Reflections on Racism, Inequality, and the Role Iranian-Americans Can Play in Social Justice

By Roya Ahmadi and Jasmine Djavahery (2020 Center Summer Fellows)

We are incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to lead and organize the Center’s summer and fall series “Creating an Anti-Racist Future in the Iranian Diaspora: A Three Part Inquiry and Conversation.” Our thought process in the first few weeks following the murder of George Floyd was much like many other allies — we wanted to do something to participate in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, to be engaged in important dialogues without taking up too much space as non-Black people, and wanted to educate ourselves and others in our communities. In order to reflect upon our privilege and involve ourselves as allies, we both felt it was important to bring conversations about BLM into our community by learning how Iranian-Americans either perpetuate racism or deny it. We wanted to push ourselves and others to be actively anti-racist and stand in solidarity with other communities at a time when around the country people were protesting and marching in solidarity with black folks.

Both of us separately approached Dr. Persis Karim, the Center’s director, to figure out how we could address anti-Blackness in the Iranian Diaspora. Jasmine had been following the Center’s social media for some time and was familiar with their work and projects. Having been involved with UC Santa Cruz’s Iranian Student Union since her freshman year, but previously had not really connected with other Iranians her age. But even in some spaces with young Iranian-Americans, Jasmine struggled to engage peers in discussions about racism and anti-Blackness because it often brought up feelings of discomfort. Jasmine was impressed by the Center’s interdisciplinary projects and discussion on subjects often viewed as “taboo” so she thought the Center would be a good place to address anti-Blackness, and racism more generally.

Roya had been an intern at the Center during the summer of 2019, and learned a great deal about diasporic Iranian identity and was inspired by Dr. Karim’s willingness to create space for deeper and more difficult conversation. She reached out to the Center again to find a way to educate herself on the intersection of BLM and her Iranian identity. During her internship last summer, Roya interviewed figures working in the field of Iranian diaspora studies and wrote about them for the Center’s blog “With a Trace.” Writing those blog posts made her feel excited and proud to be Iranian and to be a part of this community. It felt only appropriate to return to the Center during the summer when she was witnessing first-hand the after-effects of George Floyd’s murder, where she was spending the summer visiting my brother and sister-in-law. Seeing the pain in that community, and watching as black, brown, and white people marched in city after city, made her feel the need to participate and push her own community to address the issues.

Our series “Creating an Anti-Racist Future in the Iranian Diaspora” was successful in drawing attention to ideas not previously considered by community members (ourselves and our families included). We appreciated the ability to organize and carry out three diverse conversations: 1) an Instagram interview with Black-Iranian comedian and activist, Tehran Von Ghasri on July 22. 2020; 2) “Exploring Race and Racial Representation in the Past and Present,” with Dr. Niaz Kasravi  (Director, Avalan Institute) and Dr. Parisa Vaziri (Professor, Comparative Literature & Middle East Studies, Dartmouth College) on August 13, 2020 (via zoom) which highlighted the effects of slavery in Iran and the extent of anti-Blackness in the Iranian diaspora. The third panel, held on October 14, 2020, “Racism, Race and Immigration Policy in the Lead Up to the November 2020 Elections,” sought to build on the two previous panels and to expand the conversation to include issues around the upcoming election, brown and black communities, and immigration policy. The panelists included Rahna Epting, National Executive Director of MoveOn.org, (herself half Iranian and half Black), Dr. Melissa Guzman-Garcia, a professor in Latinx Studies in the College of Ethnic Studies, and Layla Razavi, Deputy Director of Freedom for Immigrants.

It was rewarding to hear positive feedback from family and friends who were grateful to have been introduced to new ideas during the interview and two panels. Some were inspired to educate themselves further on Iran’s history of anti-Blackness, others encouraged friends to vote and fill out the census, and some, like Jasmine’s mother, reached out to her relatives to introduce them to new terms like “SWANA” (Southwest Asian and North African). It was wonderful to hear that conversations we helped initiate in the context of these events continued after the panels and inspired further action and education.

Now that the election is over, many of us have breathed a sigh of relief. Biden says he intends to reverse the damage of the Trump presidency — he wants to focus on climate change, handle COVID, re-enter a nuclear deal with Iran. But under a Biden administration, even if Iranian Americans aren’t directly under attack, we must continue to be civically engaged, fight for the liberation of all people, and to work to uproot anti-Blackness, homophobia, and transphobia within our community. We cannot allow ourselves to think that under a Biden presidency all these issues will be resolved — they need our attention now more than ever.

Jasmine believes there is much more we can do in terms of addressing anti-blackness in the US in general, as well as recognizing and amplifying the experiences of Black Iranians within our diaspora. Our own blindness towards Black Iranians was called into question in the panel with Dr. Niaz Kasravi and Dr. Parisa Vaziri, and we learned how omissions, and blindness in Iran about the history of slavery continue in this diaspora context. We believe that it is imperative to continue to have these kinds of conversations and to analyze how we view ourselves in the racial schema of the US; that means checking ourselves as allies, making sure we are amplifying the voices of those who have been marginalized, and using our platforms to recognize and support other Black, Indigenous, &  People of Color BIPOC folks, especially queer and trans BIPOC.

Roya sees the Trump presidency as a catastrophic particularly as it pertains to Iranian Americans, because some of his policies, like leaving the Iran Nuclear Deal, by the creation of the “Muslim Ban,” the extrajudicial killing of General Ghassem Soleimani, had a direct impact on our Iranian diaspora communities. What is important is to remember even in the next four years of a Biden presidency is that even if Iranian Americans aren’t directly under attack, we still need be involved in the struggle for expanded civil rights and racial justice. She fears that many will see the election of Biden as a reason to relax and not be as civically engaged, but thinks we need to continue to have difficult conversations about the impact of Trump’s legacy, COVID-19, and other general disparities have had on Black, Latinx, and  immigrant communities, We need to have discussions about the treatment of groups within the Iranian community, like LGBTQ+ Iranians, and how the community as a whole must be more inclusive and uproot homophobic and transphobic behaviors and rhetoric. Moving forward, we hope that the Center continues to find ways to engage with the Black community within our diaspora and beyond it, co-sponsor events with other SWANA diaspora communities, and work to build solidarity and raise awareness about important issues.

We want to encourage people to fundraise and provide mutual aid for Black and Indigenous people and businesses and potentially create a book club or reading list highlighting Black authors and their stories and to foreground ways to educate and learn what it means to be truly “anti-racist.” We see it is imperative for Iranians, white folks, and other communities of privilege to educate themselves about the long and pervasive history of racism against black people in this country. We feel strongly about the need to engage our community with accessible materials. We hope to continue to have more community engagement with educators and organizers to help answer questions about what anti-racist behavior looks like and how it can be practiced. We need to connect our community to the horrors of police brutality. As non-Black Iranian Americans we need to continue to educate ourselves and each other about racism and anti-Blackness, into this next year and the next presidency. We hope you’ll join us. You can watch all of the series, “Creating an Anti-Racist Future in the Iranian Diaspora” that we helped to organize on the Center’s YouTube channel. Contact the Center if you have ideas or energy to work on these issues.

Painting by Niko Karim-Strang, age 17, “Can you Hear Us Now?”

Jasmine Djavahery was a summer fellow and is currently the fall intern at the Center Iranian Diaspora Studies Center. In addition, she also serves as the president of the Iranian Student Union at UC Santa Cruz. She hopes to engage further with the Iranian community and is committed to building solidarity within our own community and other SWANA groups in the Bay Area to fight anti-black sentiment in our communities.

Roya Ahmadi was a summer fellow at the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies working on organizing a series of events addressing anti-blackness in the Iranian Diaspora community. Last year, Roya was the inaugural summer intern at the Center where she interviewed and wrote about important figures in the Iranian diaspora space for the Center’s blog, “With a Trace”, and contributed to other exciting projects. She is a senior at Monte Vista High School in Cupertino.

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