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The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race

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When Roya, an Iranian American high school student, is asked to identify her race, she feels anxiety and doubt. According to the federal government, she and others from the Middle East are white. Indeed, a historical myth circulates even in immigrant families like Roya's, proclaiming Iranians to be the "original" white race. But based on the treatment Roya and her family r When Roya, an Iranian American high school student, is asked to identify her race, she feels anxiety and doubt. According to the federal government, she and others from the Middle East are white. Indeed, a historical myth circulates even in immigrant families like Roya's, proclaiming Iranians to be the "original" white race. But based on the treatment Roya and her family receive in American schools, airports, workplaces, and neighborhoods-interactions characterized by intolerance or hate-Roya is increasingly certain that she is not white. In The Limits of Whiteness, Neda Maghbouleh offers a groundbreaking, timely look at how Iranians and other Middle Eastern Americans move across the color line. By shadowing Roya and more than 80 other young people, Maghbouleh documents Iranian Americans' shifting racial status. Drawing on never-before-analyzed historical and legal evidence, she captures the unique experience of an immigrant group trapped between legal racial invisibility and everyday racial hyper-visibility. Her findings are essential for understanding the unprecedented challenge Middle Easterners now face under "extreme vetting" and potential reclassification out of the "white" box. Maghbouleh tells for the first time the compelling, often heartbreaking story of how a white American immigrant group can become brown and what such a transformation says about race in America.


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When Roya, an Iranian American high school student, is asked to identify her race, she feels anxiety and doubt. According to the federal government, she and others from the Middle East are white. Indeed, a historical myth circulates even in immigrant families like Roya's, proclaiming Iranians to be the "original" white race. But based on the treatment Roya and her family r When Roya, an Iranian American high school student, is asked to identify her race, she feels anxiety and doubt. According to the federal government, she and others from the Middle East are white. Indeed, a historical myth circulates even in immigrant families like Roya's, proclaiming Iranians to be the "original" white race. But based on the treatment Roya and her family receive in American schools, airports, workplaces, and neighborhoods-interactions characterized by intolerance or hate-Roya is increasingly certain that she is not white. In The Limits of Whiteness, Neda Maghbouleh offers a groundbreaking, timely look at how Iranians and other Middle Eastern Americans move across the color line. By shadowing Roya and more than 80 other young people, Maghbouleh documents Iranian Americans' shifting racial status. Drawing on never-before-analyzed historical and legal evidence, she captures the unique experience of an immigrant group trapped between legal racial invisibility and everyday racial hyper-visibility. Her findings are essential for understanding the unprecedented challenge Middle Easterners now face under "extreme vetting" and potential reclassification out of the "white" box. Maghbouleh tells for the first time the compelling, often heartbreaking story of how a white American immigrant group can become brown and what such a transformation says about race in America.

30 review for The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race

  1. 5 out of 5

    Corey

    Neda Maghbouleh's debut book explores the relationship between race in America and Iranian-Americans, who exist eponymously at what Maghbouleh calls "the limits of whiteness." That is, this is a book that explores the paradox of the Iranian-American, who is classified by the US government as "caucasian" at the same time as Iranians, especially post-9/11 and perhaps even moreso in the era of Trump, are demonized, ostracized, and other-ed, often in ethno-racial terms. The book on its own should be Neda Maghbouleh's debut book explores the relationship between race in America and Iranian-Americans, who exist eponymously at what Maghbouleh calls "the limits of whiteness." That is, this is a book that explores the paradox of the Iranian-American, who is classified by the US government as "caucasian" at the same time as Iranians, especially post-9/11 and perhaps even moreso in the era of Trump, are demonized, ostracized, and other-ed, often in ethno-racial terms. The book on its own should be fascinating to just about anyone interested in how whiteness is constructed in America or interested in how race operates in America in general. As an Iranian-American myself, however, there was something validating, moving, and emotional more broadly speaking in reading this book: Maghbouleh's discussion of how Iranian-American children will often form friendship with non-white peers, her description of the racist bullying these children face at the same time as their parents (indoctrinated in an Iranian "Aryan" racial myth) insist that they are in fact whiter than their European-American classmates--all of these things were revelatory in a deeply personal and poignant way. In short, THE LIMITS OF WHITENESS is well-written, well-researched, and takes a unique and previously un-discussed look at race in America, how whiteness is constructed and accounted for, and what happens to those who exist in cracks of its logic.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Rafay

    a very well researched and easy to digest book grappling the theme of identity for contemporary second-generation iranian-americans and their navigation in american society. the breath of the study means the people involved come from various social classes, geographical locations within america, religious affiliation, mixed-heritage or overt display of persianess via their phenotype or behaviour. the book takes you through the experiences of various iranian-americans through their legal classifi a very well researched and easy to digest book grappling the theme of identity for contemporary second-generation iranian-americans and their navigation in american society. the breath of the study means the people involved come from various social classes, geographical locations within america, religious affiliation, mixed-heritage or overt display of persianess via their phenotype or behaviour. the book takes you through the experiences of various iranian-americans through their legal classification of being white vs their lived experiences - especially after the 1979 revolution, hostage crisis, 9/11 and war on terror. it does this in many ways - by contextualising the meaning of whiteness using legal precedents in an american context, the iranian concept of being “original aryans” or “more white” than europeans despite their treatment in modern american society. likewise their concept of identity and their experiences in a home setting, school and work environment (elementary to post-college), visits back to iran and the clash between reconciling their iranian and american identities in their homeland as well as in iranian safe-spaces like at iranian-american camps or university spaces. interestingly, an overwhelming majority of the participants consciously reject the white label and instead personally identify with “brown” or advocate for the legal switch to classify iran under a broad middle eastern category. discussions about the vagueness/exoticness of “persian” with many of the participants consciously choosing to identify with “iranian” inspite of social perceptions. i would’ve liked a bit more elaboration on how class, religion and mixed background would impact perception of iranianess but to maghbouleh’s credit, many of the participants did acknowledge these factors in their stories. i think perhaps a more collected analysis of how these factors impact their relation to the idea of being iranian would’ve been interesting. although essentially all the participants showed pride in being iranian anyway. i also loved the fact that many of the participants acknowledged the racial views held by their parents e.g. against arabs or afghans and how many of them, via the camp or personal growth have begun to fight for these communities and call this out in their own spaces. the idea of cross cultural solidarity that many of them have fostered in white majority spaces or in their adult lives with other immigrant communities of all types was amazing to see! as well as recognising how disgusting some of the images or portrayals of middle easterners portrayed to them in their youth were and how they internalised these feelings. as a british-pakistani, many of the themes bought up were relatable and personally applicable in many scenarios of my life. whilst i do not have to be classified under white, many of the “othering” experiences did resonate with me. an excellent study of contemporary iranian-americans and how they will navigate their life going forward and the steps they make to ensure future generations of iranian-americans and other misrepresented immigrant groups are more accurately represented.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Edmond Yomtoob

    It is a rare event for me, to open a book and have an author reflect my experience as a first-generation Iranian American,which is ironic because Dr. Maghbouleh's primary source was interviews with people three decades my junior. She describes a racial hinge; Sometimes we are white, sometimes we are not. This may be in relation to our own families with different attitudes and values on whiteness, the US government's shifting classification of Southwestern Asian people as white and our social exp It is a rare event for me, to open a book and have an author reflect my experience as a first-generation Iranian American,which is ironic because Dr. Maghbouleh's primary source was interviews with people three decades my junior. She describes a racial hinge; Sometimes we are white, sometimes we are not. This may be in relation to our own families with different attitudes and values on whiteness, the US government's shifting classification of Southwestern Asian people as white and our social experiences (which, for me has included subtle and overt Anti-Iranian hostility, and the insistence of flaming liberals who are very ready to deny my experience). In less than 200 intellectual, but readable pages, she charted my own racial evolution and help me concertize some of my own experience as a person whose identity is ambiguous and contextual.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Farzan

    کتاب در کل جالب بود. اما متمرکز بر عده‌ای خاص از مهاجران ایرانی که حدود زمان انقلاب به آمریکا رفته بودند بود. مهاجرانی طرفدار حکومت پهلوی و متولد آمریکا. در ضمن با اینکه کتاب خاطرات زیادی رو نقل می‌کرد، به نظرم نتیجه‌گیری‌های شتابزده‌اش فرصت نتیجه‌گیری مستقل رو از خواننده می‌گرفت. در مجموع چون تجربه‌ی مطالعه‌ی مشابهی نداشتم، جالب بود.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    Marrying into Iranian culture, I wanted to better understand the experience of Iranians in the US, and ensure I was not mistakenly contributing to any racist experiences of my Iranian family and friends. It can be extremely difficult to self-educate about the Middle East, so I found this book refreshing. It did exactly what was promised and I learned quite a lot from it. I defer to the other readers who are actually Iranian/Iranian-American to speak to the accuracy of the experience (though a gl Marrying into Iranian culture, I wanted to better understand the experience of Iranians in the US, and ensure I was not mistakenly contributing to any racist experiences of my Iranian family and friends. It can be extremely difficult to self-educate about the Middle East, so I found this book refreshing. It did exactly what was promised and I learned quite a lot from it. I defer to the other readers who are actually Iranian/Iranian-American to speak to the accuracy of the experience (though a glance at other reviews seems to give the impression that it is, indeed, accurate), but I did find it useful. The only thing I did not like about it was the massive amount of explaining it does about what the book WILL do: the introduction explains everything the book will say. Then each chapter spends a few pages explaining what that chapter will say. I find books that do this extremely irritating: stop telling me what you're GOING to tell me and just tell me already! :) About 45% of it is footnotes and appendices, so I think between those two things, only about 25% of the book is actual presentation of information and discussion. Just a warning. I would still highly recommend it.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Saghi Hosseini

    This book is important for anyone that is trying to understand the complexities of being Iranian in America today. It serves as a tool to be introspective for someone who is Iranian. It sparked a lot of questions and taught me things that I may have looked over. At times it had an academic slant, but overall due to the interviews with the young Iranian Americans it was very endearing. We can all benefit from listening to the new generation that’ll lead us into a more inclusive world.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Samira Guy

    As an Iranian American woman growing up in CA, this book has put words and historical context to so many thoughts and feelings I have grappled with my entire life. This book has validated so many life experiences and has empowered me to continue sharing my story, but with more academic language and context. Thank you for helping me understand so much of who I am.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Bogi Takács

    This was cool, I'll probably talk about it in my upcoming "Awesome nonfiction by diverse authors" video! So more then (IY"H) Source of the book: Lawrence Public Library This was cool, I'll probably talk about it in my upcoming "Awesome nonfiction by diverse authors" video! So more then (IY"H) Source of the book: Lawrence Public Library

  9. 4 out of 5

    S.

    I had no idea that the U. S. government officially categorizes Iranians/ Iranian Americans as white. Especially odd considering that this overtly racist and xenophobic country treats them like terrorists. This is a scholarly work, in part interviews with young people whose parents are from Iran. I had an Iranian frenemy (who only called herself Persian, not Iranian), so this book brought up memories of things she said about being Persian and being an immigrant and such. Like the young people inte I had no idea that the U. S. government officially categorizes Iranians/ Iranian Americans as white. Especially odd considering that this overtly racist and xenophobic country treats them like terrorists. This is a scholarly work, in part interviews with young people whose parents are from Iran. I had an Iranian frenemy (who only called herself Persian, not Iranian), so this book brought up memories of things she said about being Persian and being an immigrant and such. Like the young people interviewed in this book, she didn't feel like she was American or Iranian. That's understandably a common issue for 1.5 or 2nd generation Iranian Americans.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Fateme Ej

    In "The limits of whiteness", Maghbouleh describes how Iranian-Americans, who in the US census are considered white, in their social everyday life are "browned". In this sense, they stand "at the limits of whiteness". The book is definitely an interesting and informative one. Recommended to those who work on Iranian diaspora, Muslim and Middle Eastern immigrants, and studies of race and ethnicity in the US. A well-done ethnographic work and well-written. The focus of the book is on the second-ge In "The limits of whiteness", Maghbouleh describes how Iranian-Americans, who in the US census are considered white, in their social everyday life are "browned". In this sense, they stand "at the limits of whiteness". The book is definitely an interesting and informative one. Recommended to those who work on Iranian diaspora, Muslim and Middle Eastern immigrants, and studies of race and ethnicity in the US. A well-done ethnographic work and well-written. The focus of the book is on the second-generation Iranian-Americans. The book follows their years in school, their challenges in family in Iranian community as well as neighbourhood, and the challenges they face when they visit their homeland, Iran; and their experience in a summer camp with their fellow second-generation Iranian-Americans. Additionally, in a very interesting chapter, Maghbouleh reviews some important legal cases in the history of the US, where Iranians whiteness had been discussed. However, at some points I didn't feel the descriptions were precise; or at least they were one-sided. For example, in chapter five, about travelling back to Iran, the encounter with "Gasht-e-ershad" was described as if Iranian women who live in Iran appreciate being stopped by this police! or it's totally normal. I think the experience described by second generation Iranian-Americans who were visiting Iran wasn't only their experience, many other people experienced those feelings and it didn't have anything to do with them being "Iranian-American". Nevertheless, I completely understand that they might feel that they think the feeling of rejection, being outsider, etc., is due to their status and that they put this experience along with their other (unique) experiences which reinforce this feeling. Aside from this part and other few small points, in general the book touches a unique topic, is easy to read, and makes a great use of data in supporting its theory.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    So happy to have a book tackling the subject. It was a little repetitive at times, but I liked how topics as wide as architecture and school settings and legal cases were addressed. It was fascinating to get a taste of the different legal cases, where Iranian or Persian was used as an argument either for or against the whiteness of a non-Iranian subject wanting to be a US citizen--but I felt the absence of discussion around Hajj Sayyah who was granted citizenship in 1875. I'm not sure why it was So happy to have a book tackling the subject. It was a little repetitive at times, but I liked how topics as wide as architecture and school settings and legal cases were addressed. It was fascinating to get a taste of the different legal cases, where Iranian or Persian was used as an argument either for or against the whiteness of a non-Iranian subject wanting to be a US citizen--but I felt the absence of discussion around Hajj Sayyah who was granted citizenship in 1875. I'm not sure why it was left out, even if it complicates the topic. There is surely more to be written and I salute Ms. Maghbouleh for producing a work of popular scholarship about this topic. Thank you from a fellow Iranian-American and fellow Portland-area resident. Sidenote: Is there an English translation of Hajj Sayyah's US travels in full? I have only found partial references. If anyone knows of a resource I'd be happy to know about it!

  12. 5 out of 5

    Mario Marset

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. A very insightful book. Dr. Maghbouleh beautifully develops the story of the blurred legal and racial lines of whiteness as they pertain to Iranians in the U.S. This work addresses issues of transnational superiorities (or perceived ones), Persian identity, American ignorance and devotion to said ignorance through xenophobic practices, and many more structural issues. One of the many quotes that have remained present in my life as a researcher is: "Iranians are subject to a stigmatized racializati A very insightful book. Dr. Maghbouleh beautifully develops the story of the blurred legal and racial lines of whiteness as they pertain to Iranians in the U.S. This work addresses issues of transnational superiorities (or perceived ones), Persian identity, American ignorance and devotion to said ignorance through xenophobic practices, and many more structural issues. One of the many quotes that have remained present in my life as a researcher is: "Iranians are subject to a stigmatized racialization infused with Orientalist and Islamophobic sentiments and actions" (pgs. 61-62). I would recommend this book for people as young as high school to read this if they are looking to broaden their understanding of the U.S. legacy of racializing groups on different ways (not just Iranian Americans).

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jabiz Raisdana

    "How to be Iranian, how to be American, how to be neither, how to be both?" At times it felt like this book was written for me- a 1.5 generation Iranian American. I have never known what to indicate on a race questionnaire. White never felt right, so I always looked for other. At times, this well researched and insightful book felt a bit academic for me, but there more narrative stories help balance the main theme: what it means to be an Iranian in America. This is a must read for all Iranian Ame "How to be Iranian, how to be American, how to be neither, how to be both?" At times it felt like this book was written for me- a 1.5 generation Iranian American. I have never known what to indicate on a race questionnaire. White never felt right, so I always looked for other. At times, this well researched and insightful book felt a bit academic for me, but there more narrative stories help balance the main theme: what it means to be an Iranian in America. This is a must read for all Iranian Americans, but I am curious how relevant it will be for others. Maghbouleh has done a great job getting me to think about "Persian exceptionalism, the limits of whiteness, and maybe even buying Shahnameh by Ferdowsi!"

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sepideh

    This book is about second generation Iranian-American identity in the US after 9/11. Maghbouleh calls Iranian-American identity the hinges on which whiteness swings. She discusses how Iranian Americans are white under the law, but they are racialized due to their nations of origin, their religious identities, etc. First generation Iranian Americans were often taught in school in Iran that they are white. The second generation, due to their treatment in school in the US, decide they are not white This book is about second generation Iranian-American identity in the US after 9/11. Maghbouleh calls Iranian-American identity the hinges on which whiteness swings. She discusses how Iranian Americans are white under the law, but they are racialized due to their nations of origin, their religious identities, etc. First generation Iranian Americans were often taught in school in Iran that they are white. The second generation, due to their treatment in school in the US, decide they are not white. They are better aligned with other children of immigrants. In one of the universities on the west coast, they have petitioned for their own category of Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) people.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Elena

    A very intriguing and informative ethnography about the plights of Iranian Americans. Author Maghbouleh does a great job of incorporating Iranian Americans' (sometimes heartbreaking, but always authentic) stories to corroborate her overarching claim that Iranian Americans, though legally "white," often find themselves to be too "brown" for Americans of European descent and, many times, struggle with their cultural identities, especially as young, second-generation immigrants. A very intriguing and informative ethnography about the plights of Iranian Americans. Author Maghbouleh does a great job of incorporating Iranian Americans' (sometimes heartbreaking, but always authentic) stories to corroborate her overarching claim that Iranian Americans, though legally "white," often find themselves to be too "brown" for Americans of European descent and, many times, struggle with their cultural identities, especially as young, second-generation immigrants.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Leorah

    This book is not only thoughtfully written, it is also thought provoking. Kudos Professor Maghbouleh! The topics discussed within spoke to some of the same experiences my parents and I had as immigrants to this country. My own sons who are first generation Americans will also be able to relate to the issues raised by Dr. Maghbouleh.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Joanna

    Reads a lot like a very well executed edited down PhD dissertation. Thus there’s more repetition and quite explication than one really needs when reading for fun. Still, it is well done. It deals with a topic I’ve been curious about for a while, and manages to make quite a lot of sense out of it.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jay Shelat

    A fascinating understanding of race in post-9/11 America. Maghbouleh is an excellent writer. Read this book to understand the important distinction between legal and social racializaiton. I learned so much from this book.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Arya Shahi

    A stunningly clear and concise academic work. Highly recommended to those interested in deepening their American racial understanding outside of the white and black binary. Required reading for Iranian Americans.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    305.89155 M193 2017

  21. 5 out of 5

    Fatemeh

    As an Iranian-American, this book meant more than I can express. Neda charts the history behind our legal and social place in the US, and does an amazing job connecting the dots and including diverse Iranian-American voices on how these different complexities play out on our lives. I’ve been recommending this book to every single Iranian-American I know ever since I read it.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Roxana

    This study of Iranian Americans' complicated relationship to race in the US is an extremely necessary and essential book, not just for those interested in Iranian American racial identity, but the question of race and the liminal, flexible nature of whiteness in America in any context. I'm grateful not only that it exists at all, but that it is so thoroughly researched and beautifully, incisively written. This study of Iranian Americans' complicated relationship to race in the US is an extremely necessary and essential book, not just for those interested in Iranian American racial identity, but the question of race and the liminal, flexible nature of whiteness in America in any context. I'm grateful not only that it exists at all, but that it is so thoroughly researched and beautifully, incisively written.

  23. 4 out of 5

    tania nasrollahi

    The book and researcher that inspired reflection on my Iranian-American identity. Recommended it countless times. Powerful read.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Katie

  25. 5 out of 5

    Durana Saydee

  26. 4 out of 5

    Zaida

  27. 4 out of 5

    Erin Haag

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ariana

  29. 4 out of 5

    Sepideh Omoumi

  30. 5 out of 5

    Desiree Montes

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