From African Slavery to American Immigration: Race and Racial Constructs in the Iranian Context, 1850-present

Discussions on Iranian constructions of race often refer to the Aryan narrative of Iranian whiteness. While the Aryan myth was undoubtedly significant in informing Iranian racial ideals, this panel highlights social, cultural, and political instances that changed or hardened Iranian understandings of race. This panel comprises four presentations, each offering research that employs race as a major component in analyzing Iranian modernity, nationalism, and identity, both domestically and transnationally. The panelists engage in an interdisciplinary discussion, engaging comparative literature, art history, sociology, and history. This panel charters the development of Iranian understandings of race during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, beginning with the late Qajar slave trade and ending with Iranian dilemmas of racial identity in diaspora after the 1979 revolution.
The panel begins with a discussion on the visual othering of Africans in nineteenth century paintings and portraiture. By highlighting the various media used to depict Africans as slaves in the Qajar period, the author underscores the pervasive quality of stereotyping through visual cues for both male and female slaves. While scholarship on Iranian portraiture has drawn upon the similarities between painting and portraiture during the Qajar period, this paper will focus on artistic elements that reveal a racial worldview.
To complement the visual delineation of race, the second presentation discusses the linguistic changes in Persian racial discourse. With every amendment in the institution of slavery between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the language of race in Persian changed as well. After abolition, the whitewashing of racialized vernacular indicates an erasure of larger racial practice as well.
Moving into the mid twentieth century, the third presentation offers a filmic understanding of race in Iranian ethnographic documentaries. Her analysis of Nasser Taghvai’s Bad-e jinn (1969) and Tranquility in the Presence of Others (1970) highlights the role of racial minorities in framing Iranian ideals of modernity and tradition during the late Pahlavi period.
The final presentation examines Iranian notions of race in the United States. The author argues that conceptions of “whiteness” and self-identity were complicated upon Iranians’ arrival to the U.S., as American and Iranian notions of whiteness differed. This discussion of the legacies of Iranian racial constructions concludes our panel and highlights the relevance of racial constructions to Iranians in diaspora.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Beeta Baghoolizadeh
University of Pennsylvania


Reza Zia-Ebrahimi


Reza Zia-Ebrahimi
King's College London


Room 33
Fri, 2016-08-05 10:30 - 12:00


by Beeta Baghoolizadeh / University of Pennsylvania

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, slavery played a crucial role in crystallizing racial categories in Persian discourse. Descriptive and degrading language permeated Iranian society and created a common language that identified slaves as foreign and savage. Scholarly discussions of Iran’s peoples have addressed its rich ethnic and religious diversity, but rarely acknowledge narratives of racial difference. Further, recent works on Iranian slavery often de-emphasize the racial dimensions of the trade. This paper’s attention to the changes and continuities in racial categorization serves as a significant contribution to understandings of race, slavery, and society during this period. The racial dimension of slavery hardened during the late nineteenth century, despite Iranian and British efforts to abolish the slave trade along the Persian Gulf after 1848. By this time, the gradual decrease of the Caucasian and Central Asian slave trades and the emergent dominance of the East African slave trade created a common lexicon that readily identified “black” as slave. Epithets, including “suski,” a diminutive form of “cockroach,” described a slave’s darker skin as pest-like. After the Manumission Law of 1928, however, the whitewashing of the Persian language largely discarded these loaded terms in favor of language that erased racial difference within Iranian society. The specific language used to describe both male and female slaves of African descent further demonstrates Iranian sensitivities to intersections of race and gender during this period. This paper argues that the changing institution of slavery affected broad understandings of race and difference in the late Qajar to early Pahlavi period, from 1872-1941. It traces a racial vocabulary native to Iranian discourse, later influenced by the evangelizing efforts of British officials and American missionaries who arrived in Iran with their own understandings of the black-white binary. Analyzing memoirs, poems, sales contracts, marriage contracts, letters, naming practices and other primary source documents from 1872-1941, this paper demonstrates the influence of slavery as an institution on racial language used to describe slaves and others in Iranian society. The transition from race-conscious to colorblind terminology operated as critical to the nation-building process, where former slaves were recognized as Iranian citizens and compatriots. Despite efforts to change linguistic patterns, however, racial othering in Iran persisted beyond abolition.

by Neda Maghbouleh / University of Toronto

Scholarship at the intersection of Iranian history and nationalism has complicated or challenged long-held understandings of Iranian ethno-racial whiteness and the “Aryan myth.” Less is known, however, about the cultural, historical, and legal claims that undergird the whiteness of Iranians in diaspora, the majority of whom have settled in countries with radically heterogeneous racial regimes. This paper represents a first attempt to fully account for the transnational, legal, and everyday ideologies and practices that constitute the paradoxical racial history of Iranians in the United States from 1950 to present. This history begins well before their first large-scale arrival in the latter half of the twentieth century. Decades earlier, when American naturalization cases were entirely predicated on a male claimant’s ability to successfully prove his whiteness, Syrian and Armenian immigrants argued in court that their dissimilarity from dark, “fire-worshipping,” unassimilable Iranians was proof of Arab and Armenian whiteness. These early racial prerequisite cases and their subsequent “clash of civilization” court rulings are evidence of a historically white spatial imaginary in which Iran and “Iranianness” have been rhetorically positioned as unfit for white citizenship in the U.S. In more recent history, Iranian-Americans have also lived in a diasporic setting gripped with fear of an Islamic government, war frenzy and significant exclusion from the American body politic through employment discrimination, state-sanctioned surveillance, and extra-legal violence. Yet, by the time Iranians arrived to the U.S. in their largest migration wave following the 1979 Revolution, the racial ground in America had shifted. In 1977, as part of the far-reaching and hard-won civil rights gains by communities of color, the U.S. federal government consecrated a standard, shared definition of racial/ethnic categories for the first time across its bureaus and agencies, deeming persons with European, Middle Eastern, and North African ancestry to be “white.” Iranians bound for America also disproportionately enter with specialized training in engineering and medicine, benefitting from the high levels of economic, social, and human capital that these professions engender, even in exile, furthering their demographic construction as “white.” As such, this racial paradox—in which Iranian-Americans both self-identify and are schizophrenically integrated as at once “white” and “not-white” across a variety of indices—suggests that affective, historical, legal, and social claims to Iranian “whiteness” are doubly complicated in diasporic contexts.

by Parisa Vaziri / University of California, Irvine

Film practice during the late Pahlavi era curated exoticized images of Iranian racial minorities in documentaries and ethnographies. Traditional film scholarship contextualizes the Iranian New Wave through connections to Iranian literary modernism and European filmic modernisms. This paper calls for a more nuanced reading of the Iranian New Wave and places the movement in relation to the contemporaneous rise in government-funded ethnographic documentary. Large-scale state funding through Reza Shah Pahlavi's Ministry of Arts and Culture and National Iranian Radio and Television propelled both New Wave and ethnographic filmmaking in Iran. The institutional matrix of support for avant-garde filmmaking practices draws a complex relation between ethnographic documentation of rural forms of life, government investment in filmmakers’ abilities to draw international acclaim in awards circuits, and the ongoing project of constructing an authentic, yet cosmopolitan and modern Iranian nationalism. Through an analysis of two films by Nasser Taghvai, the ethnographic documentary Bad-e jinn (1969) and the feature film Tranquility in the Presence of Others (1970), I argue that the sudden government-funded interest in New Wave filmmaking and ethnographic documentary sustained a racializing mode of disjunctive temporality undergirding the concept of the modern. New Wave filmmakers visually preserved “decaying” forms of traditional life and articulated modernity in mid-twentieth century Iran through their ethnographic documentaries. Adapted from Ghulam Hossein Sa’edi’s Ahle-Hava, an ethnographic monograph about the spirit rituals practiced by descendants of African slaves in Bandar Lengeh, Nasser Taghvai’s Bad-e-jinn (1969) is narrated by the renowned modern poet Ahmad Shamlu and makes the zar ceremony the subject of an enigmatic twenty minute documentary. Produced just one year later, Taghvai’s Tranquility in the Presence of Others (1970) also treats the theme of madness, but through the use of more recognizably modernist tropes of anxiety such as the dangers of women’s liberation, modern medical practices, hollow relationships, western popular music, and closed-form aesthetics. I argue through the juxtaposition of these temporally proximate films that the different treatments of subjectivity and space in Bad-e Jinn and Tranquility in the Presence of Others mark the disjunctive temporality that sustains the modern as a racial concept.

by Mira Xenia Schwerda / Harvard University

In a photo album formerly owned by an Armenian family living in Qajar Iran we see a full-size portrait of a military officer. A medal is pinned to his chest and a sword is attached to his side. It is a very young man, who faces the camera and the viewer with an insecure gaze. The caption identifies him as an African officer in Zill al-Sultan’s service. The photograph most likely depicts a manumitted slave.
Painted and photographed depictions of African slaves in Qajar art, some stereotypical, others individualized depictions, raise not only important questions about the producers and consumers of these images but also illuminate the system of class and race in Qajar Iran. This is a topic, which has received relatively little attention even though a wealth of material exists. This paper considers the background of the objects and portrayed individuals, as well as related questions of race, gender, and class.
In the first part of my paper I will focus on typical scenes showing African men and women in Qajar photographs, paintings and lacquer works, and the relationship between race and gender in these artworks. While the majority of individualized photographs and artworks feature African men, a significantly smaller number of painted and photographed portraits of women exist as well. However, at the same time when the individual depiction of African women was consciously limited, stereotypical depictions of African women as wet nurses or housemaids in paintings became a more and more popular trope. I will analyze the social, cultural and religious reasons for this seemingly contradictory development.
In the second part of the paper I will focus on the depiction of manumitted slaves. I will analyze painted and photographed portraiture of former African slaves and focus on the case study of the unnamed Ethiopian officer of Zill al-Sultan’s army. Last but not least I will discuss the absence of depictions of female manumitted slaves.
By analyzing paintings, lacquer works, lithographs and photographs, this paper will investigate issues of individuality and stereotypes in the depiction of slaves and former slaves of African origin and demonstrate how art work depicting Africans can illustrate and illuminate the subtleties and intricacies of the construction of class and race in Qajar Iran.