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Finding My Language: A Personal Exploration of Identity in the Iranian Diaspora

By Safa Danesh, Center Summer Intern

Heading into the summer months has always been an exhilarating, yet puzzling time. Growing up on the southeastern coast of Connecticut, it was easy enough to blend in with my peers as we gushed over what we would do with our newfound freedom for the next few months. Inevitably, our time was consumed with bike rides to the beach and picking up guilty pleasure reads we had put off during the school year. We were always grateful for the summer holidays of Memorial Day and the Fourth of July as they gave us an excuse to come together and celebrate.

But what exactly are we celebrating?

As a second-generation Iranian American who grew up outside of an established Iranian community, I fit easily into my majority WASP town. As a child of an Iranian father and American mother, I spent little time pondering how being Iranian set me apart from those around me. Answering this question had not crossed my mind until my early, and recent, adulthood. These holidays have called into question both my Iranian and American identities and further peaked my curiosity about how other individuals in the Iranian diaspora view themselves.

The concept of identity is elusive and becomes more ambiguous for members of a diaspora, grappling with where one has come from and where one is now. Geographic location and socioeconomic status are some of the many factors that influence identity formation says Dr. Sahar Razai, a political science professor at California State University Sacramento. “For Iranian Americans, in particular,” she says, “political science can help us understand the broader structural conditions of the international relations that manifest and are seen at the individual level and at the community level.” Razavi, whose research focuses on understanding these factors and how they influence Iranian Americans’ identity says that identity on a micro-scale can lead to many people or groups viewing themselves very differently despite all originating from the same place. In the context of Iranian Americans, Dr. Razai believes, “once we can get a grasp of the broader contours of how people identify, then we can start looking at why they identify that way.”

For current Center Summer Intern, Ariana Tabrizi, this means identifying with both her Iranian and Italian heritage, although this identity has evolved over time. “I was very quiet about being Iranian or talking about culture, especially when the Muslim Ban happened,” she says. “I was very much trying to assimilate into the predominant white culture.” Being one of few Iranian students at her small Northern California university, especially during the early years of the Muslim Ban, has shaped the experiences of many young Iranian Americans across the country. Tabrizi was able to navigate this uncertain period throughout her time in college. She credits the self-isolation of the COVID-19 period and her involvement with the MENA (Middle Eastern/North African) Club at her school, as forces that helped her accept being both second-generation Iranian and Italian. Tabrizi notes, “the MENA Club really helped me. I felt a lot more connected [to Iranian culture] than I had before.” Tabrizi says by finding other college students who were looking to connect with their identity, she was able to celebrate being Iranian, while also advocating for the proper representation of MENA-identifying individuals.

One of the largest movements within the MENA community is the push for a MENA-specific ethnic category on surveys, such as the US Census. Tabrizi revealed that, despite petitions from the MENA Club, Santa Clara University does not have a MENA option for students to check. This lack of a category specific to Middle Eastern-identifying individuals is problematic, Tabrizi says. Dr. Neda Maghbouleh, sociologist and Canada Research Chair in Migration, Race and Identity at the University of Toronto, outlines a variety of issues that accompany MENA individuals identifying as white in a recently-published Newsweek article: “When MENA Americans are masked under the white category, the everyday group – and individual – level inequalities they face are made invisible.” This lack of official recognition leads to individuals and communities not receiving proper services and resources—much like other official racial and ethnic groups. The absence of a MENA category also poses challenges for young Iranian Americans like me, who feel unrecognized, and also without the language to communicate who we are to others. The invisibility Maghbouleh identifies is one of the hidden ways that I and other young Iranian Americans struggle grapple with as part of our emerging adulthood in this country.

Since my internship last summer and this one at the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies, I have begun to feel a more developed sense of belonging to this Iranian diaspora. I am gaining more confidence about the language and sensibilities of participating in this community, and also understanding that there is space for me and people like Ariana Tabrizi, who are half-Iranian but identify with their heritage. Ariana Damavandi, a former intern, who now works as Communications Assistant at the Center, says that while growing up in Orange County, California (a place with many Iranian immigrants), “there were a lot of class distinctions that alienated me. It was actually hard for me to connect with other peers of mine who were Iranian.” Damavandi explains that although half her family originates from Iran, she had many experiences as a child in which she felt “othered”. One early experience she recalls was when her first-grade teacher seemed not to “like me, for no reason—simply because I was a quiet kid. She thought I was up to no good and would often yell at me. I was sent to ESL speech therapy because she assumed that I didn’t speak English.” Experiences like this, says Damavandi stuck with her; she now sees it this more clearly in the context of attitudes generated by events such as 9/11, where those who look different and have foreign-sounding names are collapsed into stereotypes and attitudes that are generated through the media.

Ariana Tabrizi with her family

Tania Jiroudi, another current Center Summer Intern, was born in Iran and migrated to California’s Central Valley at the age of six. She recalls, “I remember having trouble when I first moved…I would sit in the back of the classroom and watch the other students learn. I definitely was asked weird questions and felt left out my first year here.” These interactions set the pace for the rest of Jiroudi’s time at school, which manifested in trying to blend in with her peers. “I had gotten really good at adapting to the American ways, which was hard for a while because I didn’t know if that was actually who I was.” Eventually, Jiroudi developed a passion for learning and was able to enjoy her time at school without feeling pressure from her classmates. This experience has shaped the way Jiroudi identifies, explaining, “It has changed over the years. It is something I have thought about, especially going back and forth between American and Iranian. I like to see myself as an Iranian living in America, but I have been Americanized in some ways as well.” Jiroudi was able to sum up her identity by highlighting that there are labels other than race and ethnicity, such as Iranian and American, that resonate more with her.

Ariana Afshar, provides a different perspective on what it means to be Iranian. Afshar, who has the moniker “The Progressive Brat” on Instagram and TikTok, is an Iranian-American activist who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Afshar has the unique experience of being both educated in the US and in Iran as a child, but the transition between these two experiences she says was difficult. Afshar shares, “I was bullied in elementary school in the US, and when I went to Iran and attended school, the bullying continued; but it was a different kind of bullying because I was American.” The many adjustments, living in the US and Iran, took a toll and, at one point, resulted in Afshar feeling disconnected from her Iranian identity. “I arguably grew up hating being Iranian…It’s crazy because I went to school in the Bay Area and for me to go through that bullying . . . I can’t imagine what an Iranian student at a rural school might have experienced.” Through her advocacy online, Afshar has now created a community to uplift other Iranian Americans and MENA-identifying individuals from different backgrounds. Afshar offers this advice to those seeking self-acceptance: “For any Iranian on the journey of self-acceptance, but who still doesn’t feel fully comfortable, that’s okay…If you do choose to go through the journey, just know, it is incredibly rewarding. It brings a lot of peace and heals childhood trauma induced by the hyper-political society we’re living in.”

It has become clear to me that being Iranian in any form is both challenging and rewarding in this US context. By speaking to a handful of other Iranian Americans, I have learned about the complex feelings others have of belonging, and of seeing that each of us has a journey and process to finding our own language. This is an exciting time to be Iranian-identified, as so many of us are working to promote a greater appreciation for our beautiful Iranian culture. We have the right to be proud of each identity we take up, wear, develop a language for, including our Iranianness. I hope we can continue uplifting the individuals around us who are doing the same as well as celebrating the diversity of our Iranian diaspora.

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