Neda Maghbouleh, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, begins The Limits of Whiteness, her groundbreaking study of Iranian Americans and race, with the story of a teenager named Roya for whom the ordinary task of filling out college applications precipitated a clash of racial logics. When asked on the forms to declare her race, she checked the box next to “other,” only to be corrected by her white teachers, who informed her she was white. Roya, like all Iranian Americans, would indeed fall into the official federal census definition of “white,” which includes any “person having origins in the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa” (1). But Roya could not bring herself to identify as “white.” As she explained: “Tell me what other ‘white’ countries are sanctioned, exploited, and vilified the way Iran is right now? And am I ‘white’ like you when I am at the airport. No. I am not white.” (1)
This opening anecdote will resonate instantly with anyone who has grown up in the liminal space between de jure whiteness and de facto otherness. Such a space exists, in Maghbouleh’s words, “at the limits of whiteness,” where Iranian Americans and Arab Americans must navigate both illegibility and hyper-visibility in a nation that has constituted Islam as its most menacing post-communist threat.(24) Drawing on interviews with eighty-four 1.5 and second-generation Iranian American youth, Maghbouleh shows how being labeled “white” by the US government while also facing harassment, hate crimes, and discrimination is to experience a profound dissonance that can also create new possibilities for racial identification and solidarity.
In order to understand these dynamics and how they play out differently among each generation of Iranian Americans, Maghbouleh skillfully disentangles two distinct (but not unrelated) ideologies of whiteness that have been sutured together by Iranian immigrants in in the post-1979 diaspora, ever since the Iranian revolution led to the mass migration of Iranians to the United States and the onset of extreme hostility between the United States and Iran. The first is the ideology of white supremacy as it has been codified in the legal category of “white” in the United States. From 1790 to 1952, anyone who wanted to become a US citizen had to prove they were of the “white” race, except for African Americans who were granted citizenship in 1866. Some readers may be familiar with the “racial prerequisite” court cases that took place between the years 1909 and 1939, a period which coincided with the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882–1943). During these years, various peoples from parts of west and south Asia tried to argue they were white in order to become citizens. Transcripts from these hearings reveal just how unnatural “race” is by exposing the legal and discursive process through which racial categories were constructed differently over time.
Through a close historical examination of the twisting and twisted arguments of scientists, scholars, lawyers, and judges, who were called upon to establish who was “white” and who was not, Maghbouleh exposes the inconsistent and fraught category of “whiteness” itself. While no Iranians featured as plaintiffs in these cases, “Iran” often appeared in the record in the context of judgments over the race of others. Sometimes Iran was used as a marker of difference, to argue for the “whiteness” of Christian Arabs as against the non-whiteness of Iranian Muslims. In other instances, Iranian heritage was offered as evidence of Indo-European-ness and, therefore, whiteness, as in the case of India Parsi claimants. Even more interesting than the appearance of Iran on both sides of the argument for and against whiteness, is the inconsistency of court rulings. “Persian” heritage, it seems, could make you white just as likely as it could make you non-white. This history leads Maghbouleh to conclude that Iranians have functioned like a “racial hinge” in US society, “open[ing] and clos[ing] the door to whiteness as necessary.” (5)
The other ideology of whiteness interrogated in this book developed in Iran in response to European colonial incursions, which intensified in the late nineteenth century. By the late 1920s, the Pahlavi dynasty actively promoted a powerful new racial-national doctrine in order to challenge European claims to racial and cultural supremacy. This doctrine declared that Iranians were the true or original “Aryans.” Evidence for this assertion was based on a politicized redefinition of the ancient Zoroastrian word arīya, which meant “noble” and was devoid of any racial connotations. In the new context of European Orientalism and pseudo-scientific racism, the Iranian state promoted the notion of Iranian “Aryan” racial origins through government-issued textbooks and through an official national culture that celebrated the pre-Islamic ancient Persian Empire. Persian imperial grandeur and Aryan racial heritage were offered as evidence that Iran deserved to be viewed and respected on par with Europe.
Thus, the generation of adult Iranians who immigrated to the United States after 1979 had been systematically educated according to the “Aryan” myth since their earliest school days. Arriving in the United States at a moment of peak anti-Iranian racism and violence, these adults seamlessly combined the two ideologies of whiteness, telling their children and anyone else who would listen that they were, in fact, “the original white people,” as if to say that all of the racism directed at them was just one giant misunderstanding. Of course, there were exceptions: Iranian leftists had long identified with other Third World peoples and with racialized minorities in the United States and had already rejected the “Aryan” myth along with the rest of the Iranian monarchy’s propaganda. However, because Maghbouleh’s research covers highly educated, upper middle class Iranian diaspora, with parents and grandparents who tend overwhelmingly to embrace this hybrid ideology of whiteness, her findings are especially significant.
In a series of deeply compelling interviews with Iranian American youth who grew up in the United States (California, the Midwest, New England, New Jersey, Maryland, and DC), Maghbouleh shows how the conditions of racial liminality have produced a situation in which members of the same family cannot agree about how to racially identify themselves. She finds that the majority of second-generation Iranians Americans she interviewed disavowed the white identity of their parents and grandparents because it did not help them navigate or understand their everyday experiences of racialization and othering. The Limits Of Whiteness tracks this generational and experiential divide through chapters organized around “home,” “school,” and “homeland,” which discusses visits to Iran by Iranian American youth. What emerges is a nuanced portrait of what it means to fall through, in Maghbouleh’s words, “a racial loophole,” that is to inhabit the strange world in which your official whiteness is almost continuously rejected by everyone you encounter. (5) In fact, according to Maghbouleh’s findings, the more exposure to white Americans an Iranian American youth has, the more likely he or she is to identify as non-white. Some of the most moving passages of this book are those about the friendships between Iranian Americans and other people of color, the college roommates who formed a kind of pan-Asian sisterhood, the young Iranian American woman who chose to go to a majority-black school in Rock Creek, Maryland, the Mexican American young people that saved Roya from hating herself because of unchecked internalized racism.
This research requires that we rethink some of the basic premises underlining how assimilation and racial identity are commonly understood. By all conventional measures of successful assimilation, such as income and education levels, presence in white-dominated schools and neighborhoods, and inter-marriage with whites, Iranian Americans should be following in the footsteps of other immigrant groups with initially precarious claims to whiteness, like Italians, Ashkenazi Jews and the Irish, who have become white over time. Each generation should be “whiter” than the one before it. And yet, Maghbouleh discovers the opposite is occurring (although she does not investigate the racial identities of Iranian Americans with one irrevocably white parent and one Iranian parent). Furthermore, Iranian Americans are not the latest evidence of an American melting pot that celebrates and tolerates difference. Instead, they are slamming into the blunt edge of whiteness, hitting the limits and reeling, through self-loathing, through disillusionment with inherited nostalgia about the once-great Persian Empire, through a reckoning with racial hierarchies (in Iran and in the United States) and towards a new racial identity. As Maghbouleh writes, they are “becoming brown by choice and by force,” whether their parents like it or not. (172)
As they seek out new ways of situating themselves in the US racial landscape, Iranian American youth must explicitly confront and reject the European-American and the “Persian Aryan” versions of whiteness. This is part of the project underway at Camp Ayandeh [future], the subject of a fascinating ethnographic chapter of this book. For a few weeks in the summer, Iranian American youth from across the country gather to share their experiences in relation to their families, their peers, and the wider societies in the United States and in Iran. They are taught different versions of the histories of both countries, histories that reject the anti-Arab sentiment at the core of the “Aryan myth” and the anti-Blackness and racism towards other people of color on which white supremacy in the United States rests. Through a collective and transforming process, they are forging a new, “brown” identity based on solidarity with other racialized peoples.
The Limits of Whiteness is fast becoming a foundational text for the emerging field of Iranian Diaspora Studies. By challenging Iranian ethnic exceptionalism and the Aryan myth—from diaspora!—Maghbouleh conceptually reintegrates Iran back into West Asia and insists that we think about Iranian culture and identity regionally, rather than in isolation. The book implicitly contributes to ongoing conversations in Asian American Studies about how the traumas suffered by the first generation of immigrant parents are inherited by the next generation. It speaks to the tensions between assimilation and “model minority status,” on the one hand, and racism and “perpetual foreigner” syndrome, on the other. In addition, Maghbouleh’s work offers a powerful critique of post-racialism and of the notion that Asians have become “honorary whites” in this country. While she does not address gender and sexuality as sites of conflict and identity formation, her interviews often reveal the gendered aspects of racialization, such as when Iranian American girls fail to achieve the idealized standards of “white” beauty. The inability to identify as white could also be examined through a critical focus on normative “white” femininity and masculinity, and on compulsory heterosexuality, as the conditions for successful assimilation. Overall, however, this book should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding how processes of racialization can sometimes lead to a rejection of racial-nationalism in favor of a more capacious notion of identity open to pan-Asian and other “south-south” affiliations.