Not Black, Not White

Not Black, Not White

by Amanda Enayati

Sunday, July 13, 1997; Page C01
The Washington Post

A few weeks ago, I accompanied an old friend from law school to another schoolmate's birthday party at a local bar. Although I knew roughly half the people at the gathering, I was greeted with cold nods or curt hellos. Many of those to whom I was introduced did not bother to look me in the eye.

What strange gathering of friends and acquaintances was this? It was a group of African American men and women, many of whom went to law school with me. I am an Iranian woman, one who can't pass as white because I'm too dark, but certainly can't pass as black because I have Middle Eastern features. For all intents and purposes, though, I was white -- and not welcome -- that night.

As I tried to fight back the hurt, and to ignore the isolation that I was feeling, I reflected on the bizarre racial divide that separates people in this country in so many subtle and pernicious ways. Why is it that when it is convenient to the black community, I am considered black or at least "down with the cause"? And when it's inconvenient, I am looked upon as an outsider, or, worse, dismissed as another of those women trying to infiltrate the community for the sole purpose of stealing a strong black man who really belongs with a beautiful strong black woman.

Don't get me wrong. There are two players in this perverse game of racial chess, each player claiming the unfortunate pawn at his convenience. Often enough I've heard off-hand comments such as, "Oh, you're okay. You could totally be white," from some well-meaning, and yet ignorant, white person who does not realize that my silence in response is not an assent but a stunned pain shooting through me like an unexpected slap in the face. And yet, in gatherings of white people, it is made more than clear --overtly or not -- that I do not belong, that somehow they're superior, smarter, prettier, better, more efficient.

This struggle to feel comfortable in my skin has been my daily companion for almost 20 years. I was only 10 in 1978 when my parents, fearful of prerevolutionary rumblings, put me on a plane out of Iran. Their promise to join me was not fulfilled until several years later. By then, I had bounced between relatives and acquaintances in five different countries, adapting as I went along. Finally, in the early 1980s, my whole family reunited in the States. Even as a teenager I could sense some sort of tension between the races here, and that most immigrants would prefer to be associated with the white community. There's certainly a twisted logic to that. Many immigrants are escaping from some sort of persecution and repression in their native lands. Who wants to come to a new country and be identified with the persecuted and repressed?

But for me, the choice was not so clear-cut. Once in the United States, I was raised in the Baha'i community in Los Angeles. The Baha'i Faith prizes diversity, and Baha'i communities all over the world are rich with people of all hues and colors. Growing up in L.A., my hanging buddies were black, white, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, African, Samoan, you name it.

The years advanced, and things grew more complex. As an undergraduate at UCLA, I could barely stand to be on campus. Despite the variety of races and nationalities represented, many students hung out in ghettos of sorts. I suppose I was expected to join the Iranian crowd, but I resisted. In many ways, my years of roaming the world had changed me -- I was less of a traditional Iranian and more of a ... who knows what? I wanted to be with the blacks and the whites and the Asians and the Latinos -- all at the same time.

In 1990, I moved to the East Coast to attend law school at Howard University. Naively, I reasoned that at a historically black university like Howard -- with its glorious mission and tradition of justice -- race and nationality would be a less-central issue, more of a backdrop against which a person's true character would play out. I was mistaken. Within the first few weeks of school, people positioned themselves and each other. There were those who were down, those who were sell-outs, those who were progressive, and then there were the lowest of the low -- the not-so-small percentage of white students. And it became quite clear that no one knew what to do with me.

"What do you consider yourself?" I was asked one night as I was typing away in the computer room. I remember my profound confusion at the question. Instinctively, I felt it was some sort of trap God and my fellow students were laying for me. If I said I thought of myself as black, I would somehow feel as if I were choosing sides and selling out the principle that is most fundamental to my life: that all people are one and that someday we'll all be unified as a human race.

If, on the other hand, I said that I did not consider myself black, then I feared I would be subjected to the same sort of contempt and isolation that many of the white students suffered -- something I was not prepared to do, no matter how noble and self-righteous I felt.

Desperate for an escape, I said the first irrelevant cliche that came into my head. "I'm a world citizen," I muttered, burying my head further into the keyboard. But my answer that night had little to do with the way I was treated in the ensuing three years. How many times did I hear that I was not black and would therefore never understand? or, alternatively, that all people of color were in the same predicament and had to unify against white repression?

I was stunned to learn that I would not be allowed to join BLSA -- the Black Law Students Association -- the existence of which in a majority black school seemed almost immoral to me, given that no students of any other race were allowed to join. My first impulse had been to argue with the man sitting behind the table with the introductory fliers. He looked me in the eye and said, "Look, if you're not black, then as far as I'm concerned, you're white." What was I to do, start an "ILSA" of which I would be the sole member? What were the white students supposed to do, start a "WLSA" -- how acceptable was that?

Despite the strange dynamics, my three years at Howard were glorious. Many dear friends loved me without reservation. And to them I complained, loudly and incessantly, about what was going on. After all, shouldn't African Americans -- of all people -- know better than to hold race against others? I was never so surprised as when one day, a close friend turned to me and snapped, "How dare you hold black people to a higher standard of morality?" I had no answer.

After graduating from law school in 1993, I landed in a law firm in the Midwest, where, two years after its abrupt end, Desert Storm was still on people's minds. Over the next few years, incident after incident convinced me that I had landed in the twilight zone instead. I huddled in the corner of my downtown Indianapolis apartment as the Klan marched less than a block away three times in eight months. I endured my car being vandalized twice -- in Bloomington and Chicago -- each time after I was stared down by hostile-looking groups of white people. I heard myself described in some interesting combinations of words -- none flattering. And I survived the indignity of being one of two brown faces who were thrust to the forefront of certain firm functions.

If they did not represent such a tragic aspect of our society, my experiences would almost read like a comedy. When I date black men, I receive animosity from those who feel that black men belong with black women. When I date white men, I've been accused of selling out and trying to be white. Iranian men who expect me to fit within a certain mold find me strange. I also seem to have this peculiar power to make people at airports and train stations visibly uncomfortable.

The racial dynamics in this country are no longer about black and white; there are a whole lot of us grays in between -- and we are not going anywhere. As disheartening as they may seem, my collective experiences make sense to me. I have forged for myself a new identity, one that transcends race, one that sometimes makes me and those who come into contact with me uncomfortable . . . for now. Blacks may not always accept me, whites may consider me an outsider, but I see a greater wisdom at play. In the first 10 years of my life, I lived in a completely homogenous society, where everyone looked like me. The next 20 years I spent in the company of people from the world over. And I shall never again be content to associate solely with one group or another. I have learned that when you stretch the boundaries of your comfort zone, the limitations you once accepted become intolerable.

Racial or national pride is unquestionably important. I do not wear the badge of "honorary white" or "honorary black" comfortably, and I am proud of the 2,500 years of Persian history that precedes me. But so long as we see ourselves as disjointed and separate, so we shall be.

When I was little, my grandfather would lean in and whisper old Persian stories in my ear. I remember him saying, "Standing before his Maker, Vahid bowed his head and said, But, Lord, I spent my life serving my brethren. With all my heart and soul, I loved my brothers and sisters. And as to those whom I treated with far less humanity . . . well Lord, I have a very good historical reason for that.'"

Amanda Enayati is a consultant who lives in Washington.

[note: while the graphics for this piece have not been included, the following captions explain what they originally were.]


These images are from a 1993 book called "Irangeles: Iranians in Los Angeles" (University of California Press), about the complexity of Iranian life in a city that is home to a sizable proportion of America's immigrant populations.

@CAPTION: Iranian Student Group dance at UCLA, 1987.

@CAPTION: At an anti-Iranian rally at the Los Angeles Coliseum during the hostage crisis in 1979.

@CAPTION: Daughter and mother at a Persian New Year's picnic near Irvine, Calif. Two weeks after the new year, Iranian families celebrate in the country and toss away their containers of grass, which are part of the new year tradition.(One is playfully perched atop the young woman's head.)

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