Prejudice; "Siaah Sookhteh"
By: Shalizeh Nadjmi, 2002
Unlike the stereotypical slap-happy immigrant entering the Land of Opportunity through Staten Island, gazing in awe at Lady Liberty, my family flew in to the U.S. through the gates of the America's capital. It was here in Washington DC that I first gazed in wonderment at the majestic white monuments that marked the strength and foundation for the democratic ideals this country stands for. It was also here that I was introduced to another concept; a stark contrast that symbolizes the schizophrenia of America - racial prejudices.
Boarding my first American subway in Northwest DC, I was warned by our host -my mother's lovely cousin- to be wary of the Black Man. In fact, my second cousin sternly objected to my mother and I sitting anywhere near "them" for they were all armed and short tempered, and would surely hurt us if we got too close.
Fourteen years later, under unforeseen circumstances, I find myself back here in the great Western capital. Yet it seems that after all this time, I have not heeded my cousin's warning. Indeed, like a good Persian girl I did the very opposite: I tasted the forbidden fruit. In the twenty-two years since leaving my mother's womb, I have experienced two significant loves. Both of them have not only been Black, but they have been African, with skin the color of midnight satin. And although both were born in the U.S., each spent his life in his respective motherland, and then migrated back to North America.
Revisiting my relatives, I had naively and optimistically hoped that in the course of fourteen years, my blood-kin would have learned acceptance of all people regardless of race, color, or ethnicity. Sadly, I was wrong.
In this city of a thousand and one nationalities, I had mistakenly equated diversity with understanding, tolerance with acceptance, integration with brotherhood, and tokenism with equality.
The ebony almond eyes, gentle flat nose, and voluptuous red lips of my boyfriend are unfamiliar and threatening to my great aunt and her family. Full of Persian pride, I am drowned in a sea of shame when I try to speak of him, and my tongue holds its silence. Dizzying thoughts of rebuttal swim in my head, but I give into submission when confronted by my elders, remembering that I must not disrespect them. My aunt's final comment on the matter is "Do you want Black children?"
How do I respond to a statement that reveals the unfortunate mentality of the great majority of Iranians. A statement that reflects the loss of identity for the migrant, the colonized and the subjugated civilization. I recall a "mehmooni" (party) a few years back where my mother proudly informed her friends that an "American" colleague had inquired whether she was French.
In our struggle for success and respect on foreign soil, we have adapted the segregationist mentality that plagues this country - a country that has hailed the "equality" flag from its conception. Now Iranians have become afflicted with this virus that spread across all minority groups. We try our best to fit the European White mold, believing it to be the highest form of existence. We boast about our history and poetry, about our artists and mathematicians, yet we have abandoned the true nature of our identity in order to gain social acceptance. In an attempt to act and look "normal," we shun other races, viewing them as lower specimens.
Persians feel complemented when mistaken for French or Italian, but show great aversion to being mistaken as Arab or Chicano. We deem ourselves superior to all of Asia because of our "Aryan" ancestry and great Persian Empire. Even among our own people, we praise the fair, light eyed, and light haired over the "siaah sookhtehs". We have accepted European superiority and wish to elevate ourselves to their level by purposely disassociating ourselves from other ethnic groups. But just as the White supremacist attitude views other minorities as inferior, it also views Iranians and Middle Easterners as inferior. We have not changed the perception of Iranians in their view; we have simply supported their superiority over ourselves. Prejudices against other minorities does not elevate the Iranian as a better people, rather it divides and conquers group of people that have been historically oppressed. By disuniting from our brothers and sisters, we have created a schism which feeds into the hands of the conqueror.
We hail our "Aryan" ancestry, hoping this will gain us favor among the White elite. Yet we are blind to the fact that the Asian Aryan is not the European Aryan. The olive-skinned Iranian Aryan has forgotten the deep culture and rich heritage of her ethnicity. Instead she strives to fit neatly within the yuppie, mass consumer of the status quo. She tries to defy her ethnic genes by mutating her body to fit the twiggy mold, hiding behind blue contacts, and bleaching her raven black locks into straight pigmentless yellow. The Esfahani boy gets a nose job, plucks his eyebrows, and changes Babak to Bob so that his colleagues will think of him as one of the guys. Exposure to ideas on racial equality at school are buried under racist mentalities perpetuated at home by parents and aunts and uncles.
In self-defense, many of my Persian friends claim that they are not prejudiced because they have an Arab/Latino/Black/East-Asian/Gay/Jewish friend. A relationship with an individual representative of a group does not equate acceptance of the group as a whole. Nor does it compensate for the racial slurs, jokes, and remarks that slip from our tongues time and time again. We have engraved prejudicial images into our inner beliefs. Subconsciously we believe that Arabs are dirty, Jews are conniving, gays are disgusting, and Blacks are ignorant.
Iranian Uncle Toms run amuck in American society, as well as the rest of the world. Selling out to the powers that be, we promote racism and European White supremacy, not realizing the inadvertent effect it has on ourselves. Discriminating against any race promotes discrimination against all minorities.
As long as we as a group support prejudices, we will continue to be discriminated against as well. We are in effect supporting the Euro-centric ideology that European White is right. Diluting ourselves that we are a part of this exclusive club has robbed us of our identity. How can we gain recognition for ourselves as Iranians if we are constantly trying to assimilate as "Americans."
Unfortunately, we have missed the boat on what it is to be "American" as well. Through advertising and mass media's visual bombardment, we have embraced the European definition of "American" - white, blonde, and blue eyed. Yet how many Americans actually fit this image? American is a conglomerate of ethnicities. American is Afghani, Jewish, Swahili, Indonesian, Ecuadorian, Hindu, Polish and Kuwaiti. It is not simply Tommy-Boy and Chanel.
I am always grateful to my parents for having provided me with the opportunity to live in the U.S. I have been exposed to Western ideologies at school, and Eastern ideology at home. I have learned to choose treasures from each culture and place them in my own basket of values. Yet, I do not place one above the other, and I am always conscience and expressive of where I come from. And while my boyfriend is neither Iranian, nor the piercing rod in my tongue part of Iranian cultural practice, I am confidant in who I am.
Three weeks ago I ventured to the Lincoln memorial where on one beautiful summer August day some years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. had delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech to over one million people of all nationalities, of all denominations. As I stood across the water where a somber Mr. Lincoln sat solemnly on his towering throne, I wondered when that day would come. I was reminded of my grandfather standing erect on top of Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, reciting "Hafez" over the moonlit city. As the mad waters ran down my saturated skin, I felt the cleansing power of hope. One day we will wash this unnatural hatred from our soul and embrace our brothers and sisters as fellow humans."
"The rumblings of discontent in Asia and Africa are expressions of a quest for freedom and human dignity by people who have long been the victims of colonialism and imperialism. So, in a real sense, the racial crisis in America is a part of the larger world crisis." --
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.