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.
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.