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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Caucasians on Camels: Iranian American Intergenerational Narratives and the Complications of Racial & Ethnic Boundaries

  • Author(s): Khalili, Sheefteh
  • Advisor(s): Hironaka, Ann
  • et al.

My dissertation examines the role of intergenerational immigrant narratives in shaping the identity development of the children of immigrants. Specifically, this study looks at the transmission of narratives relating to race, ethnicity, and racialized discrimination from immigrants to their children. Looking at the case of Iranian Americans, a group that occupies a racially liminal space between white and non-white, I analyze understandings of race and the persistence (or not) of ethnic identity among this phenotypically diverse group. To understand processes of identity construction, I conducted 45 interviews with first and generation Iranian Americans, with a focus on family case studies. My research responds to the limited focus on Middle Eastern groups in scholarship on race and ethnicity, and complicates understandings of whiteness and boundary work. This research has academic relevance to scholars of race and ethnicity who are concerned with racial formation in the context of the United States and the importance of looking at narrative as a location of identity work. Each chapter addresses both theoretical and substantive issues: In the first chapter I discuss the historical context of Iranian immigration to the United States and I describe my methodological approach and research questions. In Chapter Two, “Will the Real Caucasian Please Stand Up? Negotiating Intergenerational Racial Discourse,” I examine the discourse exists that around race and whiteness in the Iranian American community, and how Iranian Americans experience and construct racial boundaries, both by claiming whiteness and distancing from the Middle Eastern label. In Chapter 2, “Once Upon a Time in Iran…Intergenerational Immigrant Narrative & Ethnic Boundaries.” I look at the role of intergenerational immigrant narrative on the significance of ethnic identity among second generation Iranian Americans, and I argue that it is the combination of ones’ personally acquired memories as well as the inherited or appropriated memories of their parents that factor into the way these individuals draw boundaries around “Iranianness” within their generation. In my third and final empirical chapter, “Selectively Racialized, Selectively Politicized? Politicized Ethnic Identity Among Second Generation Iranian Americans,” I examine the mechanisms, both direct and indirect, that activate ethnic political consciousness among second generation Iranian Americans. I find that a direct experience with racial discrimination, and a strong connection to ones’ family immigration narrative, especially when the narrative includes struggle in the context of departure from Iran or upon arrival into the United States, can politicize an individual even in the absence of a negative personal experience. While this study takes on the case of Iranian Americans, the implications of this study are not limited to this population. I argue that looking at intergenerational family narrative as a site of identity work broadens our understanding of how individuals draw on various sources of potentially conflicting discourse to ultimately situate their own experience in the context of race/ethnicity in the United States.

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