White Like Obama

One evening while walking through DC, slightly buzzing from consuming medium quantities of beer, I had an epiphany. Not the kind that politicians write about when they change course or the non-believers credit with turning them into zealots. But it was far simpler. One that summed up my whole quest for trying to understand identity, how we shape our own, but also how society shapes their perceptions and how that affects each person’s own self-identity.

I was considering the time my biracial friend had told me he hated white people. He apologized immediately. I had not scolded him, nor had I made some long speech about reverse racism. His frustration, was often my own and I totally understood why he said what he said. You see, his mother, like mine, is white. But because his father is black and he had a darker skin tone, society had put him in a box that refused to recognize his whiteness.

He and his younger sibling had dated white girls through high school—and even now they’re married to women who would identify as white. Unfortunately, some people in our town could not fathom interracial dating. And part of their inability to comprehend manifested itself through making remarks about how unacceptable it was or how it could ruin the white girl’s reputation.

I understood what he was going through. At the same time, I was dating a black girl. Some parents of my white friends would make remarks about interracial dating to me too. Although, it would not be directly addressing my own relationship, their point was clear—interracial dating was bad.

When my friend made his comment, I simply told him we were both equal parts white, but that there was no need to apologize—except maybe to his mother.

I dwell on that interaction often and have longer piece dedicated to it–coming later. But on this evening, high on the effects of several half liters of beer, walking home from my favorite beer garden, I was struck by this thought: ‘Genetically speaking, I’m just as white as Obama. He and I (and even my friends mentioned above) will always have that in common. But only one of us will ever be perceived as white by society. Only one of us will benefit from white privilege.’

What sort of identity crisis does that create for my friends and President Obama? Have they ever sought acceptance from white society? Or did they give up? How would their mother’s feel about that conversation? Did my perceived whiteness have any sort of impact on the experience I had in high school? Does my own desire to embrace my Iranian-ness stem from this feeling that being called white is not enough? What is the genesis of the push back from my friends at home who cannot accept me being anything else but white?

My experiences as a perceived white kid growing up in central Kentucky imparts on me the recognition that white privilege (or advantage as my astute professor friend likes to say) does exist. The perception of being white insulated me from having to face the sorts of venom thrown at my friends and President Obama. It was only when I started embracing my otherness, that I started to receive the same sorts of messages from my hometown.

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Trumpism Brings Fear to My Doorstep

As Donald J. Trump prepares to accept the Republican nomination for president, his candidacy is already having a frightening impact on the people I love the most. For the first time in my life, I hear real fear in the voices of my parents. Caused in part by Trump’s tropes about Muslims in reaction to horrific terrorist attacks, the 2016 presidential election has caused them a great deal of concern.

“Of all these years I’ve been in the US, I’m not sure I’ve been as scared as I am today,” my father admitted during one of our many phone conversations.

For what it’s worth, he’s been here for over 50 years, coming from Iran to learn English and falling in love with the country. My father lived through the tumultuous Civil Rights movement, the Iranian Revolution’s hostage crisis, and 9-11.

I was shocked by his admission. Normally positive and upbeat, he seemed almost mournful at the uptick in vitriol and hate speech. The country that had given him so much hope is beginning to scare the daylights out of him. Most of our conversations since then focus on the fear and apprehension he feels.

My mother, for her part, tries to stay positive and steer clear of the political minefield. But when she does talk about the current state of affairs, she can’t hide her feelings.

“I just don’t want to have those conversations with people,” she told me recently. She’d rather stay home and read books than have to engage Trump supporters.

It’s not just those interactions that she’s worried about. Anytime she hears Trump and his followers spewing their Islamophobic hatred, her thoughts immediately turn to my siblings and me. Pandora’s Box has been opened, she worries. Even if Trump loses, the tension and vitriol will continue.

My own actions, my father pointed out to me when I recently visited my hometown in Kentucky, had even contributed to his sense of apprehension.

“If you think by speaking out against the racism, Islamophobia, hate speech, you are making me feel safer, you aren’t,” he told me matter of factly.

It was a jarring indictment of my own attempts at advocacy. I was forced to reevaluate my approach to the rising tide of Islamophobia throughout the country, within my hometown and even within my friend group.

How am I supposed to open their eyes to what their Islamophobia means? How do I show them that their racist, bigoted, hate speech is both unacceptable and dangerous? How do I show them that their conveniently held beliefs that Muslims should be banned, placed under extra surveillance, have their patriotism questioned, targeted for violence, etc. directly affect their own friends—people with whom they’ve broken bread, played soccer, shared life altering experiences? How can I uncompromisingly walk them back from their position of exclusion? How can I make my parents feel safe again?

Fear, we can reason, is a natural response to extreme discomfort. My father’s fear stems from the realization that those he’s spent a lifetime teaching the finer points of advanced mathematical computations will be unforgiving in their own calculations deciding that he and his children are in fact the enemy.

My mother’s fear is much the same. The people she built bonds with through various professional and social avenues could very easily turn their backs on her simply because her former husband is Muslim and her children are half-Iranian. Those same people could then also target her children and grandchildren.

The embrace of Islamophobia by some of my friends, some of my father’s former students, some of my mother’s acquaintances, is aided, in part, by demagoguery on the right, which has a long history of invective and innuendo that Muslims and Islam as a culture (as if a monolithic Islamic culture exists) are America’s greatest threat. Their conclusions, however, disregard the many contributions Muslims–and Islam, for that matter–have made to our country. And they ignore the positive impact my father has had on our community.

My father, always the philosopher, channeled the German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer, when he said, “Every time we reason, our conclusion is a function of the information we have.”

Some of us have nearly unfettered access to information and interactions with other cultures; most do not. But no single person has all the information, all the time. Additionally, information can be denied through subterfuge, which is both internal (a stubborn refusal to seek alternate sources of information) or external (politicians using invective to push constituents in a certain direction).

Our last conversation on my visit home was steered in part by my father’s daily reading of Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. That day’s passage, among other things, discussed the labyrinth of information, which is constrained by both our own willful exclusion of facts and the purposeful exclusion of facts by others. This is the vector through which propaganda enters, leaving us with a sense that we’ve made up our own minds when we haven’t.

If the rise in Islamophobia—and racial tensions, overall—is more a function of access to diverse sources of information than innate bias, it would indicate that bombarding Islamophobes with information would be sufficient to make them walk back from their irrational positions. But some people, as columnist Ross Douthat recently pointed out, view openness (or cosmopolitanism) as yet another mechanism by which elites can rule the land, excluding the world views of those skeptical of inclusionary politics. Thus, they decide exclusion is the antidote to the corrupting power of the elite.

If that is true, how do we bring the Islamophobes in from the cold? How do we convince them that inclusion is far more agreeable and more effective in preventing terrorism than exclusion? How can we open their eyes to the fact that we, as the United States, are supposed to be the beacon of hope rising above the morass of despair in so many parts of the world, particularly the Middle East? How can we show them their position plays into the hands of our enemies? How can I do this without making my family any less safe than they already are?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. All I know is the more I push, explain, attempt to engage, and even lose my cool at times, the less traction I seem to get and the more apprehensive and afraid my family becomes.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I go home, I choose not to spend too much time in public. To be honest, I’m fearful too. The myopia of many running rampant in my beloved hometown (and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, for that matter) is a far cry from the welcoming cosmopolitan spirit that embraced my parents when they moved there in 1973.

 

Apparently She Thought I Was Japanese

As most have probably gathered, or if you haven’t read the About Me page of the blog, I grew up in rural Central Kentucky. Needless to say, there wasn’t much diversity.

Labels for those of us who were different varied widely, mainly based on the perception holders own misconceived notions of ethnic groups. Not that it was their fault, however. But it did,  more or less, provide for some humorous interpretations of my own ethnicity–and coincidentally material for this blog.

Probably the weirdest, craziest selection of my ethnic background came from a classmate my freshman year in high school. I want to say, the label was first introduced at some point in the spring. And offered up as an explanation for my otherness at least twice, possibly three times.

It was a Saturday, if my memory serves me correctly (give me a break it’s been over 20 years–ugh I’m getting old). My father and I were walking through one of the hallways of my high school. Maybe I had Saturday school, that would explain why I was there, with my dad on a Saturday.

As we made our way to the library (yep, definitely had Saturday School), I see one of my classmates sitting on the floor with her boyfriend. They were, to put it mildly, engaged in some sort of heavy petting ritual that high schoolers often think is an acceptable form of affection in public.

She breaks off her exercise in affection, looks in my direction, and in an I-got-you-I-know-what-you-are tone says, “Japanese!! You’re Japanese!”

All I could muster was a confused, “ummmmm…,” before continuing my walk to the library. I was fourteen, maybe fifteen, and hadn’t really encountered that sort of thing. It was awkward and high schoolers really don’t know how to handle those situations without freezing…awkwardly.

By the time I could process what had happened, I realized it wasn’t the first time she had directed her conclusions in my direction. She had done it once before. Only that time, I hadn’t realized she was directing it towards me. Because of my own ignorance, I chose to laugh off that first interaction. To be honest, I don’t think I even understood what she was talking about.

She did it once more. And I’d like to think that I corrected her conclusions, because I really don’t remember it ever happening again. It’s just as likely someone else could have made the correction for me.

What I’ve never been able to wrap my head around, though, is the idea that to her my otherness equated to me being Japanese. Was that the furthest, most foreign place she could think of? Did my dark hair, dark eyes, some what tan skin tone mean that I was, in her calculation, Japanese? Was the only interaction she had with non-whites with someone that was Japanese? And what made her assume that yelling it out was something that was acceptable? As opposed to maybe, simply asking?

It surely, truly was an interesting calculus on her part. And to be honest, I’ve not run into her since then to ask. Not that I would, if I did, however. But I can’t help but wonder, ‘what on earth was she thinking.’

Are You Israeli?

I was standing outside the Pret A Manger inside DC’s bustling Union Station busy minding my own business, listening to Pandora, and idly waiting for my girlfriend to arrive, so we could catch a train to Philly.

The Red Line, as usual, was having issues.

Out of the corner of my eye, I catch an eager looking gentleman trying to get my attention.

‘Is my music too loud,’ I thought to myself. No, it wasn’t.

He smiled, nodded his head. I acknowledged him, with a returned head nod–something guys inherently do the world over. ‘Yes, I’m approachable’ or ‘Yes, I see you’ are among but a few of the many messages it can send.

“Are you Israeli?” he asks with a perceptible accent that told me he was both foreign born, but fully comfortable in English.

“No.”

“Do you speak Hebrew?”

Maybe he wasn’t so comfortable in English after all.

“No.”

“Jewish?”

“No.”

“Where are you from,” he said, exhausting all of his presumed options.

“Kentucky.” He gives me a sincere look of ‘what the fuck.’ It’s the same look I often get when I tell people I’m from Kentucky without providing context.

“But my dad is Iranian,” I explain, recognizing he needed clarification.

“Ahh,” as if that explained his perception of my Jewishness (wait, does that mean we all look alike?) and was enough for him to be comfortable to continue the conversation, “Are you Muslim?”

“Yes, but only as much as one can be growing up in rural Kentucky.”

With the formalities of feeling me out completed, he asks, “My friend, last night I lost my wallet, my train ticket, everything. Could you help be buy a bus ticket back to Boston? I have no money. I’ll send you a check when I get back. I promise”

I hesitate.

“Consider it as an exercise in cross-cultural engagement.”

‘Fuck, he knows my weakness.’

“Sure, how much do you need?”

“The ticket costs $40. There’s an ATM right over there,” he said pointing to the ATM in front of the H&M.

‘This guy has really scoped this place out. Is he scamming me? Or maybe he’s just been here a while.’

I walked over towards the ATM, started to insert my card, and saw the sign that read out of order. Was that an omen? Should I turn back now? Give up on the potential cross-cultural bridge building?

As I turn, I catch his face looking hopeful, for the first time all day, someone will finally help him make that 8 hour bus ride back to Boston. Otherwise he might end up the real life version of Tom Finnerty (yes, that was a Sopranos reference).

“I think there’s another ATM around the corner,” I said, “This one’s broken.”

“Thank you for helping me. My friend, what’s your name?”

‘Oh crap, he’s not going to believe I’m not Jewish.’

“David,” I respond, chuckling to myself, as I shake his hand.

“Eli, my name is Eli.”

‘Should I tell him my middle name is Abraham? No, absolutely not, don’t do that. He’s really going to think you’re lying to him about not being Jewish.’

“Again, thank you for helping me.”

There’s a line at the two ATMs through two sliding glass doors and around the corner from Pret. They sit at the top of the exit from the metro station and close to where the trains arrive. Both of us sit in an awkward silence that lasted all of two minutes but felt like eternity.

Finally, it’s my turn.

I go through the familiar motions of withdrawing funds from a cash machine pulling out $60, an extra $20 for myself. Transaction completed.

As I hand him the $40, he most certainly had seen me pull three twenties from the machine, Eli asks, “Can I have $20 more for some food along the way? It’s an 8 hour trip.”

‘Let’s not ruin this moment of cross-cultural bridge building, Eli,’ I thought.

“I’m sorry that extra $20 is for me,” I said, almost immediately regretting it because it sounded way too harsh and made me feel a little like Smokey’s mother in Friday.

“Ahh, no worries, friend. Thank you for this. But, please, give me your phone number or address, I will send you a check when I get back to Boston,” he insisted.

“Pay it forward, my friend. When someone asks you for help, help them. That’s how you can pay me back,” I responded sounding almost sanctimonious, rather than benevolent.

“Thank you, Thank you, I will,” he said smiling as he walked to buy his bus ticket.

Somewhere in Boston, Eli is sitting comfortably (I hope) sipping coffee or tea, and periodically thinking about our interaction at Union Station. I wonder if he ever found anyone to buy him food or if he waited, hunger pangs unabated, until he got home.

It’s been less than a month and I still laugh that of all the people scurrying through Union Station, he picked me solely because I looked the most Jewish.

 

The Puerto Rican Boyfriend

I spent several summers before, during, and after grad school coaching soccer camps. My boss, Heidi, was a high energy, high octane former US Women’s player from Chicago–and Cleveland. The juxtaposition of my very slow, methodical, and light-footprint approach to coaching was constantly on display. That said, we were actually a perfect compliment to each other, as each player is different and coaching required varying your approach in an effort to produce the best possible outcomes for those under your tutelage.

One of the summers I was helping my boss, we directed a local high school in their preseason camp. Early in the morning we would arrive, set up shop, and work on specific areas that needed improvement. Most of the kids we knew, having coached them in previous summers in various camps or clinics. So, it came as a surprise when I was pulled aside by a player or coach, I don’t remember, and had the following interchange.

“Shams (that’s what they called me), you’ll get a kick out of this.”

“Ha, okay, what happened?”

“When you and Heidi pulled up, Bobby (not his real name) said, ‘Great, here comes Heidi and her Puerto Rican boyfriend.'”

“That’s hilarious. Was that supposed to be an insult?”

“No clue man.”

“I should act upset.”

Several moments later, I was in charge of Bobby’s group. I can’t remember the actual session, but I recall they had been messing up what ever it was we were trying to accomplish. So, I stepped in. Telling them I had three pointers, saving the ethnic  clarification for the last point.

“…and THIRD,” I said turning toward Bobby, “I am not Heidi’s boyfriend and I’m not Puerto Rican. Does Shams even sound Puerto Rican? Come on man, I’m half Iranian, not that expected you to know that, but if you’re going to try to insult me at least get the right ethnicity.”

All the other guys chuckled, while Bobby’s face turned red in embarrassment.

After a while, I pulled Bobby to the side.

“I want you to know, I’m not offended. My intent was to demonstrate that sometimes your audience includes people outside your circle of friends, people that you may not realize are listening. I’m sorry, if, in doing that, I embarrassed you.”

 

The Italian Exchange Student

A running joke among Iranians is that we can pass for a lot of ethnic groups.

Unfortunately, I’m not enough of an anthropologist to make a definitive conclusion about how or why, but I don’t think I’m too far off in saying that it’s in part due to Iran’s location. During the Silk Road era, many tribes, nations, ethnic groups, conquerors, marauders, bandits, merchants, etc. crisscrossed the Iranian plateau. Their genes, as usually happens when, over several centuries, people interact and cross paths in the same locations, inevitably intermingled with those of the natives. And thus the present day plight of Iranians being able to blend in, without being noticed as Iranians, was born.

My brother, Jacob, was no exception. In fact, out of my two siblings and I, he looks the most Iranian–he even tattooed his name in Farsi on his arm. Once, right after the ink had settled, I told him they messed up his middle name–they hadn’t, but a little brother has to do what he has to do.

I looked up (and still do) to my brother, especially on the soccer field. Four years my senior, he had all the skills and presence I wanted to mirror. He was a true leader on the pitch.

His skills were so great that some kids from other schools couldn’t believe he was simply an American. He had to be from somewhere else.

“The only reason why Bardstown is any good is because they have that Italian exchange student,” one student from a neighboring county said.

“Umm…what,” the older sister of one of my brother’s friends said. She had been hanging out with some of her friends from that school.

“Yeah, that Italian kid. He dominates the games. That’s why they are good.”

“There aren’t any Italians on the team. I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“That guy, who plays midfield, darker skin, kind of curly black hair, dark eyes. He’s got to be Italian.”

“Are you talking about Jacob?”

“Yeah, I think that’s him, #19?”

“Yeah, you’re definitely talking about Jacob. He’s not an exchange student and he’s not Italian. He’s one of my brother’s friends, born and raised in Bardstown.”

“Well, he looks Italian!”

 

(I’ve probably gotten some of the details wrong, so if anyone is reading this knows the exact interaction, please let me know.)

 

I Thought My Dad Was Black

People always ask me what my hometown was like when my dad first moved there. To be honest, I don’t really know—I wasn’t born yet. But I often joke that Bardstown was made up of whites, blacks, and then my dad. That isn’t necessarily true, but you get the idea.

In fact, when my parents first moved to Bardstown, there was another Iranian living there. But, according to my mom, my dad really didn’t like him that much. Neither has told me why and I don’t know if I actually care. Since it’s not that important, I’m probably not going to ask, or perhaps I should.

Needless to say, by the time I was born there weren’t many people like my dad living in Bardstown. With the exception of two cross-country trips to California (we drove and that’s for another story), visits from relatives in Oklahoma City, and the occasional visit with my dad’s college buddies (remember Manu and the Persian Rat Pack), I wasn’t in regular contact with other Iranians.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was (yes, you’re picking up a pattern), but I was probably around four, as my memory tells me that my parents were divorced and I was in pre-school. That means it was at least 1986, and in this particular memory, my father was wearing a short sleeved shirt, which means it was probably when the weather was warmer.

I was deep in thought as my dad was driving me to my mother’s house. We were probably coming from the Montessori pre-school that I attended, but again I don’t remember that detail. On second thought, it could have all happened in 1987.

My mother lived—and still does—in the house my parents bought in 1978. When they divorced, my mother kept the house, while my father took the parcel of land across the road. He’s tinkered with remodeling and refurbishing a small cabin that sits on the property. In the last ten years, he’s made more progress than he did in the previous twenty. He’s made it livable, but just barely.

The house and the parcel of land with the cabin are a little more than five miles down Woodlawn Road, which branches off of Bloomfield Road, right in front of Nelson County High School. When my parents first moved out there you could count on one hand the amount of cars you’d pass on the road. That’s not even remotely the case today. Now, despite my mother’s house being at the apex of a blind curve that not only changes elevation, but also crosses a small creek, cars zip by at all times of the day. I’m surprised there haven’t been a lot of accidents, but screeching tires are a regular occurrence.

My dad and I had just left the two lane portion of Woodlawn Road and were heading down into the valley where my mother’s house sits. The road is just wide enough for two cars to pass, if and only if both drivers slow down and utilize the gravel shoulder.

We had just crested the first of two hills before heading around a small bend, crossing a small bridge and hitting the longest flat stretch in that part of the county that led to my mother’s house. In that moment I finally mustered up the courage to ask what I had been thinking. It could have been on my mind for a while. Or maybe it was more of an impulse, because as my memory has it, we had just passed a black family headed in the opposite direction and my father flashed a friendly wave—something everyone does on a country road.

“Daddy, are you black?” I asked timidly.

You see, in my four or five year old mind, my father couldn’t have been anything else. He obviously wasn’t white, he was too dark for that. And since I really had no other frame of reference and because so many black families were friendly with my father, I concluded that he—and by proxy me, because even at that young age, I understood that whatever my father was, I was too—was black.

“No,” my father responded, part concerned, part curious, and slightly perturbed.

This was a time in my father’s life when he was under a great deal of stress. The combined elements of a recent divorce and the job of a public school teacher had put him on edge. Luckily, my curiosity didn’t strike the wrong nerve.

“Are you sure?” I shot back, convinced my father was lying. The logic I had spun in my young mind was solid and impeccable.

“Yes, David. I am sure.” He said calmly, returning to dividing his focus between the road and something deeper and more philosophical than I could have ever imagined.

I don’t remember if there was any conversation the rest of the drive—it was less than a mile to my mother’s house from that point. Surely, I had gone back to doing whatever it was before I asked the question. Maybe I was playing with GI Joe’s, which according to my father, I would sneak into school or soccer practice in my front pocket. Or perhaps I was imagining how I could convince my father he was actually black. Or maybe, I started to question my impeccable logic: if he wasn’t white and he wasn’t black, then what the hell was he? What on earth am I? Wait, could that have been the genesis of my lifelong identity crisis?

I’ve never really talked to him about this moment and what it all meant. And I’d like to think he’d read this and call me to talk about it. But to be honest, my dad won’t be reading this unless I print it off and send it to him snail mail. (I’ve sent him the link to this blog twice and in the numerous conversations we’ve had since, he hasn’t commented. If he did, he’d probably call me an asshole or some other cuss word in the most loving tone anyone could ever use while uttering an expletive.)

All I am sure of is that he took my question well. He could have given me a lecture—like many Iranian parents, I’ve learned, are notorious for doing—about the greatness of being Iranian. Maybe it was the stress, maybe the question caught him off guard, or maybe it was something else altogether.

One explanation is at that time in the late 1980s, being Iranian wasn’t posh. So, maybe he feared that instilling in us an overbearing sense of pride in our Iranian-ness could have been dangerous. That’s partially why he didn’t teach us Farsi—emphasis on partially. But I think, more or less, it boiled down to the fact that to him he was human and nothing else mattered. He was indifferent to labels and even now when we have questions about identity, he balks at labeling himself Iranian.

“Does it make a difference?” I imagine him saying. It doesn’t. But it does.

Identity is important, but what I’ve learned is that we’re not limited to just one. And that’s what this is all about.