My mom wanted me to be white (81/100)

My mom wanted me to be white. I think my dad did too without knowing that that was what he was doing. She would remind me to fit in, even comparing Persians to Mexicans. “The difference is that Persians adapt to the culture, Mexicans keep their culture and refuse to change. That’s why people don’t like them.” This is part of the dichotomous existence for my mom. On the one hand she would be happy when she passed as white, on the other, she would insist on us attending Persian Conference every year, eating Persian food and celebrating Naw Ruz. It never made sense but neither do a lot of things we do to fool ourselves into thinking something.

I’m working hard to unlearn those lessons and understand the intention behind her comments. While I don’t intend to take Farsi lessons or start listening to Googoosh, I have been thinking of myself as a person of color, looking up and trying Persian recipes, examining my history and culture (something my mom ignored outside of the surface), and positioning myself as someone who values my culture and identity.

My mom isn’t a hate-filled woman. She finds commonality with immigrants at restaurants, joking about their common experiences. Her problem is that she doesn’t fully understand that it’s possible to be fully Persian and exist here in the US. She believes that we must adapt and temper ourselves to more easily fit in. After all, my mom, sisters and I are minorities (on multiple layers, really) and minorities aren’t treated well, well, anywhere.

This all started, it would seem, in my mom’s first few years in the US and the Iran Hostage Crisis. People noticed her, her camouflage failing as people recognized her for her Persianness. She was living in Texas then and I can guarantee that comments were more commonly vitriolic. But soon that passed and she was able to again blend in as Mexican, Greek, Italian or some other olive-skinned ethnicity. But I don’t think she forgot that feeling of having suspicious eyes on her, and her takeaway was hide.

In all this, she felt that her Jewishness was a part that was “accepted” by the greater public, even if the reality isn’t necessarily so. She and many other Jewish-Persians have told me that they often seek out the Jew in any situation and be with them, as if there’s some kind of shared ethnic cloak provided by the history of Jewish people. Yet Jews don’t necessarily desire to hide. Obviously it’s impossible to paint an entire ethnicity, definitively, with a broad brush, the Jews that I’ve known have largely been proud of their Jewishness, tempered perhaps based on specific situations.

As a family we couldn’t hide after 9/11. People were on a witch hunt for Middle Easterners. Though my mom didn’t experience it as acutely with my white dad next to her, my sister and I weren’t so lucky. People followed my sister on the campus of the University of Minnesota. She relayed to us that one day a guy followed her closely days after some U of M student terrorists in training were arrested. My sister doesn’t fuck around, got pissed, turned around and started shouting at the guy. He ran away. This happened to a lot of the Persian, Arab and North African students on campus and around the US.

I was one of two Middle Easterners on campus at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, so it wasn’t difficult for people to spot me and consider lobbing comments. I joined a fraternity that semester perhaps as a way of protecting myself from the comments of my roommate. He regularly referred to me as a “Muslim” in that smug way where he put heavy emphasis on my name at the end of the sentence. “How’s life being a Muslim,” hard pause, “Dave.” Sentence, not a question.

It wasn’t much, however. My sister went through much more torment and harassment. Me, I noticed things change. While driving back from a writer’s conference in New Orleans over Spring Break 2002, a group of us English majors stopped off at a mall outside of Little Rock. People stared, I believed, because they didn’t know us. When we entered the Taco Bell people froze and stared. Again, I thought they were responding to all of us, but the cashier seemed not to have a problem with my friends. When it came time for me to order I noticed that he was sweating and his hand shaking a bit. There was a crack in his voice as he asked me, very politely, what I would like. I was unaware of the subtext until I sat down next to my friends to eat and they pointed out how oddly people had behaved toward me. People were still staring while most had opted to quickly leave the restaurant.

I think that I was ignorant to the way people looked at me for a long while, or I was in denial. The privilege of being able to pass means that you likely don’t recognize what others notice everyday. It’s how I believe my mom has existed. The added benefit of being married to a white man as a woman who passes exaggerates the blissful ignorance. And this is something that I could very easily fall into as well, being married to a white woman. Yet, given the climate. Given the stories and shared/reposted articles my friends post and tell me about, I can’t hide. I can’t just say “I’m white like you” anymore. I have to speak up for the sake of the people I love. I need to find the guts to call the guy out on the bus or train or sidewalk that his behavior isn’t okay, and if he responds as if we’re the same, reminding him that we’re probably not. Experience and the love of my friends has changed that and I don’t hide anymore.