The Limits of Whiteness: An Interview with Neda Maghbouleh

Author: Nazli Koca

Neda Maghbouleh is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and the author of The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race, in which she renders historical data with lived experiences of eighty second-generation Iranian-Americans who describe what it means to grow up in America with Iranian origins; reflect on belonging to two contrasting nations at once; share the complex identity struggles caused by the fact that Iranians are labelled legally white while being treated as potential terrorists; and what it means to be targets of hate crimes for which the perpetrators are not held accountable. Maghbouleh’s book is a powerful reminder of how young adults are negatively impacted as unprotected minorities in the United States. The book also examines the racial formation processes through which young Iranian-Americans have begun to reclaim what it means to be brown in America and to examine colorism, anti-Arab, and anti-black racism within their communities.


As Maghbouleh writes in her book: “Caught in the chasm between formal ethno-racial invisibility and informal hypervisibility, Iranian Americans work, love, and live through a core social paradox: Their everyday experiences of racialization coexist with their legal, and in some cases, internal ‘whitewashing.’”


I asked Neda Maghbouleh not only about the many consequences of compulsory whiteness, but also about how the Black Lives Matter movement is transforming the Iranian-American community, and how sharing this work with the world has affected her as a person.


Neda Maghbouleh The Limits Of Whiteness

Nazli Koca: There are several instances in The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race that reveal the cruelty of children. For example, the story of the eight-grade swimmer in Chicago who gets beaten after being called “Hey, Persian!” As Iranians are legally bound to compulsory whiteness irrespective of their phenotypic difference and ethnic minority status, this is not considered to be a hate crime. How do you see the life paths of the attackers and victims of similar hate crimes play out in the current legal landscape? How would these scenarios play out differently if the attack were treated as what it is: a tragic hate crime?

Neda Maghbouleh: Indeed, the section of the book you’re remembering is a case of assault that made the local news there. A youth had yelled the phrase “Hey, Persian!” before pummelling his Iranian American classmate to the ground, breaking the classmate’s collarbones, and after a long hospitalization, curtailing his achievements as a nationally ranked swimmer. Like others in my book – and in the Iranian Diaspora– the victim in this case is part of multiple ethno-racial communities. In particular, his mother is fair skinned and from Puerto Rico, and his father a darker-skinned immigrant from Iran. He himself possesses medium brown skin and other features that differentiate him from normative whiteness; that the assault was preceded with the phrase “Hey, Persian,” suggests that “Persianness” was somehow relevant. But—to your point—regardless of the complexities of Iranian and Latinx racialities, “Persian” was the master status that overrode other ascribed and achieved identities.

As we see daily around us, children and other youth are not somehow born blissfully unaware of difference; the human brain is constantly sorting and categorizing. The immoral thing we do, as adults, is socialize children into systems that are fundamentally oppressive and dehumanizing, that are anti-Black, Islamophobic, and xenophobic. So I’m skeptical that increased legal clarity about the racist nature of “white on white” hate crimes against Iranian Americans is the path to justice. But it may offer a limited – though still welcome — capacity to help Iranian Americans recognize and identify themselves in different locations within patterns of oppression. 

NK: In Chapter 3: At Home, Yara admits that she “found it challenging to identify good things happening in present-day Iran that might mitigate the negative stigma of being Iranian.”Combined with many other accounts of Iranian-American youth in the book, Yara’s statement is indicative of the harmful effects the stigmatization of Iran can have on young Iranian-American’s identity formation processes. Many of the young people you quote in the book feel the pain of not having the means to grapple with displacement in a healthy way unless they are lucky enough to go to Camp Ayandeh (Camp Future), which helps them integrate their Iranian and American identities in affirming ways. How would you say detachment from the homeland combined with the internalized shame of being Iranian-American contributes to the ongoing conflict between the two governments? How might diplomatic relations between the two countries shift if Iranian-Americans were not stuck within the limits of whiteness?’s important to remember that hybrid subjectivities like [these] hold great potential to undermine and transform the 'sides' themselves.

NB: It’s so interesting to me that the young diaspora Iranians I’ve met – in writing this book, and since the book has come out – are a variegated group in terms of class background, political attachments, sexualities, and much more—but they all for the most part continue to bridge the gaps you describe in order to sustain a sense of self, to sustain material and symbolic connections to Iran. I would say that’s the relevant pattern here – no matter the disparities in their proximities, distances, relationships, or connections to Iran – that each young person strives, or has strived, in creative ways to affirm and root themselves in that way. To be sure, what I’m describing is a highly relational sense of identity. Some sociologists would say this is evidence of “reactive ethnic identity,” that its youth in diaspora claiming and reacting to and embracing their “Iranian” side especially because that side has been stigmatized by their “American” side. That might be part of the story. But I also think it’s important to remember that hybrid subjectivities like [these] hold great potential to undermine and transform the “sides” themselves. From diaspora, this transformation could be through political work, or artistic expression, or scholarly research, or just through the everyday work of learning things that undermine, complicate, or undo the official U.S. party line on Iran—or the Diaspora’s party line on Iran—and then passing what they’ve learned forward to others.

NK: In Chapter 3: At Home, you wrote:

“Though outside the boundaries of this book, it bears questioning how intensely first-generation individuals actually feel about the sacrosanctity of Iranian whiteness after extensive experience living in the United States.”

Have you had a chance to explore this question since then, either scientifically or on a personal level? What impact would you say this summer has had on first generation Iranian-Americans in terms of how they view compulsory whiteness?



NB: This answer is hard to answer without evidence from the 2016 election, and of course, summer 2020 as you suggest. But yes, my impression is that all of this has moved an emotional, or affective needle some degree away from whiteness for a proportion of first-gen, non-Black Iranian immigrants.


The afterlife of 40 years of bans and sanctions can mean social death, or social life for transnational ties. I am interested in proof of life.


The exclusion, criminalization, and containment of immigrants from the MENA region certainly pre-dates Trump. Nonetheless, it’s Trump’s many travel bans affecting the Muslim world since 2017 and his reinstatement of sanctions against Iran that constitute the largest invisible wall that keeps Iranian people from not only accessing the U.S. but accessing a transnational flow of commercially produced medicine, banking instruments, and essential, life-sustaining goods.

These bans and sanctions sweep up Iranians across all documented or prospective statuses – not only refugees but immigration lottery winners, family travelers, H1B-Visa workers, academics coming for study abroad or conference travel, or just ordinary tourists – and places them into one giant banned class of people.

And frankly, as we saw earlier this year at the Northwest corner of the U.S.-Canada border, the offshore work of bans and sanctions also possess the on-site capacity to sweep up hundreds of American citizens of MENA and Iranian origin at one time, with just one simple directive from within Customs and Border Patrol.

I suspect this has influenced the psychology of those Iranians living in the U.S. who may have previously understood themselves as “white.” But how any change in affect and identity might then translate into political and social action is not a given, especially in this summer’s environment of unrepentant legal and extralegal violence in the U.S. against people fighting for racial justice.

NK: Have the BLM protests of this past summer changed the way you think about the limits of whiteness? If yes, in what way?

NB: BLM and the critical tradition from which it flows certainly changed the book as I wrote it. I wrote Limits of Whiteness during the BLM uprisings in 2015; the first page of my book puts the reader inside a barbeque restaurant in Houston, Texas, where for 40 years, there has been a poster of a lynching proudly on display. It’s a staged photograph of a bearded, turbaned “Iranian” man with a noose around his neck, his mouth hanging open, and arms slack, who is surrounded by a bunch of men wearing ten-gallon hats and blue jeans. The poster is labelled with the caption “Let’s Play Cowboys and IRANIANS!” The central reference of the poster is the lynching of African Americans. It trafficks in terroristic symbols connected to the seizure and theft of Indigenous lands. It is fundamentally an homage to white vigilantism.


Any analysis of Iranian American life, and the limits of whiteness, must begin with a fundamental understanding of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity.


NK: The Limits of Whiteness is an incredibly informative and captivating book. Its effect on me was similar to that of Citizen by Claudia Rankine. I especially appreciated you sharing your own experience with racism from July 4th, 2002. Yet, as the academic author of this important work, you calmly stayed focused on other people’s experiences, particularly Iranian-American young adults’ experiences and emotions. How did writing and publishing this work change you and the way you feel about your two countries, fellow countrymen, and identity?

NB: One of the best DMs I have ever received in my life was from a colleague at a different university, who wrote: “FYI just recommended your book to a very interested Claudia Rankine who looked it up on her phone to make sure she had your name right.” So thank you for the extraordinary compliment of bringing up Citizen.

In order to write Limits of Whiteness, I had to integrate every role I play in life. There was no way out of it, except through it. I had to figure out how to be a daughter, a mother, a learner, a teacher, a sociologist, a witness, and an author on the page.

Tomorrow is the three-year anniversary of the book’s release. Other Iranian Americans sometimes tell me “I didn’t grow up around many other Iranians. I missed out on knowing my grandparents, my cousins, my kin because of borders, sanctions, bans.” I relate to this condition deeply, and recognize it is shared by so many around the world, and in history, whose families and relations have been separated through violence. This book has introduced me to the other seekers, and I still get about one email or DM a day from someone I don’t know who reaches out about the book. So, I am actually much richer in relations than I could have imagined. 

Portrait of Neda Maghbouleh

This interview was conducted via email following the first Literatures of Annihilation, Exile & Resistance event from September 4, 2020. You can watch the recording of the event with Neda Maghbouleh, featuring the discussant, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, the founder of this initiative and the Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame, and moderated by Niloofar Adnani, Master of Global Affairs student at the Keough School.

Dr. Neda Maghbouleh is Associate Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair in Migration, Race, and Identity at the University of Toronto. An international expert on racial identity formation with a strategic focus on SWANA immigrants and refugees, she is Principal Investigator of RISE Team, a major 5-year study of integration and wellbeing among Syrian newcomer refugees. Her award-winning first book, The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race was published in 2017 by Stanford University Press. Born in New York City and raised in Portland, Oregon, Neda now lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and six-year-old daughter, Neelu.

Nazli Koca is an anglophone writer who grew up on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Her work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, books without covers, and elsewhere. She currently lives in the US, where she continues to write about exile, disorientation, and isolation.

Literatures of Annihilation, Exile, and Resistance, launched by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, is a research collective and lecture series co-sponsored by the College of Arts and Letters and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and housed at the newly launched Initiative on Race and Resilience, directed by Mark Sanders, Professor of English and Africana Studies. The series focuses on contemporary literature, film, and visual art that has been shaped by revolutionary and resistance movements, decolonization, migration, class and economic warfare, communal and state-sanctioned violence, and human rights violations. We aim to theorize new modes of contemporary literary and artistic resistance across national borders and to amplify the voices of scholars, artists, and writers of color whose lived experience is instrumental in forging new alliances across formal, linguistic and national boundaries.