The Positioning of Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in the Iranian Diaspora

As the number of Iranians in diaspora continues to grow, so too has the social scientific study of these dispersed populations. Social scientists have approached the study of the Iranian diaspora from a variety of disciplines and theoretical trajectories that increase our understandings of the everyday lives of Iranians in the U.S. and beyond. This panel offers four such presentations, providing a selection of the latest research on Iranians in the variety of spaces they inhabit. Each presentation, whether theoretical, ethnographic, or sociological in focus, explores the ways in which ethnicity and identity are implicated in the lived experiences of Iranians outside of Iran.

The panel begins with a theoretical contribution on the formation of a politicized ethnic identity, studied among second generation Iranian Americans. The author complicates previous notions of reactive ethnicity to argue that experiences of discrimination among Iranian Americans are impactful not only upon those with direct experience, but also upon co-ethnics who may then invoke what she calls a reactive ethnic option that facilitates politicization.

Ethnic and racial tensions are also a focal point for the second presentation, in which she investigates notions of cultural “’purity,’ race, and attendant national anxieties about Iranian immigrants in American neighborhoods.” Through an analysis of the historical racialization of Middle Eastern Americans alongside the often xenophobic comments and captions of UglyPersianHouses.com, she argues that the ethnic and racial tensions evident in Beverly Hills are part of a longer historical trajectory of legal and political enactments of imposed ethnic segregation.

Moving beyond the American context, the third presentation, a study among Iranian cultural producers in Stockholm, Sweden suggests that multiple regimes of power (local, state, transnational) are asserted among and upon diaspora members in ways that vitally influence their practices and assertions of ethnic identity and diasporic citizenship. This presentation offers an ethnographic analysis of the ways in which organizers, artists, and community members negotiate and engage with local understandings of multiculturalism, state partnership, and diaspora itself.

The authors of the final presentation offer an examination of English-language online diasporic media among Iranians and Kurds to explore the “competing rhetorical moves made by those seeking to take a diasporic position.” Diasporic identities, they argue, are produced and re-imagined through these news sites, with political and diplomatic implications. Their study concludes our panel and contributes a particularly fruitful case to the study of media and diaspora.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Amy Malek
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Discussant

Persis Karim
San Jose State University

Presentations

by Amy Malek / University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

The varying experiences of multiculturalism in European and North American societies have thrown into sharp relief the continued importance of diasporic cultural identity, community development, and cultural politics in the midst of growing anti-immigration and nativist movements. Anthropologists have long sought to understand these phenomena by theorizing constructions of diasporic belonging in terms of cultural citizenship, long-distance nationalism, and diasporic citizenship (Ong 1996, Glick-Schiller et al., 2001, Siu 2005). However, recent scholarship has suggested that ‘diaspora’ itself must be re-conceived as practice rather than merely a descriptive state of being, an idea that requires new approaches to questions of cultural citizenship and cultural politics (Dufoix 2008). In this presentation, I offer an ethnographic account to examine the ways in which cultural politics impact the practice of diaspora through community programs and multiculturalist policies in Stockholm, Sweden. How are Iranians responding to racial and multicultural discourses through their productions of diasporic culture? Do these programs impact the practices of diaspora and the negotiation of diasporic citizenship in these communities? I argue that studying cultural production as a field in diaspora in this way allows a focus on practice that points up the ways in which multiple regimes of power (state, community, financial, transnational) are asserted among and upon diaspora groups, vitally influencing their everyday practices in response to shifting geopolitical and transnational circumstances.

by Neda Maghbouleh / University of Toronto

“Freakshow,” “truly hideous,” “garish,” and “a monstrosity” are just some of the photo captions on UglyPersianHouses.com, a website that compiles anonymously submitted photos of “Persian palaces” in greater Los Angeles. Beyond the Internet, the city of Beverly Hills has, since 2004, legally codified its distaste for “over-the-top” Persian palaces by enforcing a style catalogue which outlaws “architecturally impure” construction to “protect property values” and preserve “historic charm.” What do the tensions surrounding Ugly Persian Houses tell us more broadly about “purity,” race, and attendant national anxieties about Iranian immigrants in American neighborhoods? Drawing from research by Tehranian (2008) on employment and housing discrimination and Bakalian & Bozorgmehr (2009) on hate crimes against Middle Easterners, I find that the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric which surfaced in Asian and Middle Eastern-American racial prerequisite cases of the early 1900s reverberates in the contemporary experiences of Iranians in the U.S. Through an examination of “anti-Persian” architectural housing codes, which draw from the same “white spatial imaginary” and political practices that have isolated and segregated American neighborhoods for centuries, the liminal racial position of Iranians is revealed when matters of aesthetic taste and cultural difference stand-in for anxious neighborhood talk of race.

by Babak Elahi and Andrea Hickerson / Rochester Institute of Technology

Theories of diaspora have shifted the discourse from notions of diasporic entities to that of diasporic practices (Brubaker 2005). This distinction calls for closer attention to specific cultural work done by potential small groups, which potentially have broader implications for the meanings and uses of diasporic identity on a global level. Previous research on diasporic media has tended to focus on audience analysis and content. In this project we begin to explore how the production norms (ex. establishing “beats,” deciding what is news, who contributes, etc.) of Middle Eastern diasporic media work to build international support, by producing a curated diasporic identity.
In this presentation we broach questions about the deliberate production of diasporic identity online by comparing English-language Iranian and Kurdish diasporic websites. We selected these two nationalities to begin our project because these groups are independently diverse, yet related, since some ethnic Kurds have roots in Iran. Furthermore, these groups are decidedly different because Kurds, unlike Iranians, are a stateless nation without a shared single country of origin. Because Kurds are, in part, an internal ethnic group within Iran, understanding how each reimagines itself as diasporic allows us to explore competing rhetorical moves made by those seeking to take a diasporic position. We selected to focus on English-language sites because although English non-native to both groups, it is the language of international diplomacy. By producing news in English, these sites are arguably better positioned to alter or interact with official diplomatic frames.
As data, we rely heavily on interviews with contributors to these diasporic websites. We selected interviews as our primary methodology because of their tendency to provide insight to individual motivations and interpretation. Secondary sources of data include the content and placement of articles on the diasporic websites.
In this presentation we will begin by explaining how theoretical context of diaspora as stance/practice lends itself well to studies of media production. Next we will compare the news production routines and lived experiences of the people we interviewed as well as how we see these themes reflected in content decisions. We conclude by discussing how both our method and findings might be applied to other Middle Eastern diasporas. We believe understanding more the production of diasporic media allows us to explore important questions about how experience, ideology, and training effect media content across diverse groups (Shoemaker & Reese, 1996).