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Comment | Getting Recognized the Right Way: What Iranian Americans Can Learn


03 May 2012 02:56Comments

From the "clown phase" to "The Godfather," other immigrant experiences have a lot to teach.

Amir Bagherpour leads a public policy research initiative at the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA). He is cofounder of PAAIA NexGen, a group dedicated to developing the next generation of Iranian American leaders. The first Iranian-born graduate of West Point, he recently completed his Ph.D. at Claremont Graduate University in political science with a focus in international relations.
[ diaspora ] Establishing an identity that is part of the broad American mainstream does not take place overnight. Assimilation rarely happens without significant challenges for the first- and second-generation members of immigrant communities. Iranian Americans follow here in the footsteps of many other successful immigrants such as the Italian, Irish, and Hispanic Americans, each of whom are now woven into the cultural tapestry of this country.

The way these communities are depicted in the mass media is a measure of their assimilation into American society. In a widely cited analysis published in 1969, communications scholar Cedric C. Clark argued that minority groups go through four stages of representation in the media:

* non-recognition -- in which the group's existence is not acknowledged by the dominant media;

* ridicule -- in which certain minority characters are portrayed as being lazy, silly, irrational, or simply laughable;

* recognition -- in which certain minority characters are portrayed as being dominant or enforcers of the group's norms; and

* respect -- in which the minority group is portrayed in the same manner as any other group

According to Clark, these stages are part of a minority population's overall evolution within American culture.

Communication scholars often point to the 1972 release of the film version of The Godfather as a pivotal moment in Italian Americans' achievement of recognition and eventual respect. The film thrust the Italian American experience into the American mainstream. Director Francis Ford Coppola transformed a story about organized crime, with all its deplorable facets, into a film that captures the beauty of Italian culture through the journey of an Italian family striving to attain the American Dream. According to film analyst Tom Santopietro, "The Godfather was a turning point in American cultural consciousness. With its emphasis on proud ethnicity, it changed not just the way Italian Americans saw themselves, but how Americans of all background viewed their individual and national self-identities, their possibilities, and attendant disappointments."

Recognition of Iranian Americans has not yet occurred as it did it for Italian Americans with The Godfather. But they are on their way. With its caricaturization of Iranian Americans as shallow self-absorbed dilettantes, Bravo's reality show Shahs of Sunset provides mainstream America a new image of Iranians: not as crazed revolutionary Islamists, but as harmless buffoons. Iranian Americans have effectively entered Clark's ridicule stage of representation -- more colloquially known as the "clown phase" of the immigrant experience -- a period in which the group's members are no longer feared by mainstream America as untrustworthy and potentially dangerous, but are instead ridiculed and humiliated for others' amusement.

In actuality, of course, Iranian Americans fit neither the religious zealot nor the ignorant clown stereotype. In spite of the fact that Iran is currently ruled by a theocratic government, Iranian Americans are significantly less religious than the broader American public. The most recent PEW Research Center study on religion indicates that only 5 percent of Americans are either agnostic or atheist; according to polls conducted by Zogby Research Services for the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), the analogous rate among Iranian Americans is double that. They are also among the most successful and well-educated populations in the United States, with numerous individuals highly regarded for their contributions to American business and culture.

Nonetheless, according to one PAAIA-commissioned Zogby survey, one third of Americans are not familiar with an Iranian American; indeed, more Americans indicate that they are familiar with the Iranian government than with someone of Iranian origin. This suggests that their impressions are in large part formed by media reports on Iran. Until recently, Iranian Americans were rarely if ever represented on television in anything other than news-driven shows. Iranian American actors have often been cast as Middle Eastern characters from other countries. And the few Iranian American characters who have appeared in movies such as House of Sand and Fog were largely unsympathetic.

In sum, Iranian Americans were long buried in the non-recognition phase of Clark's schema. The Iranian movie A Separation, winner of the 2012 Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, marked one of the first instances in which American audiences of any size saw the Iranian people depicted in a sympathetic manner, coping with issues very like those faced by many American households. Although the film surely improves the image of Iranians generally in the eyes of Americans, it still does not provide that missing image of Iranian Americans as members of the mainstream in their adopted land.

So what is next for Iranian Americans? Like the many immigrants who came before, we too must evolve to the stage of self-realization, in which we can regulate our own image. We are headed in the right direction. Ten years ago, there were no national organizations that could effectively promote a positive image of the Iranian American community. Today there is PAAIA, to which I belong, a national organization devoted to improving the image of Iranian Americans. As part of this effort, PAAIA has supported an upcoming PBS documentary portraying some of the many accomplishments of the community's members, titled The Iranian Americans.

Iranian Americans must continue to move forward from where we are to where we have never been: a stage where we can tell a story that captures our experiences and values in a dignified fashion. If Coppola could make a film about the admirable values of Italian Americans in the backdrop of a crime story, then it is not too much to imagine that Iranian Americans can one day provide their narrative in a way that is compelling to the broader society. Beset by revolution, war, and tyranny, more than one million Iranian Americans now make the United States their home. So many of us have left our homeland in pursuit of the American Dream. And the dream is still with us.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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