Since February, Babayi [Nadia Babayi], a U.S. Census Bureau partnership specialist, has been making the rounds at Iranians’ events, handing out fliers, making pitches and allaying fears in both English and Persian.
Her efforts are part of a first-of-its-kind outreach campaign urging Iranian Americans to specifically identify themselves as Iranian, instead of some other ethnic category, in the 2010 census.
But in June the campaign received an unexpected boost when millions around the world turned out to protest the disputed reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Outraged expatriates and Iranian Americans suddenly found themselves alongside non-Persians at demonstrations.
The opposition green movement may have failed to achieve its goal of political change, but it prompted much of the world to rally behind Iranian people in their struggle for reform.
“It has created a sea change in the way Americans view Iranians,” said Reza Aslan, author of “How to Win a Cosmic War,” who moved to the U.S. from Iran in 1979. “No doubt about it, it’s now cool to be Iranian.”
After the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, many Iranian Americans and expatriates chose to keep a low profile in what some saw as a hostile environment. The 1991 film “Not Without My Daughter” was blamed for helping to cast a negative light on Iranian men. Starring Sally Field, it depicted an American woman and her daughter fleeing Iran and an abusive husband. And in 2002, then-President Bush declared Iran a member of the “Axis of Evil.”
Members of the community point to a number of reasons for the low count, including fear that cooperation with the census could lead to immigration or tax problems.
Some may have also been hesitant to identify themselves as Iranian or were unaware that they could.
Iranians are labeled white by the U.S. government and in 2000 Suzi Khatami, a producer and host with Radio Iran, didn’t know she could categorize herself as anything else on the race question by making the category “other” or writing in Iranian American or Iranian.
Aslan, who grew up in Northern California, said he spent the 1980s or ’90s telling people he was Mexican. Others said they were Italian or Persian.
Jobrani [comedian and actor Maz Jobrani], who is on a comedy tour called “Brown & Friendly,” said it wasn’t until he reached high school that he realized that some of his countrymen were trying to hide behind the term Persian.