If the past month is any indication, Senator Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) just doesn’t get it. He's supported men who are accused of sexual assault (fighting furiously to move forward the confirmation of now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh), and waved his subscription to the Old Boys Club in our faces with his contempt for women, and on top of all that, I believe he just proved he is a racist bigot in the most casual of ways.
On Tuesday, Graham made an appearance on Fox & Friends to discuss Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D–Mass.) recent DNA tests proving she has Native American ancestry—an already racially sensitive topic due to the tokenization of indigenous people for political gain. In banter back and forth with the hosts about his plan to also take a DNA test, Graham said it would be “like, terrible” if the results showed he had Iranian heritage.
The senator said these words on live television, encouraging the already conservative audience to go forth with their biases and micro-aggressions against “eye-rain-ians.” While many instances of bias usually need to be decoded, this one was pretty straightforward.
When Graham says being Iranian is, “like, terrible," it sounds to me like he's saying he is better because he is white. It’s a loud and clear reminder that no matter how successful and accomplished I—an Iranian American woman—become, how American I may feel, I am still considered a minority in this country. And now, because my parents are also Iranian, I’m “terrible.”
Not that there is much to be expected from a white South Carolinian man whose comments in the past have highlighted white male anxiety and privilege. (In a speech, he once said that white men in male-only spaces would do great under a Graham presidency.) But it must be said that this insult stands to retraumatize Iranian-Americans and even those who follow Islam. Graham's comment was a play on the same Islamophobia the President dabbles in, and in the larger scheme, the kind that demonized anyone from the Middle East after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
For me, that phobia hit home. I remember it very clearly. I went to the same predominantly white, Southern school from kindergarten until I graduated high school—the one Iranian American Muslim student. With my dark curls and impossible-to-pronounce name, I never felt I belonged. I got picked on for my thick brows and the homemade lunches my mom lovingly packed. And after 9/11, I was constantly asked if I was a terrorist. I was only 11 years old.
Like most middle schoolers, I just wanted to fit in. I made it a mission to whitewash myself by straightening my hair until it was damaged and dressing in the same preppy clothes my classmates owned. It still wasn’t enough. I remember begging my parents to give me an American name, one that my teachers wouldn’t butcher after awkwardly pausing on the roster. They would answer, “You have the most beautiful name; it means liberty, freedom. You are free.” I didn’t feel free. There was this deeply rooted anxiety I felt every single morning I walked into school. By the end of high school, I was tired of minimizing myself. Realizing I wouldn’t have to see these people who had traumatized me for years, I stopped trying to hide who I was and slowly reconnected with my roots. I eventually made it to New York and pursued my master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University. The first line to my admissions essay was from the late travel writer, producer, and chef Anthony Bourdain: "I am so confused. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Of all the places, of all the countries, all the years of traveling, it’s here in Iran that I am greeted most warmly by total strangers."
I have been able to stay focused and compartmentalize how I react to news that personally affects me—the Muslim travel ban, controversial Supreme Court nominations, the disregard of climate change, and of course, threats to silence the free press. But it wasn’t until I saw Graham’s comments on my Twitter timeline that something triggered inside me. That same anxious feeling that haunted me in the school halls crept back. I cried as I listened to those words, and I cry as I write this now. In an instant, I felt so belittled and powerless. These are the same comments I heard for years, in the same accent no less, from my classmates. I felt even sadder thinking about all the other Azadehs out there who are hiding from their roots because they’re ostracized for something they can’t control. For being an American who looks different from Graham.
I actually agree with Graham: It would be terrible for someone on his level of ignorant bigotry and racism to be Iranian. But on the bright side, his time is running out. He makes these comments out of ignorance and fear that an intolerant America will not endure. And he’s right. There is a new generation of young voters coming in and an outstanding number of fearless women whose votes next month are going to help right the currently failing course of history this great nation is straying on.
Senator Graham, I hope someday soon you decide to take a step forward and get to know one of the undoubtedly incredible Iranian Americans you cross paths with. I hope you realize it’s an honor to come from a rich heritage and become enlightened by our hospitality. Most of all, I hope you realize that any bad leadership you may be referencing in Iran does not speak for us or our values—just as our current administration here doesn't speak for the majority of great Americans in this country.
You shouldn't throw stones if you live in a glass house.
Azadeh Valanejad is a writer and video producer at Glamour. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @azaxdeh.