As part and parcel of having an Iranian background in this country, anxiety follows me every time a mass shooting occurs. I check the news constantly and with unease. Is the shooter Muslim or from a Muslim-majority country? Do they have an Islamic-sounding name or “look”?
As we approached the November 2016 presidential election, I witnessed a temporary change in that role. This time, it was my American colleagues who were clinging to the news, talking about despotism, sexism, xenophobia and nepotism — not “over there” but on the United States’ political stage.
Being in a department of sociology, of course, such aspects of American life are often discussed. But this time, my colleagues claimed, was different. As the dread of Trump’s victory in the election became more present, silence overpowered those fearful whispers, and after the election, a trauma discourse surfaced. The university president, international student services administrators and colleagues sent out emails that offered support for the traumatizing experience of Trump’s victory. While the campaign had been trying, they said, and the result of the election was alarming, university leaders were here to protect “our” values of multiculturalism and diversity.
For the first time, it was not me who was held accountable for being a member of “that” culture. I did not have to worry about apologizing for terrorist attacks. Nobody asked me how I felt about fundamentalism. Yet all that was not a relief. I knew from the presidential campaign speeches that I remained a target. In academic circles and across news media outlets, however, what surprised me was the talk of trauma and shock — two realities that are well linked in my own experience, but I did not find them meaningful or applicable to this context.
To me, President Trump seemed simply the next U.S. politician in a line of many powerful Western figures who caused massive death and destruction, and thus postelection trauma discourse did not resonate with my trauma. I was born one week before Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, beginning the Iran-Iraq war that shaped the first eight years of my life. Some memories are sharper than others: the sounds of air-raid sirens; blackouts, followed by weeping parents and children; peers that never returned to my classroom; maimed or dead bodies of soldiers and civilians; and dehumanizing anti-Arab propaganda on Iranian TV.
Another memory is firmly planted in my mind. Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, shook hands with Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration. I remember Saddam’s support from regional “despotic” allies, as well as Western “democracies” — France, Germany, England, the United States, Argentina and Canada. Based on those memories, Trump’s election was no surprise, and talk of trauma did not make sense to me.
The atrocities of U.S. empire have been constant, even under Democratic-majority regimes. Thus, I believe educators have a responsibility to wake students up beyond this moment. As a person born in Iran, it is not an easy task for me to make this political point. It generally takes time to gain the trust of students who view me as coming from the land of the enemy — someone with little right to criticize the United States and who should be thankful for being in the “Land of the Free.”
Trump has spared me a certain amount of work in my classes. The election result removed the burden of proof from my shoulders as a person from the Middle East. For me, Trump’s overt xenophobia, sexism, racism and nepotism are a springboard to explore the roots of structural inequalities. As an educator under President Obama, I worked hard to see beyond his charm and charisma and teach my students about the ban that he had already placed on a few Muslim-majority countries. I agonized to explain how Obama created deportation camps, that he legalized the use of drones, which killed hundreds of innocent people in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. I struggled to unveil how, beneath Obama’s passive rhetoric right before the 2016 election, he condoned the construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline through indigenous lands by stating, “We’re going to let it play out for several more weeks.” Trump has spared me this struggle.
While I connect my experience with the U.S. empire, both overseas and here, to the nature of white supremacy and the distinct experiences of indigenous populations, Afro-descendants, Latinx folks and Asians, just to name a few, that connection is not obvious to my students. Obama’s rhetoric and performance in a “postracial” United States made it hard to reveal his involvement in heinous acts and to explain to my students that the United States has never been colorblind.
Trump, however, emerged with a white supremacist language, open misogyny, a Confederate flag and a jingoist approach. The new political setting, in addition to removing the burden of proof from my shoulders, has urged my students to ask questions and seek answers. It has given me the opportunity to address those questions from a historical and sociological perspective. I was not the center of attention; I was not “the cause.” Although the travel ban affected me, and the language against my country of origin became more belligerent, I was not to blame. I did not have to walk through the corridors of academe with my head down or prove my civility and competence.
After this political blow, Hurricane Irma hit Florida and Maria hit Puerto Rico in the summer of 2017. Those disasters, next to Trump’s pejorative discourse about aid, provided a window for me to open up the chapters of history in which Puerto Rico became the capitalist display of development while impoverished Puerto Ricans were forced to move to the mainland only to be framed, alongside African-Americans in the post-civil rights movement era, as lazy — as people who don’t work and live on food stamps.
I have the opportunity to make connections across time and space to reveal the nature of the world system and colonialism. The Muslim ban made it possible for me discuss the Spanish Inquisition, the first massive slave revolts, which put a ban on introducing Muslims to the Americas, and the similarities between the Palmer raids, Japanese internment and the post-Sept. 11 backlash. The anti-black rhetoric enabled me to talk about historical lynching in oft-romanticized California, Jim Crow laws in the South and institutional segregation in the North. It served as an opportunity to talk with my students about the Civil War, the Confederacy, the “take a knee” controversy— about slavery and prison labor, about NAFTA and Trump’s “wall.”
In these conditions, I draw on theories of people of color instead of only the white men and Eurocentric scholarship that has been canonized as the foundation of sociology in the United States. I could see us from our own eyes. I introduced Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin to my students. If there is nothing progressive about the election, it still is a wake-up call for some of my students and a new opportunity to unearth the historical roots of United States today. Although the world has become increasingly dangerous, the new administration has made a lot of Americans ask questions, reflect and search for answers. Educators can seize this opportunity to raise awareness and destabilize the status quo in the hope of creating a more just world.