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U of T’s Neda Maghbouleh explores culture, identity and discrimination in new book about Iranian-Americans

Neda Maghbouleh's new book explores the conflicting parts of the Iranian-American identity (photo by Romi Levine)

When President Donald Trump introduced an executive order barring people from six majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S., it was further confirmation for Neda Maghbouleh of what she learned from years spent researching her latest book The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race.

“The people it affected the most proportionately were Iranians and it was precisely because of the predicament I'm describing in the book,” says Maghbouleh, an assistant professor in the department of sociology at University of Toronto Mississauga.

The Limits of Whiteness explores the grey area where Iranian-Americans exist – they’re legally categorized as white but socially and culturally are often excluded and discriminated against, she says.

To get a real understanding of what it’s like to be an Iranian-American, Maghbouleh interviewed and shadowed 84 young people living across the United States whose parents were born in Iran.

“I was interested in knowing more about the nitty-gritty of everyday life,” she says. “There was so little written about Iranians and I was in the field with my ears open to try to see what were the salient issues.”

Maghbouleh is a second-generation Iranian-American – her parents moved to New York City, where she was born, in the 1980s and currently live in Portland, Ore. Because her family is from Iran, she found people were more willing to open up to her.

“There was a lot of generosity and goodwill that got built in because of the sense we have a shared identity,” she says.

Through the interviews, she found that Iranian-American teens, many of whom were growing up in mostly white, upper middle class neighbourhoods, were facing discrimination because of their cultural background.

“Young people were reporting bullying and exclusion and it was really creating a moment where they had to soul search.”

Maghbouleh wanted the book to be a way for the teens she interviewed to better understand their conflicting identities. “I thought there isn't anything there yet for them to help make sense of this.”

It was thanks to social media, Maghbouleh says, that she was able to connect with and keep in touch with so many Iranian-American teens.

“That was the primary way in which people wanted to arrange interviews, make plans to meet up,” she says. “That we connected and maintained our conversations throughout the course of the project that way means that they are still people in my life.

“They're people who supported me and informed me and shaped the sociologist I became but they are fully integrated now into my life.”