Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Dr. Neda Maghbouleh

“As a sociologist, I think I am always running toward, rather than from taboo. It’s where the good stuff is, and where the learning happens,” said Dr. Neda Maghbouleh when I asked where the ideas originated for her groundbreaking book, The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race (Stanford University Press, 2017). Maghbouleh, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto, will be one of the keynote speakers at the “Forty Years & More: International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies” March 28-30th, 2019, at San Francisco State University. Her book traces the history of race among Iranians in diaspora and, for many of us it’s a breath of fresh air to read. It shatters taboos and offers a new vocabulary for understanding some of the complex feelings many Iranian Americans have about where they fit in in the U.S., and what they’ve been told about Iran.

Since her undergraduate days, Maghbouleh has been interested in the ambiguities of race among Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) communities. Her book poses a question many of us have wondered about: are Iranian Americans really white? In The Limits of Whiteness, Maghbouleh explores the ways that Iranians fit and do not fit in the conventional racial and ethnic categories in the United States over the past hundred years. As part of her research for the book, she shadowed over 80 young Iranian Americans and delved into overlooked archives to stake out “the unique experience of an immigrant group trapped between legal racial invisibility and everyday racial hypervisibility.”

the limits of whiteness book cover Like the interview I conducted with Dr. Beeta Baghoolizadeh (see the Iranian Diaspora Spotlight with her) Maghbouleh echoes an important philosophy about how she approaches her work: “It can be challenging to figure out how to motivate a project so it makes the strongest possible scholarly impact. It can be challenging, too, to make our work matter to people who aren’t familiar with Iran, or with Iranians in diaspora. But I was also dead-set on making this a book Iranian Americans outside academia could see themselves in,” she adds. “So for me, the trick was figuring out the more universal sociological ‘knot,’ and to marshal very, very specific details in service of untangling the knot,” says Maghbouleh. “I knew I wouldn’t hold back from including every bit of ‘Pinglish,’ every insider nuance.”

Maghbouleh’s book not only uncovers racism faced by Iranian Americans but also takes stock of how the community has been complicit and active in the maintenance of racism too. Following the lead of mentors like Black Studies scholar George Lipsitz, she was compelled to provide a frank account of Iranians’ relationship to race and power: “Twenty years ago, [Lipsitz] wrote this line, which has stuck with me: ‘we do not choose our color, but we do choose our commitments. We do not choose our parents, but we do choose our politics.’” So for Maghbouleh, “Iranians in the U.S. have to understand not only where we stand and where we have stood, but from this moment forward, who will we stand beside?”

Maghbouleh is an amazing representation of a new wave of Iranian diaspora academics, in that she thinks like an academic but moves with the passion and decisiveness of an activist. The piece of writing she is most proud of is an Op-Ed she wrote for the Toronto Star in March 2014. A Malaysia Airlines flight had disappeared into thin air, and at the time, the media was running with the story that two Iranians, who appeared to have been on the flight with doctored travel documents, were terrorists who’d hijacked the plane. In the hours before going to the hospital to give birth to her daughter, Maghbouleh wrote the Op-Ed fast and with great passion. “It was a ridiculous claim because every bit of evidence suggested these young men were refugees who, like a half-billion displaced people around the world, were fighting to stay alive by taking incredible risks to leave homes ravaged by environmental, economic, and political warfare.” Maghbouleh saw her piece in the newspaper the next morning, “which was also my first-ever time waking up with my daughter beside me.” Maghbouleh underscores that she feels “great urgency to counter deception and manipulation with powerful evidence and stories.”

Her groundbreaking research is a major first step in complicating some of the narratives that are spun about Iranian Americans by others, and the myths that we sometimes tell ourselves. Although her first major project centered on Iranians, Maghbouleh’s interest lies in the “general mechanisms behind the social categories and boundaries we draw, and their meaning.” She is currently drafting a major paper based on an experimental survey on race in the U.S that she and two co-authors fielded over the past summer. The team essentially asked survey respondents to sort people based on hypothetical information into the ethno-racial categories proposed as the revision to the 2020 Census. “Our goal with this project is to shed new light on the ‘rules’ of race today. In a time of racist bans, borders, and walls, and where we see extremely high levels of political partisanship, some of the rules may prove intractable, and others might change.” She is also the lead researcher on the RISE (Refugee Integration, Stress, and Equity) Team, a community-based project with Syrian refugee mothers and teenagers in Toronto. “It’s a huge endeavour, with almost half a million dollars of funding and many moving parts, including the fact that our face-to-face research is conducted entirely in Arabic!” she says, noting that the five-year longitudinal study would be impossible if not for a multigenerational team that includes ten Arab Canadian research assistants and two faculty co-investigators.

While these new projects have been taken up in the fifteen months since The Limits of Whiteness was released, she continues to receive daily correspondence from readers of the book. Most recently, she heard from a Greek volunteer working with queer and trans refugees at Lesvos who left a copy of Limits of Whiteness with a young Iranian who wanted to read the book and pass it along to others in the camp. “People I’ve never met before are bulk-purchasing and passing it out to family members, cousins, parents… giving it out as Christmas gifts, or as Kickstarter incentives for their own creative projects. The reception has been honestly jaw-dropping.” Maghbouleh’s book has not only validated the experiences of so many first and second generation Iranians who have struggled with our racial and ethnic identities, but she’s also given many of us the language to describe our experiences. We are so excited to have her join us for our conference “Forty Years & More: International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies” this upcoming March 28-30th, 2019! For a full list of speakers and the conference schedule, go to: https://ids.sfsu.edu/conference.