Earlier this year, Associate Professor of Integrative Studies Roksana Alavi released her new book, Iranian Identity, American Experience: Philosophical Reflection on Race, Rights, Capabilities and Oppression. In it, she breaks from the usual philosophical discussions of race to focus on Iranian Americans, a community that faces its own unique forms of oppression in the U.S and one to which Alavi personally belongs.
We recently spoke to Alavi about why she wrote the book and how oppression—both subtle and overt—has a lasting impact on the communities that bear the brunt of it.
Why did you choose to explore the Iranian American experience in your book? Is there something unique about their perspective compared to other immigrant populations?
Every community has its own unique characteristics and points of view. Until most recently, the dialogue on race in philosophy has been focused around black and white dichotomy. I wanted to bring the Iranian American community, which is my community, to this dialogue. Also, the Iranian American community is generally more educated than other immigrant communities and more affluent than the general population. It might seem to some that our community does not suffer from the harms of oppression.
How does the theory of oppression you developed for this book address/explore the oppression that Iranian Americans experience in the U.S.?
When we think of oppression, we usually think of obvious cases of physical harm or legal marginalization of people. Oppression does not need an oppressor, nor does it have to be physical. In my view, four criteria have to be met for “X” to be classified as oppression. These four criteria are an amended list given by Ann Cudd. They are: (1) the harm is inflicted on a person due to their group members, (2) harm is committed by a privileged group on another group because of their group membership, (3) the group that is committing harm must benefit from the harm committed and (4) the harm is systematic.
I define “harm” as violation of one’s capabilities. Capabilities are things that people can do and be. When those are violated due to one’s membership, I argue that it is oppressive. The list of capabilities includes the basic physical need of health and wellbeing. Then there are capabilities that we have as human beings, and those include being engaged in our community, living happily, having friends, getting engaged with politics, etc.
When we define harm as a violation of liberty, as I do, then if the social structure is set so it is not safe for us to have affiliations outside of the Iranian American community—or we are discouraged to get socially engaged because we are Iranian Americans—that’s oppression.
In my book, I explore a theory of oppression that can account for these cases of oppression.
What were the most interesting/surprising things that you found during the course of writing the book?
I was surprised to experience the amount of discomfort that I experienced while writing about my experience as an Iranian American woman. It was hard to both confront the divisions in our community, analyze the moral implications of family and friends who are white-passing and learn more about the history of Iranian Americans since the 1979 hostage crisis, which has been the wallpaper in the lives of all Iranian immigrants regardless of their immigration or integration status.
Can the things you discovered when looking at the Iranian American perspective be applied to other immigrant populations in the U.S.? Are there specific differences that need to be uniquely addressed with/for each immigrant group?
Immigrant communities have some things in common, and that is their immigration process, but given the immigration status, socio-economic status, level of education, fluency of language, family situation, gender, race and religion—among other things—everyone has a different experience.
Some people immigrate by their own choice. Others are refugees or escaped some oppressive situation. I suspect some have similar kinds of experiences, but not others. A white Christian teen immigrant from England will have a very different experience than I did when I was a teen and immigrated from Iran over three decades ago.
What do you see as the next step in creating a better understanding of immigrant experiences among the wider American population?
People need to feel like we belong. We don’t leave our home, family, friends, jobs, grandparents, etc., and immigrate to a place where we have no community and do not speak the language. We leave our home because it has become unbearable. We left due to the oppressive nature of Iranian government, the ongoing war between Iran/Iraq and the limited opportunities for women and girls.
The acculturation is a painful process. Living on a bridge between two worlds (in my case, one Iranian, one American) is dizzying and, initially, very confusing. I heard someone say, “just because I speak with an accent, doesn’t mean that I think with one,” and that really resonates with me.
What do you hope someone who reads your book takes away from it?
The book is a multidisciplinary study of race, rights, capabilities and also a phenomenological analysis of my own experiences. There are philosophical concepts that I hope would contribute to the field of philosophy in the topic I mentioned above. I hope by understanding the nature of oppression, we are in a better place to address injustices, not just in our community, but in all communities that experience oppression.
Copies of Iranian Identity, American Experience: Philosophical Reflection on Race, Rights, Capabilities and Oppression can be purchased online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or can ordered from your preferred local retailer.
For information about the Diversity track in OU’s Master of Arts with a Major in Integrative Studies program, visit the College of Professional and Continuing Studies website at pacs.ou.edu.