There’s an old Middle Eastern-American proverb that — roughly translated — goes something like, “I’m actually technically white according to the Census.”
This proverb, with its awkward adverbs and desperate lust for ethos, has dribbled out of my mouth more times than I am proud to admit. I am, after all, the product of two white American frontiers: the sweetly benevolent whiteness of Treasure Valley and the abstruse, nebulous whiteness of the Virginia piedmont. As would most little girls with black frizzy hair and a funny name in towns 92 percent white, I fell to official racial classifications when I had nothing else that could back up my claim to sameness.
I’m not white. Sorry, U.S. Census, CommonApp and my loyal following over at the neo-eugenicist website (that once republished one of my columns) Prometheism.net! There is little whiteness in my black frizzy hair and my funny name and the fact that I am made to feel ashamed of both whenever I go to an airport. In fact, legal Middle Eastern whiteness in the U.S. likely dates back to mid-20th century judicial decisions, when whiteness was required for citizenship and Christian Arabs leveraged their religious affiliations to obtain it. For Arabs, Persians, Armenians, Turks, etc. whiteness is a legal designation that accompanies few if any of the social privileges. In other words, racial dichotomies are arbitrary and based in colonialism and eugenics, water is wet and Collegetown housing is overpriced.
Race is arbitrary, but it is still undoubtedly salient. Then what language do Middle Easterners get to use to address their non-whiteness? I briefly tested “brown,” but using it felt like the first time I tried wearing a bold red lip color (With my olive undertones and big-ass eyeballs? Absolutely not.). Asking around for a definition of brownness understandably yielded myriad results from, “South Asian only” to “Latinx, Pacific Islander, MENA and South Asian,” to just “not looking white.” Some of my white friends called me brown with certainty, while many of my South-Asian friends said I definitely wasn’t.
The language of race noticeably ignores heterogeneity, so I, along with many other (but most certainly not all) Persians, Arabs, Armenians, Turks, etc. seem to occupy an area between whiteness and brownness, one that is dark enough to be profiled but light enough for certain things to slide. Sociologists might call it “white passing.” One of my friends called it being the “brown people of whiteness.” I’ve flirted with calling it “being ‘ish.’” You know, brown-ish, maybe a little white-ish, but mostly just ish.
Being in the ish space is confusing and it is nuanced. Still othered from whiteness, being in this buffer means that the way I experience racism is often couched, implicit, or implied, so much so that I don’t spot it a lot of the time. As Alex Shams, a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Chicago writes, “the more I spoke with white folks about race, the more I began to understand that many of my experiences of bullying throughout childhood were directly tied to my ethnicity in ways I hadn’t previously realized. As obvious as it now sounds, it had never occurred to me before that… these experiences were not merely unpleasant but were in fact definitively racist.” Not being able to pinpoint or vocalize the racism you’ve experienced makes speaking against it and about it challenging. When a coffee-shop owner back home is noticeably hostile to me but not to the white man in front of me in line, I cannot clearly demonstrate that it was because I was the darkest person in the store the same way my dad could when he used to be explicitly denied service for being Iranian in the 1980s. As a result, I ignore it. The protocol is to attribute it to something inane like maybe he just didn’t like that I used AmEx and then to move on.
But while I am brown-ish, I am still white-passing in this gray area, and am thus being utilized as an instrument of reinforcing current racial barriers. Prof. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, sociology, Duke, asserted in 2004 that as the U.S. becomes more ethnically diverse, we will treat race less as white vs. nonwhite and increasingly stratified in a “tri-racial” system. Bonilla-Silva argues Middle Easterners will fall into the middle tier of “honorary whites,” writing that “race conflict will be buffered by the intermediate group, much like class conflict is when the class structure includes a large middle class.”
It’s alarming how squarely light-skinned and white-passing Persians, Arabs and others fit into Bonilla-Silva’s theory today. Persian-Americans especially tend to exhibit anti-blackness and hispanophobia, largely carried over from the Pahlavi regime’s nationalistic narratives of Persian racial superiority. Moreover, recent Middle-Eastern immigrants and their children often fall under the “model minority” myth; even President Trump referred to Persians as “one of the most successful immigrant groups in our country’s contemporary history,” despite Persian immigrants historically developing wealth prior to coming to the U.S.
I can’t say I don’t benefit from this transfer to “honorary whiteness,” because I indubitably do. Because of the conflation of Muslimness and brownness, it’s likely that, especially because I am not visibly Muslim, my non-Muslim brown friends have suffered more from explicit Islamophobia than I have. But I still desperately long for a place in the linguistic racial landscape so that I can put my finger on what exactly it is that ish people like me experience: What exactly is our shared oppression, and how can we recognize it without taking up space where we don’t belong? Perhaps creating space for the brown-ish racializes where racialization isn’t needed. Maybe it creates monolithic labels like “Middle Eastern” that mask heterogeneity. At the very least, though, it can serve as a starting point in understanding the realities and complexities of being in-between in America.
Pegah Moradi is a junior in the college of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. All Jokes Aside appears alternate Mondays this semester.