“You don’t look Iranian, you look white. I’m just surprised.”
How many times have I heard those words said to me when I’m asked where my name comes from.
I was born in Iran. My father is Iranian and my mother is white English. My family emigrated to Canada from Iran via England when I was 4 years old.
So I was young enough when I got to Canada to assimilate into Canadian culture, adopting the accent, the mannerisms and the language to present myself as white to my peers.
But something about describing myself as ‘white Canadian’ has never and will never sit right with me. Because my experience was never like my peers. Because my experience has always been mixed.
I remember being told once by my best friend, ‘your house always smells like exotic food’. Childhood memories are filled with big family gatherings, relatives all speaking Farsi, special occasions like the Persian New Year filled with feasting and big Iranian community parties. We were a classic immigrant family in all senses of the word. My English Mum had learned- from her 10 years spent in Iran early on- how to cook Iranian food and most nights, our table overflowed with rice and Persian stews smelling of pomegranate and sour cherries.
Don’t get me wrong. I hated being different, constantly searching for ways that I could easily pass into white culture if I needed to. Wanting desperately for my father not to speak with his thick accent in front of my teachers or shout too loud at my soccer games.
That’s the thing with being mixed though. Our experience can sometimes betray our appearance and how we’d like to present to the world. Then, throw in the fact that how we understand ourselves can often be in direct conflict with how others understand us.
Identity is about understanding your place in the world. ‘Feeling’ one identity, more than another because of how you were raised or where you grew up can sometimes not resonate with what you look like so it leads to internal struggles with identity.
When I’m confronted with the question, “what are you?”, I honestly don’t know how to answer. To lay claim to an identity that is symbolised by its language (most of which I know very little) and appearance, I often feel like a fraud identifying myself as Iranian. I feel like I need permission to sit at the ‘mixed’ table and I’m conflicted that I don’t have the colour to back up my feeling that I am mixed.
And yet, to say I am ‘white’ feels disloyal and untrue to the parts of me that have been exposed to immigration, racism, Iranian culture and food.
Sometimes it is not about choosing one identity over another. My preference is to straddle multiple spheres, knowing I don’t exactly fit in when I’m amongst the Iranian community doesn’t make it any easier when I’m around white English folk.
I feel like society wants me to pick one. To box me politely into what they think I shouldbe based on my appearance and how I behave. Why can’t I be multiple things at the same time? I wonder.
My friends have always been foreign. I’ve somehow gravitated towards others who have a similar experience- whether they’re African, European or Mixed, I’ve always found things in common with those who have experienced ‘other’.
My husband and children have made my identity journey even more complex whereby my husband is Nigerian, and my 3 daughters are being raised half Nigerian, Iranian and English.
But their appearance suggests they are black or Biracial and whether there’s space in there for them to identify as anything but that, will be an essential part of their story. The thing that makes them ‘stand out’, their colour, is what will be notable to others. So even if they wanted to identify as white, they probably couldn’t.
As they grow, like other multiracial black and white mixed people, the fraught history between black and white will make for mental and emotional struggles. And it can become intensely personal. Allying yourself with your ‘black side’ can be partly a way of gaining solidarity with a community. It certainly was for me in high school and eventually University where I embraced my Iranian-ness but was only allowed a half- membership. I wanted desperately to find my belonging.
Our appearance as mixed people can tell a story entirely different to the one we’ve experienced. I remember wishing and wanting darker skin so that my ‘claim’ to being Iranian didn’t feel so disingenuous. My siblings, both with darker skin colour and perhaps more Iranian features have a different story to tell.
Of course there’s privilege to blending in and invisibility. Ambiguity allows you to flirt with many identities and cultures and to use those identities interchangeably.
The debates about mixed people being caught in the in-between and ‘confused’ have thankfully moved on. But is the response just that it’s multi-faceted? Will it ever be possible to be black/mixed and white at the same time?