, thought back to my grandmother’s stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, and explained to one of my friends with glee that my mom is from the capital of Iran, and my dad is from the capital of Iran a thousand years ago; that legend has it chess and backgammon came into being in a territorial dispute between Iran and India; that written Persian looked nothing like Arabic script until the Arabs invaded and conquered Iran in the 7th century.

Some rich white man paid good money to bring these fragments from my prehistory here, to me, in New York City, in 2013. Perhaps some of those pieces were buried underground: perhaps deeper than my own desire not just to be whole, but also to be proud of it. And me? I’ve only just started digging.


One thought on “Learning to be Not Quite White (Part III of III)

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

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