Resurrecting Bayard Rustin

Happy 100th birthday to a man whose expansive justice work across multiple sites of oppression, earned him a marginal place in history, Bayard Rustin, our “Lost Prophet.”

While we are on the topic of birthdays of awesome queer folk who have facilitated the arc of the moral universe in bending toward justice…Audre Lorde would have turned 78 on February 18th! Ellen had a birthday in January, so did Michael Stipe (R.E.M. anyone? anyone?)…eh hem.

Hey, I’ve got a birthday coming up in April and my partner’s was in March! We are all part of this bending the arc of the moral universe thing. So, shout out some names of people who you know are ok with having their names shouted out and celebrate them and their presence on this planet!

Happy birthday to us Two-Spirit people and trans* folks and queers and questioners and same-gender lovers and bois and queens and kings and everybody else who has other words that I do not know because I just do not know everything. Our very existence is resistance!

“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” Bayard Rustin

Just Because I’m Brown…

A few weeks ago, at a place in downtown Seattle where I volunteer, a man walked in the door and asked where he could set up his prayer mat. He was wearing a traditional Muslim cap and a long white dress with pants underneath, similar to some traditional clothes often seen worn by Muslim men. Upon hearing his question, I immediately understood what he meant. Having grown up in a majority Muslim country and having been brought up learning about Islam, I knew what he was looking for. I told him that he could pray right there in the room. I even took out a compass I had with me to tell him where East was. He thanked me and proceeded to pray. After he had finished, I announced to the office that I was going to the coffeeshop downstairs to get coffee. The walk-in man offered to go with me. He was fascinated by my strange name and my apparently not-exactly-white-looking features and asked me where I was from. I replied that I was originally Iranian. He then asked if I was Muslim and I replied that even though I was born Muslim, I no longer believed in god, so no I was not Muslim per se. I usually don’t engage people I don’t know well in conversations about their background but since he had begun the questioning, I allowed myself to return the questions, so I asked, “What about you? What’s your ethnic background?” He looked a bit surprised by the question and said, “African-American.” It probably took me a second, but I quickly responded, “Oh, so you converted to Islam?” And he affirmed that indeed he had. We got our coffee and returned to the office upstairs.

I have to admit that I was extremely embarrassed by this entire exchange. I had made so many assumptions about this man that I normally did not allow myself to make about people. So I chided myself: just because he’s black, doesn’t mean he’s not American! Just because he’s Muslim, doesn’t mean he’s from some North African country! The point is I had truly expected him to reply that he was FROM a certain African country BECAUSE he was Muslim, even though he was just an African-American who had converted to Islam. How could I, who so often gets angry about people who make these assumptions about my background, make the exact same assumption about somebody else? The implication is: if you’re Muslim, you’re not American. If you’re brown/black, you’re not American. If you’re a brown/black Muslim, you COME FROM some place else; you’re an immigrant.

I am often confronted by a variety of assumptions about my identity, my positionality, my beliefs, my values, my social roles, and my relationships due to the color of my skin. So I thought that if I was able to perhaps list the myriad of assumptions that I’ve experienced in the United States regarding who I am, perhaps I might be able to prevent myself from acting on my own prejudices, assumptions, and privileges, and to liberate myself from my own internalized racism and whiteness.

So here is a list of assumptions made about me because I am Iranian/Middle Eastern/Brown/Person of Color. People assume:

1. That I’m Muslim.
2. That I’m straight.
3. That I don’t speak English well.
4. That I don’t understand American idioms and expressions.
5. That I’m filthy rich.
6. That I’m dirt poor.
7. That I know how to bellydance.
8. That I’m gender-conforming.
9. That I speak Spanish.
10. That I speak Arabic.
11. That I come from an impoverished country.
12. That I come from a war-torn country.
13. That I’m not American.
14. That I’m not a US citizen.
15. That I’m religious.
16. That I’m a FOB.
17. That I’m privy to secret information about the “situation” in the Middle East that no one else has access to.
18. That I always feel oppressed or discriminated against.
19. That I benefit from Affirmative Action.
20. That life is easy because I benefit from Affirmative Action.
21. That because I’m a brown female, I’ve been “oppressed” by brown males and am waiting for white males and white female feminists to “liberate” me.
22. That I hate America.
23. That I am Arab.
24. That I would only date within my own ethnicity.
25. That I know every other Iranian in this area.
26. That I know everything about the history, culture and politics of Iran.
27. That I’m exotic.
28. That I’m not familiar with American pop culture.
29. That I’m the spokesperson for everything Iran or Middle East.
30. That I know everything about the history and all sects of Islam.
31. That as a female living in Iran, life was difficult and horrible.
32. That I grew up without any concept of and access to technology.
33. That as a female in Iran, I’ve never done any sports.
34. That I’m a terrorist.
35. That I support the Iranian nuclear program.
36. That I don’t like people from other ethnicities.
37. That “my people” are backward.
38. That “my people” are homophobic.
39. That “my people” are sexist.
40. That I have a people.
41. That I will always defend Iranian politics no matter the policy or the situation.
42. That I’m anti-Semitic.
43. That I hate Israel and want it seen “wiped off the map”.
44. That I “should go home”.
45. That I automatically have a sense of identification with all Muslims, Middle Easterners and other brown folks.
And last but not least…
46. That I’ve ridden camels…everyday…to school. :)

This list is not meant to be comprehensive or to encompass the experiences of all Iranian/Middle Eastern/Brown/People of Color, but quite the contrary, it’s meant to show how often experiences of people of color are homogenized, uniformed, and marginalized.

Just for interest, indicate the ones you’ve personally experienced and please feel free to add your own in the comments section below. :)


In Defense of My Countries, My Identities

I have always been in search of words to describe myself. Usually I’ve found the words to be too limiting, too uniform. It has been only the past few years or so that I have had to confront my social identity, my relation to others, my past and eventually my future.

Born and raised in Iran, I could never deny my Iranian-ness. But even in Iran I didn’t completely fit in with everyone. I knew I was different. I did not act like other girls and did not hold exactly the same thoughts and values. When I went to college in the US, I became more engaged with my sexual and gender identity. I ascribed my difference in relation to other girls as a difference in gender. I refused to ascribe to a violently limiting binary system of genders. I began to view gender as a spectrum. But little by little, I disposed of the spectrum idea, founding even that to be limiting. Thus, I came to the conclusion that each individual person has their own gender, which is an ensemble of a variety of things such as their biological sex, their gender expression, their culture, their own self-identification, the identification by others, their class, their race, their religion and so many other factors that affect our notions of gender. But I have to wonder now: this could not possibly be all that differentiated me from other Iranians? Even as mere children in Iran, we knew deep down inside how the world functioned, even if we didn’t have the words to describe it. And sometimes the words were too painfully precise. Yes, I was too American, a remark that many of my Iranian friends did not fail to point out at times. I accepted their haphazard observation and even took pride in it. But for the most part it was a source of play and joking. When I moved to the US at the age of 15, I did not fail to mention to my newly found American friends that I was Iranian – a fact in which I took great pride. At first, this phrase was pronounced with much nuance, with almost a sense of provocation. Were they going to be mean to me? Were they going to make fun of me? Were they going to be surprised? Or simply indifferent? The response most often consisted of an initial surprise, a series of questions posed out of curiosity and ignorance and eventual indifference.

Despite holding official citizenships of both countries, I never felt myself overly American.[1] Throughout high school and even the first few years in college, I insisted that I was not American, regardless of my social status. Never until now had I ever questioned why I was so vehemently opposed to being American. Furthermore, what does being American even mean? I posed this question to a few of my American and foreign friends but none of whom could provide a satisfactory answer. But one thing was clear: you do not need to be born on American soil to be considered American. In fact it was not until I was doing a study abroad in France that I accepted and made my own the American identity.

During my three months in France, I met and interacted with many different people from all over the world. One of the first things that was always asked in class from professors and fellow classmates was national origin. My initial response was immediately: the United States. If I somehow felt as if I was going to have a longer relationship with this individual I always added: “But I was born and raised in Iran before moving to the US.” However, throughout my stay, my response, even to people with whom I knew I would have no major or very little contact, slowly became: I was born in Iran but I come from the United States. Finally it turned into what I had been feeling for a while but had never pronounced out loud: Iranian-American.

It would be too narrow-sighted and utterly false to claim that going to France was the ultimate experience that pushed me into this brilliant new identity that I had forged for myself. So I retreat. Before traveling to France, I had become relatively active with the Seattle community organization of Iranian-Americans. It was there that I met a lot of Iranians from all walks of life and from very diverse backgrounds. I talked to people who clearly felt one side of their identity weighed more than the other, and then there were individuals who easily described themselves as Iranian-Americans and found no irony or contention in saying so. I knew I was one of them but I felt that I first needed to define being American. But can I even define being Iranian? I would be lying if I said Iran was a homogenous country with very little diversity, hence the question is never posed like it is in the United States. As an atheist upper-middle class Persian born and raised in the city, who am I to ignore or worse – assimilate the experiences of millions who are lower-class, religious, Kurd, Turk, Azeri, Arab, Lur, Afghani, Turkmen, Baluchi, and the multitude of other ethnicities that make up this beautiful country, into my own narrow experience as an Iranian? And I have to wonder: do other ethnicities and classes in Iran make the Iranian identity their own as I do?

It had been some time that I had completely washed my hands off of Iranian politics, even if I followed the news regarding the nuclear program and the 2009 elections very closely over the past few years but I never commented or even allowed myself much thought. Even when talking to friends genuinely interested in international politics, I refrained from getting myself too involved. I could not because it was too painful. I could not be emotionally invested in an issue that was tearing me from within. What I didn’t realize until the last six months was that only by confronting my fears, my prejudices and privileges, and by actively engaging with my Iranian and American identities and communities could I truly heal my wounds. I cannot move forward without confronting my past. And if I am to call myself a true activist and continue on the route of anti-oppression work, how can I simply disregard the political realities of US-Iran relations, the consequences of which affects my identity and my relations to the people around me at every level?

And even yet, my overly active and critical brain does not permit me to read back upon these words and not reproach myself for throwing myself under the ugly and violent grasp of nationalism. Many terrible things have been done under the name of nationalism and it is precisely nationalism to which I am subjecting myself by defining my identities as a haphazard mix of a multitude of cultures, histories, and politics from two different countries I call home. But when I am faced with the threat of the destruction of everything that I hold dear in Iran and in the United States, I cannot help but feel a deepening desperation of clinging onto what little I feel is left of my past for a morsel of stability at present, and hopes of a brighter future. As much as I would like to join hands in the common fight against racism, imperialism, and oppression, without regard to nationalism, I cannot raise myself above the unfortunate realities of borders. My experience of the world is deeply rooted in histories. Thus, I can never own the Iranian-American identity without fully engaging in its politics and the consequences it entails.

[1] The usage of the word “American” here is meant to refer to the United States. I fully understand the white/north amero-centrism of the usage of this term. With my deepest regards to my fellow Latin/South Americans, the term is used out of ease and to differentiate it from being a “US citizen.”


the smallest minority

True story: Waiting for the bus one morning, I overheard a mama talking to her 5 year old daughter:
“There are so many different kinds of people in the world, right baby?”
Chewing a mouthful of cold smore poptarts, she nods.
“There are big people, there are little people, there are mama people, and daddy people, and baby people. There are tall people, who play basketball, and small people… There are black people, and white people, and brown people… What kind of person are you baby?”
Still chewing that mouthful of cold smore poptarts, “A cute person!”
Smiling, mama affirms that baby is indeed a cute person.

I too am a cute person (or so I think), but I am also a short person, a chubby person, a silly person, a female bodied person, a gay person, a genderqueer person, a 19-year-old person, a middle class person, and a first generation Indian American person. It might have taken me a long to realize, but I’m definitely a cute person. In fact, it took me a long time to realize who I am. The more I discovered about myself, the more I felt like I was falling further into the minority rabbit hole. I felt more alien than anything. Did anyone else’s intersectionality, intersect with mine? Or was my unique being going to be isolated, alone, and unappreciated?

Intersectionality is a funny thing. It divides us, drawing lines in the sand of humanity, erecting chasms between you and me. And it unites us. And it leaves us solitary. And it creates solidarity. This double edged sword so integral to our being makes us who we are, as individuals and as a human race. There is pride in being the one and only you, celebration and beauty. But what is a celebration without others to share with?! Isn’t there a sense of excitement in meeting someone who shares an experience with you? In seeing someone like you? In realizing you are not alone in your struggles and achievements? This interpersonal connection, this sense of community, plays a pivotal role in self-appreciation and in self-love. In turn, this creates the foundation for the appreciation and celebration of others too.

The branches of our intersectionality all lead to the same trunk, our being. Each branch affects another and cannot exist alone. My race affects the filter with which I view my sexuality or gender expression or class or age or my physical appearance, abilities/disabilities, or the culture I want to create for myself. Finding a balance between the aspects our lives, the tidbits that makes us who we are, can be difficult without affirmation of our existence. It wasn’t until I met another queer, first generation, Indian American that I was able to see how the mosaic fit together. I was opened to a whole new dimension. Realizing that I wasn’t some kind of mistake or freak or monster let me adjust my filters. Apparently the Indian culture is chock full of instances of homosexuality! Gods that are half male and half female, sex positions for lovers of the same sex, even religiously accepted marriages between women! My culture wasn’t as suffocating as I thought, exploring the intersection of my race and sexuality has given me a new appreciation for my mother culture. I’m not a mythical creature, “queer woman of color”, but I am the child of millions, if not billions, of others just like me. There is so much peace in this enlightenment.

Dedicated to gita mehrotra