The day I found out I wasn’t white
“Wouldn’t you have been more comfortable if you had married someone more like you?” said my five-year-old one afternoon as I walked him home from school.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know,” he said. “Someone black…like you.”
His answer caught me off guard. Not only had I never considered myself black, but as an Iranian who came to the U.S. when I was 14, I actually identified as white. Some time later, after I had collected my thoughts, I talked with my son about his perception of color and what it meant to him. He saw his dad, green-eyed and light-skinned, as white (which he is) and everyone darker than his dad as black. He said he wanted to be white like his dad.
I was well-aware of the institutional racism that led to discriminatory hiring practices, predatory loans, and the mass incarceration of black people. I also understood individual racism: My friend’s cordial and pleasant parents threatened to cancel his sister’s wedding if she chose her black friend as her bridesmaid. This didn’t happen in Montgomery in the 1950s, but in liberal Austin in 2005.
But I hadn’t noticed the effects of racism personally or even thought much about my own race. Racial categories are different in Iran than they are in the U.S.; Iran is short for Iranshahr, or “The Land of Aryans.” Despite the appropriation of the term “Aryan race” by Nazis to support a racist agenda, Iranians (and others in the region) are, geographically speaking, the real Aryans. This encompasses physical appearances as diverse as my olive skin and my cousin’s blond hair and blue eyes. While living in Iran, I vaguely recall wanting to be chubbier and lighter skinned like my sister, because that was the ideal body type for women. But after moving to a land that prized tall, skinny, and tanned women, I quickly forgot about that.
In the States, I had my own problems related to my country of birth. I was often subjected to what felt like more than a random share of “random searches” at the airport. But that was a result of problematic relations between Iran and the U.S., not necessarily the color of my skin. In fact, references made about my skin color tended to be compliments, including blonde women lamenting that they could never achieve my “tan.” If anyone discriminated against me based on color, I didn’t notice. Perhaps because of my relatively light skin, I was shielded from most race-related discomforts and inconveniences. It wasn’t until my son’s comment, five years after arriving in Southern California, that I began to question my race.
My son’s question wasn’t just about the phenotypic differences that we call race. The problem was that my kindergartner thought that race was black and white, and he wanted to choose where he fit.
I confided in my good friend and fellow Iranian about the matter. Besides being friends, we are neighbors, have kids in the same elementary school, and have enough in common that we are often mistaken for sisters. But this was the first time we had talked about race, and I learned that our perceptions of what it meant to be white stood in stark contrast to each other.
Roxana told me her story of having gone to the Board of Education Office to register her son for kindergarten. She sat in the office, clipboard in hand, filling in the blanks without much thought until she came across a mandatory section about race. In the crude questionnaire, there was no box for Iranian, Persian, or even Middle Eastern. Perplexed, she went to the receptionist and pointed out that her ethnicity was missing from the form. The receptionist, who was black, asked her where she was from, and upon hearing Iran, she said, “Honey, you’re white.”
What do you mean I’m white? Roxana thought, sinking into her chair. The secretary came over and asked, “Are you okay, miss? Do you need some water?”
As Roxana sat there, images of atrocities against Native Americans and black people by white Europeans swirled in her head. She had moved here from Iran when she was five and, true to her hippie Californian upbringing, had come to associate being white with imperialism, colonialism, and brutality against much of the world. All her life, she had secretly prided herself for having no part in the ugliness of white supremacy. But now she felt guilty. She got up and said, “No, I can’t be white. I don’t want to be white.” Looking at Roxana’s ashen face and panicked eyes, the receptionist smiled and said, “Sweetheart, you can be whatever race you want.” So Roxana checked every box except for white: Asian American, African American, Alaska Native, Native American, and Pacific Islander.
After my conversation with Roxana, I continued to think about the complexities of race that my son had innocently brought up. Somewhere along the way, the boy had adopted the worldview that first, people could be divided into two groups, black and white, and second, it was better to be white. His father and I didn’t see it his way, otherwise we wouldn’t have married, and so help me God if my husband thought he was in any way better than me. So where did our son’s perspective come from? And how many kids his age have similar notions that they carry all the way into adulthood?
We didn’t know exactly what shaped our child’s point of view, but we went to work. We showed him clips of Martin Luther King’s speeches and talked to him about the history of slavery and Jim Crow. Fortunately, his favorite teacher was black and his school is very racially diverse, so he continued having playdates with African American, Ethiopian, and Japanese friends. After a few weeks, I asked my son if he preferred to be black or white. Giving me a glimpse of a teenage version of himself, he rolled his eyes and said, “Color doesn’t matter.”
But our lesson was far from over, because Trump became president. Some time around the election, a parent at my son’s multicultural school began spewing anti-immigrant rhetoric in the pickup area. My son began exhibiting nervousness about being “half-immigrant.” He came home, asking me if his Mexican American friends were going to be deported. Trump talked about establishing a Muslim registry. Shit got real.
My family was getting a small taste of what black people have endured in the U.S. for centuries. This was but a tiny glimpse of what Jewish people experienced as fascism gained steam in Europe in the years leading up to World War II. I saw an opportunity to help my son become a good American—someone who strives to fight for social justice. I began sharing with him the news about refugees and DACA recipients. I showed him parts of the Vice documentary on the Charlottesville march. When my son became angry and spoke of violence against the white supremacists, I told him about the myth of the dragon: If you kill the dragon, each tooth will become another dragon. Violence doesn’t work.
“But they want to hurt David. He’s black,” my son protested. David is a small, special needs child and one of my son’s best friends.
“That’s why you need to watch out for him.” I said. “You need to stand up to anyone who might bully or hurt him.”
The other day, my son came home from school and said, “David is doing good. No one has bullied him. I’m gonna keep watching out for him.”
As for Roxana and I, we’re educating our kids about our Iranian heritage. We explain how white supremacists have appropriated the term Aryan to advance a horrific agenda. We emphasize that even though our roots don’t define us, our duty as Americans is to explore and learn about our own immigrant past and our nation’s history. It’s up to us to help shape our children’s worldview, their sense of self, their hearts.