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Race Matters: Are Middle Easterners Really White?

"Whitewashed: America's Invisible Middle Eastern Minority" by John Tehranian

Reviewed by Afsaneh Ashley Tabaddor

What does it mean to be "White" in America today?

Ask the average Iranian-American about his race and chances are he will proudly proclaim himself "White"—especially if he happens to be part of the older generation. The rationale goes something like this: Iranians are really the original "White" people. The term Iran is derived from the word Aryan, reflecting Iranian people's heritage as White. How much of this etymology is in fact true is debatable, but one thing remains certain, that in the United States people of Iranian and Arab decent are legally considered "White." Most of the community wears this as a badge of honor. But is it really?

In his book, Whitewashed, John Tehranian, a law professor at Chapman University in Orange, begins with a discussion on the social and legal construction of whiteness and race. Either consciously or unconsciously, many people believe that our current "race" categories are born from a precise genetic or scientific formula. In a well-documented and persuasive analytical framework, Tehranian debunks any theory that would advance "race" as a reflection of scientific theory. He provides a detailed historical picture of how the concept of race is socially constructed and the way it has been redefined and used throughout history as a tool to exclude minority groups from the social and political system.

Whitewashed: America's Invisible Middle Eastern MinorityWhitewashed: America's Invisible Middle Eastern MinorityNext, he delves into an instructive discussion of the experiences of various immigrant communities who emigrated to the United States, and the obstacles they faced in trying to find a voice and a place in American community. Today, many people consider any person of European decent to be part of the "White" elite. Not true a hundred or so years ago. Irish, German and Italian waves of immigrants, just to name a few, met with great obstacles when they flocked to the United States en masse. The Irish in particular were disdained, not only because of their "different race" but their different religion, as Catholics. It took each community decades and concerted effort to overcome discrimination, to "become" White in America.

Professor Tehranian's discussion of this background helps to place the story of the Middle Eastern community in context. While the community shares much of what the other immigrant communities have had to overcome as new immigrants, Iranians and Arabs have had a unique experience that sets them apart. Due to various historical happenstances, Middle Easterners are categorized as legally "White," a label that they have traditionally welcomed with open arms, but one that has not served them well.

Tehranian challenges the community to reflect on its delusional attachment to "whiteness" in America. He points out how the Middle Eastern community has never really been treated as "White;" i.e., received the unspoken approval, benefits, and advantages of the old white guard. To the contrary, Middle Eastern communities, similar to so many other immigrant communities before it, have been treated as minorities, particularly in times of conflict, such as post 9/11. Yet, Arabs and Iranians have not benefited from any of the protections that are enjoyed by the traditional minority groups—African Americans, Asians, Native Americans and Latinos.

John Tehranian: speaking on a panel, "Dismantling the Axis of Evil" in Los AngelesJohn Tehranian: speaking on a panel, "Dismantling the Axis of Evil" in Los AngelesFor example, in 2005, a federal jury found a Muslim immigrant from Afghanistan to have suffered systematic racial, religious and ethnic discrimination. He had received anonymous hate letters at work telling him to go back to his home country because "you don't bE long HERE you Fucking musselum [sic!]. You PIECE of shit We HATE YOU." Co-workers vandalized his locker, forced him to eat ham against his religious beliefs, and placed his shoes in the toilet. While the jury found that he had been harassed and discriminated against with the knowledge of his employer, they found that he had not suffered any harm for which he could receive compensatory, punitive or even nominal damage. On appeal, the appellate court reviewing the case affirmed the jury verdict, finding that "there is no plausible argument that on these facts a reasonable jury was compelled to find a compensatory damages award." One is left wondering if the decision would have been the same had the plaintiff been a member of a legally recognized minority group.

The result of this paradox is what Tehranian coins as "Selective Racialization," a process in which the successes of individuals of Middle Eastern descent are characterized as a reflection of their whiteness while any anti-social acts by individuals of the community is depicted as reflective of their Middle Eastern identity. For example, in a popular 1990s TV series, Beverly Hills 90210, the characters were all based on students from the local high school in Beverly Hills, whose population was approximately 20-25% Iranian-American. Yet, during the entire run of the decade-long series, not a single episode contained a character of Iranian-American heritage. This would be tantamount to a TV show that is based in Harlem but does not contain a single African-American character!

Being legally "White," therefore, has created an additional obstacle for the Middle Eastern community in trying to achieve equality in the United States. By accepting "White" as an identity, the community has been placated into silence, believing that it is part of the majority voice, leaving it disarmed in times when its members need protection the most. The "whiteness" has essentially whitewashed the identity of the Middle-Eastern community to the detriment of its social and political voice in America.

Whitewashed is both a wake-up call for the Middle Eastern community, and a call to action: Shed the identity that has been imposed on you, along with its veil of invisibility. Redefine yourself in your true form so that you can be truly seen and counted as an American.


Afsaneh Ashley Tabaddor is a native of Tehran, Iran. She immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 10 after the Iranian Revolution. She is currently serving as an immigration judge in Los Angeles and as an adjunct professor at Chapman Law School.