Ethnic Identity Formation in Iranian-Americans

The majority of Iranians emigrated to the Unites States and Europe as a result of the 1979 revolution in Iran. Due to the major political and religious upheaval brought on by the Islamic regime, many individuals, especially religious minorities fled Iran fearing imprisonment and persecution. Most of the Iranians who came to the United Sates and settled in Southern California were of the upper-middle to upper-class elites of Iran (Hojat, et al., 2000).

Although there is no consensus on the exact number of Iranians living in the United States, the 1990 census shows that there are at least “1.8 million Iranian-born immigrants living in the United States with 40 percent of the total population living the Los Angeles area” (Bozorgmehr, et al., 1993).

The profile of this group of immigrants is also rather impressive. At least 40% of Iranians in the U.S. hold a college degree, a proportion higher than any other foreign-born ethnic group in the United States. Eighty four percent of those are employed, 51.3 percent are employed in higher white-collar work while 29.1 percent are employed in higher blue-collar work, 19.6 are in blue-collar work and 33.3 percent are self-employed (Bozorgmehr, et al., 1993). However, despite the large number of Iranians living in the United States, published research on their sociocultural adaptations is scarce and they are one of the misunderstood ethnic groups in this country (Hojat, et al., 2000).

This paper will focus on the forming ethnic identity of Iranian immigrants as they become acculturated to living in the Unites States. Specific areas such as gender, number of years out of Iran, the role of the American media, as well as discrimination and prejudice will be looked at more closely to see how these societal elements contribute to forming a new identity as Iranian-Americans. Further, Phinney’s (1996) Ethnic Identity Development Model will be utilized to see if second generation Iranians are shaping and forming a new identity based on the three stages of identity development.

The three stages of Phinney’s identity development include the initial stage, or when ethnicity is first not salient and has been given little conscious thought. Here, the young adolescent, accepts the values and attitudes present in his her environment. Depending on the positive, or negative messages the young person got from the environment, he/she enters adolescence with positive, negative or mixed feelings. The second stage is seen as a period of search or immersion, during which the individuals become deeply interested in knowing more about their group. As young individuals move into a larger world, and encounter more people different from their background they also become more exposed to discrimination and as a result want to learn more and identify with their own ethnic background. At the final stage, minority individuals develop a secure, confident sense of themselves as member of their group. They feel secure in their own ethnicity and are assumed to hold a positive but realistic view of their own group (Phinney, 1996).

Looking at the first stage of identity development, Phinney would surmise that the young Iranian individual is initially culture blind. He/she is born and raised into the native Iranian culture and is not aware of other existing cultures. In the Iranian culture there are certain norms that are quite different from the West. As in most other Eastern cultures, Iranians have strong roots based on patriarchic values. Women are raised to believe that outside of the home, they are second-class citizens compared to the men. They are also brought up with traditional values in regards to dating, marriage and sexuality. An Iranian woman is typically meant to only date men who are potential suitors for marriage and as such there does not exist the concept of having a boyfriend or just dating for the sake of having fun. Most Iranian men and women see this as a norm until they become aware of the differences in the Western culture. By the time they become aware of these discrepancies, the young adults have entered into Phinney’s second stage of identity development.

In a study by Ghaffarian (2001), the author wanted to examine the difference between levels of acculturation between young Iranian men and women living in the United States. Her results showed that Iranian men tend to be significantly more acculturated than Iranian women in all areas other than sex roles and sexuality. In these areas, Iranian women held more modern values than did the men. They were more open to women having jobs outside of the home as well as open to premarital sex for women.

In another study by (Hojat, et. al., 2000) findings also showed that Iranian male immigrants are more likely than their female counterparts to view premarital sex, marriage and the family from a traditional stand prescribed by the Iranian culture.

As far as the level of acculturation in women goes, Hanassab’s (1991) report shows that there is a strong correlation between how young the age of the woman was when she left Iran and her level of acculturation into the Western culture. In other words, the younger the individual was when she left Iran, the more acculturated she is, and the more liberal are her attitudes towards sex roles and intimate relationships.

Considering that the second stage of Phinney’s identity development is about immersion, it is possible to speculate that based on their upbringing, the two genders immerse themselves differently into the host culture. Because Iranian men have traditionally had more rights and privileges to seek higher education, attain better jobs, and interact more with different people out in the world, their ability to acculturate faster into the Western culture makes more sense. On the other hand, upon the discovery of a more modern and egalitarian value system here in the West, Iranian women are more apt to let go of traditional values and upbringing in exchange for more modern ones.

Also, a study by Helms (as cited in Phinney, 1996) shows that sometimes minority group members at the initial stage are likely to show a preference for the White majority culture and in turn, may be deprecating or rejecting of their own culture. Based on this premise, it is possible that some of the more acculturated Iranian women reject their own culture due to the oppressive attitudes held against Iranian women.

Becoming aware and possibly even having encounters with racism and discrimination, young Iranian adults assume different positions with respect to their ethnic identity. Some young adults adhere more closely to Phinney’s second stage of identity development while others tend to abandon their ethnic identity. Those who take on a stronger and more positive attitude towards their own ethnic identity, perhaps become even more ethnocentric. Through an autobiographical approach to study the media in the promotion of acculturation, Keshishian (2000) argues that mass media can play a contradictory role in the process of assimilation while making ethnic pride stronger. While positive portrayal of immigrants can aid in acculturation, negative portrayals can lead to rejection of the host culture. Keshishian herself faced a great deal of discrimination in the United States as a college student during the early 1980’s hostage crisis in Iran. During that time, the media portrayed Iranians in a very negative light, which then instigated a great deal of hostility and prejudice towards Iranians living in the West.

Bakhtiar (1997) also depicts the same grim picture for Iranians during the hostage crisis. She writes, “the process of assimilation was increasingly more difficult during those times…Iranians were often lumped together by the American press and public” further adding to their plight, “many Iranians shopped at night and otherwise avoided people to reduce the threat of physical attack.”
As a result of the hostility, many Iranians flocked together and formed ethnic support systems to promote ethnic pride and a sense of belongingness in the face of such adversity. Keshishian recalls how the campus-based Iranian club helped her feel more supported:

Clearly, we were all experiencing the shock of displacement without even recognizing it. These ethnic interactions eased this shock by helping us feel that we belonged…In this way, we assured one another that we were all going through similar problems and that we belonged to what I call an “on-campus Iran.” This contact gave us moral support and helped us feel somewhat safe and secure and not completely out of place.

During the more recent years with the placement of the Bush administration in power and the president’s “crusade” to tear down the “axis of evil,” Iranians are facing yet another round of racist and discriminatory reactions from the majority culture. Rather than taking on a stronger and a more positive attitude towards their own ethnic identity, many Iranians have instead abandoned their identity. Many have done this by becoming invisible. These individuals have opted to adopt a “white” surface enabling them to more successfully assimilate into the U.S. civic society, regardless of experiences of prejudice and discrimination. Reports by Portes and Rubaut (as cited in Mostofi, 2003) explain that the mobility of many Iranians has been “credited to their ability of ‘acting white.’” Mostofi explains that in the last two decades, Iranians have been steadily utilizing their bodies as a way to uphold the image of a white model minority in the eyes of the majority. She writes, “…Many Iranians have managed to do this through plastic surgery, fake contact lenses, extraordinary diets to the point of anorexia, dyed hair, plucked eyebrows and the removal of body hair.” Also, when filling out her questionnaire, when asked about ethnicity/race, the majority of Iranians marked themselves as “white” or “Caucasian.”

As a result of this relatively new and more radical way of assimilating into the dominant culture, “Iranians have managed to succeed economically. They have been able to use the U.S. economic system of free market, competition and capitalism to their advantage. They have also been able to transfer their education, knowledge and Iranian funds to the United States” (Mostofi, 2003).

However, taking on the role and appearance of the “model white immigrant” makes it difficult from a socio-psychological standpoint to assess or delineate where Iranian immigrants stand today in relation to their ethnic identity. It is possible that while they attempt to portray the image of the successful white person as their outer identity, their inner or core identity is still very much Iranian. However, Mostofi (2003) disagrees, she claims that the settling of Iranians in the diaspora and the taking on a white identity even if it is limited to external appearance, has created a “diasporic identity” leaving Iranians without a true sense of identity or community.

In the final portion of the paper, Phinney’s third stage of Ethnic Identity Development Model will be discussed. In short, Phinney explains that in the final stage, “minority individuals develop a secure, confident sense of themselves as members of the their group. They feel secure in their own ethnicity and are assumed to hold a positive but realistic view of their own group. Although they are comfortable with their group membership, ethnicity may or may not be salient to them; other aspects of their lives may become more important.” She also goes on to say that individuals in this stage no longer hold anger or resentment towards the majority group and are generally open and comfortable with other groups. However, two distinct attitudes are usually formed at this stage. One attitude may be that individuals want to reach out to the majority group in order to build bridges and create positive intergroup relations so that they may work towards common social goals, while the other group of individuals may hold the attitude that minorities are better off becoming self-sufficient within their own communities and therefore the goal is to stay separate but amicable towards other groups.

In comparison to Phinney’s third stage of development, LaFromboise (1993) writes about a Multicultural Model, which is similar in its outcome with Phinney’s third stage of Identity Development. The Multicultural Model is operating when, “an individual can maintain a positive identity as a member of his or her culture of origin while simultaneously developing a positive identity by engaging in complex institutional sharing with the larger political entity comprised of other cultural groups.” Both of these models suggest a healthy integration of different cultures enabling the individual to live successfully amidst the different cultures.

However, without more research available on the Iranian community, it is difficult at this time to determine where members of this community are in terms of Phinney’s third stage of Identity Development or LaFormboise’s Multicultural Development. Currently, there seems to be a split in the consciousness of Iranians when it comes to their identity. They seem to be caught between two worlds; one world that identifies them as a people separate from the West and its values, the other, shows that they have willingly settled and assimilated into the Western culture letting go of some of their traditional heritage while keeping others. Based on the information that is currently available on this group, a majority of them may be adhering more closely to LaFromboise’s acculturation model. The acculturation model is similar to the assimilation model except that the individual, while becoming a competent participant in the majority culture, will always be identified as a member of the minority culture.

However, Mostofi (2003) disagrees that at this time there is any sense of cohesion contributing to a presence of a viable community. She writes that, “Iranians are one example of an immigrant group in the United States who simultaneously identify with their ethnic characteristics and American civic nationalism based on American notions of liberalism democracy and laws—proving the possibility of their coexistence.” However, these characteristics do not mean much in terms of an identity when there is no actual community in the first place. She also writes, “Mixing traditional Iranian customs with new American political ideologies has created an Iranian-American identity that has nothing to do with the creation of a community—or lack thereof.” According to Touraine (as cited in Mostofi, 2003), in order for a group of people to be considered community, they must have a certain internal organization and the ability to make representations to the authorities.

Park and Stonequist (as cited in LaFromboise, 1993) explain that this split in consciousness or “the simultaneous awareness of oneself as being a member and an alien of two or more cultures” creates a sense of marginality, which leads to a divided self and subsequently to psychological conflict. Based on the high number of divorce rates and family disruptions in Iranian homes in the United States, it is possible that one of the main contributing factors of conflict between first and second generation Iranians is due to the problems caused by this split in consciousness. However, more studies need to be done to show correlation and/or cause and effect of this split.

In conclusion, this paper attempted to identify the current existing identity of the many Iranian immigrants living in the Unites States according to Phinney’s (1996) Identity Development Model. The three stages in Phinney’s model were examined to see whether Iranian immigrants living in the West adhere to these stages in order to have a better understanding of who they are as a people today. It seems that while Iranians have adopted the first two stages of identity development, they are having difficulty integrating the third stage. In fact, there seems to be a resulting split in the consciousness of most Iranian-Americans making it difficult to have a more intact sense of self. Torn between two existing cultures, this identity confusion seems to be an important contributing factor towards mental illness. Therefore, having a better understanding of this split should help practitioners have greater awareness about the nature of conflict faced by many Iranians, allowing them to then offer more appropriate therapeutic interventions.

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