Off-White: Iranian-Americans and Race from 1950-present

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.