By Persis Karim
For Dr. Sahar Razavi, a second-year assistant professor at Sacramento State University, the idea of being part of the large, global Iranian diaspora fits comfortably with her background. It is, of course, part of her biography, but also part of the work she’s engaged with as a teacher and a scholar of Comparative Politics who is now turning her attention to the Iranian diaspora in the United States in her current research. “This work is intimately tied to the tensions and contradictions I saw around me in the US and during my trips to Iran,” she says. Until recently, Razavi’s scholarship and her dissertation were more directly focused on the US-backed coup d’état of 1953 and the Iranian revolution of 1979. “Iranian nationalism and national identity have figured prominently, in my work, but more recently, I have shifted my focus toward the diaspora, and the Iranian diaspora in the United States, in particular. I am working on a project that investigates Iranian-American racial identity.” Razavi is interested in delving into the peculiarities and implications of Iranian-Americans’ perceptions of their proximity to or inclusion in the concept of “whiteness.” Razavi is especially interested in what “variables are correlated with perceptions of membership in whiteness, what that reveals about race and racial identity in Iran, and what it means for our collective diasporic experience.”
Of course, growing up in the shadow of the Iranian revolution and in Southern California were integral to the questions that preoccupy her as a scholar today. “My Iranian-American experience has deeply shaped my understanding of identity and the meaning of relationships. I grew up with certain questions about the world around me, and those questions were absolutely derived from my experience of living between two worlds that both felt “not quite mine,” she says. When she was two months old, a family tragedy caused her parents to move from Oklahoma City, where she was born, back to Iran to be with extended family and to rebuild their lives. It was the 1980s, after the revolution, and the hostage crisis, and they returned to Oklahoma a year and half later and remained there until Razavi was six, until they moved to California, where they settled and where she was mostly raised.
Razavi describes her experience of living in Southern California very differently from other Iranian Americans who grew up in the heart of “Tehrangeles” or large communities of Iranian immigrants outside the Los Angeles area. “We lived far away from big cities, in a pretty conservative and homogeneous town. I did not live near any Iranian community and was usually the only Iranian American in my classroom, and one of maybe two or three in the entire school. It was often an alienating experience.” After attending CSU San Marcos, Razavi moved to Flagstaff, Arizona for graduate school and high hopes of finding more people like her. “It was better, but not by much; my life there was still culturally lonely most of the time.”
Moving to Sacramento seems to have given Razavi the diverse environment she long craved and says it has “made me feel connected to my Iranian diaspora compatriots in a new way.” She is enthusiastic about her sense of connection with the people and the region, and the possibilities for community organizing and outreach, and has many ideas for future programs. Razavi notes that there is a well-established, thriving and vibrant Iranian American community in this region of California, and is far more “interconnected” than she expected. “I am fortunate to be slated to take on the position of Director of the Iranian and Middle East Studies Center at Sac State this fall. It is exciting for many reasons, not least of which is that I will be able to cultivate deeper ties to the local Iranian-American community in this role,” she adds.
Razavi appreciates the unique environment of teaching in one of the largest public higher education systems in the country, the California State University, and is glad to be on the Sacramento campus. Much like our own SF State campus, there are many wonderful and challenging aspects to her position, but without hesitation she says, “the students are absolutely the best aspect of working at Sac State.” Prior to landing in Sacramento, Razavi taught as a graduate student at Northern Arizona University, where she received her Ph.D., and the differences in the student body are noticeable. “Here at Sac State,” Razavi says, “most of the students are commuters, they work off campus, and many of them work full-time while also raising a family or caring for parents or grandparents. Many of them are first-generation college students.” These circumstances present unique challenges, says Razavi, that mean, “students often don’t have the time or resources to come to campus events or get together outside of class for projects. Assignments have to be structured with consideration of these factors. But they are also very dedicated and interested in what professors offer them, which facilitates engaging and lively classroom experiences.”
When I asked Razavi about the most important influences in her life, she identifies her parents and her teachers as essential to her development and her passion as an educator. “My mother taught mathematics at a community college in Southern California for 26 years before retiring in 2016. She was an exceedingly generous and giving educator.” Today Razavi says she is very fortunate that her mother lives with her in Sacramento. “She is now a doting grandmother enjoying her well-earned retirement with avid gardening and social excursions around Sacramento with other members of the Iranian community.”
We were thrilled to have Professor Razavi as part of our panel on “Race and Racialization in the Iranian Diaspora,” at March 2019 conference “40 Years & More: International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies,” to listen to this panel, go to our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqkR5TIqzPk. To learn more about Professor Razavi’s teaching and scholarship, go to the CSU Sacramento website: https://www.csus.edu/college/social-sciences-interdisciplinary-studies/political-science/meet-us/.