White, Black, and Iranians in Between: The Racial Language of Difference, 1872-1941

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.