Racist Against Ourselves: The Negative Impact of Ethnic Jokes
By: Danyal Lotfi
* Danyal Lotfi is a university student in Washington State. He has participated in IAAB’s Summer Leadership Institutes as both a student and as a counselor.
I’m sure most of you have heard of the typical Iranian jokes that are exchanged at family gatherings, between friends and neighbors. Have you ever paid attention to the content of these jokes? Who are they referring to? To us, Iranians. But they are always targeting a certain ethnic minority. These jokes usually entail stories of how Turks/Azeris are dumb, Gilaks have no honor, Lurs are stupid, and so on.
What most people don’t realize when they share such jokes is how brutally they are hurting the identity of their brothers and sisters from all across Iran. No, Turks/Azeris are not dumb. Have you ever heard of a man named Sattar Khan? He was Azeri and one of the key players in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in early twentieth century, who with the help of Bagher Khan became the leader of the Constitutional rebels in Tabriz and later on in most of Iran.
You think Gilaks have no “honor”? Well, let me introduce you to Mirza Kuchik Khan, who was another leader during the Constitutional Revolution and who fought for quite a few years against the outside forces (Russian and British) who were controlling the capital at the time. Let’s not forget about Karim Khan Zand, a Lur, who in the 18th century, saved Iran from the chaos of the civil war. The list doesn’t end there. It goes on and on, giving us reasons to be respectful towards minorities within Iran and celebrate these minorities and what each of us bring to the table.
Today, there is much talk about racism against Iranians across the globe. However, when I sit at an Iranian gathering, whether it’s with family or friends, and I hear such offensive jokes, whether it’s targeting my own ethnicity or my friend’s ethnicity as a Turk, a Gilak, a Lur, or any other minority, I’m suddenly less worried about racism against Iranians from the outside world and much more concerned about racism within our own Iranian community.
Most people never really think about the impact of these jokes when they share them. To them, it’s “just a joke, and no one should take it personally.” But think about what we’re asking others when we say such a thing and make ethnic jokes. We are directly humiliating them and part of their identity. How do we expect others not to be offended when we deliberately hurt them and part of who they are?
In order to fight against racism against Iranians across the world, we must first look to ourselves and our community and see what kind of a message we’re sending to outsiders. When we can’t even respect human beings with diverse ethnic backgrounds within our own community, how do we, as Iranians, expect other nationalities to respect us?
When I was growing up, I was always the source of jokes in my family. It almost became a tradition in our family, where every time we had a family gathering everyone would be asking me for the “newest jokes in the market.” And I was always ready to give them the funniest and newest ethnic jokes I had heard. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I began to realize the true impact of these jokes. The ethnic stereotypes mentioned above had been repeated in my head so many times that my brain was starting to believe them. When I had that awakening about the impact of these jokes, I began thinking about why such jokes are so popular in our culture. Dr. Kaveh Farrokh, a history professor at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division, says the following regarding the origin of ethnic jokes in the early twentieth century in Iran:
“The Russians (and British) were very concerned with a cultural dynamic in Iran that could lead to the rise of a modern and progressive state. The Russians and English were especially concerned with the leadership role that northern Iranians (e.g. Azeris, Rashtis, etc.) had played in Iran’s democratic movement of the early 1900s. It would appear that the united nature of the constitutional movement in which Azeri, Bakhtiari, Mazandarnai, Mashahdi, etc. fought side by side in the name of a democratic, progressive and modern Iran was not palatable to the distinguished policy makers in Moscow and London. A means had to be found to divide the Iranians and dissolve their historical bonds.
It was in here where the Russian secret police had the distinction of inventing the first anti-Iranian cultural weapons. They even outdid the British, who themselves had been working to undermine Iran’s unity since the 19thcentury (see Part VI, item 10).
The cultural weapons are the so-called venomous “jokes” targeted against Iran’s Azeri population and the north in general (esp. Rasht). This is not surprising as it was always these regions that would put up the first fight against any Russian invasion. The Bakhtiaris and Lurs were also targeted, partly due to fears of their martial abilities.”
We must understand the origin of these jokes in order to fully realize their true purpose and impact. We have such a diverse community in Iran and that’s what makes our culture beautiful. Every ethnicity within Iran is an essential organ in the body of the Iranian culture and we shouldn’t have any reason to damage it.
In an article that was recently published by Beeta Baghoolizadeh, “The Afro-Iranian Community: Beyond Haji Firuz Blackface, the Slave Trade, & Bandari Music,” she brings up a similar topic. Her article is about the Afro-Iranian community of southern Iran, one of the many ethnic minorities within Iran. Baghoolizadeh discusses the status of Afro-Iranians in Iran, and the fact that to many Iranians “they simply do not exist.” Baghoolizadeh states:
“When talking about the diversity of Iran, most people will recall the various ethno-linguistic groups that are equally native to the Iranian plateau, like Persians, Azeris, Gilakis, Baluchis, and others who have migrated to the region through the centuries. In these discussions, however, Afro-Iranians and those of African descent are often ignored. Perhaps this stems from their limited exposure in mainstream Iranian culture. Or maybe it is because the legacy of African slavery in Iran contradicts the ever-so-pervasive Aryan myth of perfection and civilization. Regardless, most Iranians forget the Afro-Iranians and their rich traditions, despite their prominent cultural influence that persists today.”
The issue of harming ethnic minorities within Iran does not only come from ethnic jokes. This issue must be looked at from a much broader point of view. We must find all the ways through which we are damaging ethnic minorities in Iran, such as ethnic jokes, ignorance, etc. and work together to eliminate these disrespectful practices.
We, as Iranians, have always been proud of our past and brag on a regular basis about the great Persian Empire that we believe promoted freedom of speech and religion, whether it actually was the case or not. By looking at the stone carvings at Persepolis in Iran, we can see how delegates of various races from different parts of the Persian Empire would gather together in peace during Norouz celebrations at Persepolis. While it is great for us to be proud of our past and what we believe our ancestors have accomplished, it unfortunately sometimes prevents us from seeing the problems that we face today. Are we as inclusive today as we can and should be? Are we able to gather in harmony with friends and family members from other ethnic backgrounds without making part of their identity the subject of ridicule? We must learn to move on from, but not forget, our past and focus on a brighter future. Ask yourself, aren’t you as a human being offended when someone’s topic of laughter is your ethnicity, sexuality, culture, or other parts of your identity? Are you doing anything to stop discrimination within our Iranian community? Please, take a moment and think about the extremely negative impact of these jokes. For as long as we continue making these ethnically offensive jokes, we are making it harder for ourselves to come together in unity with our brothers and sisters from various parts of Iran. Instead of sharing these disrespectful jokes against ethnic minorities in Iran, let’s encourage ourselves and others to celebrate this diversity within Iran’s borders and learn about how we can enrich our culture and society by doing so.
Farrokh, Kaveh. “Introdcution: Pan-Turanianism Takes Aim At Azerbaijan; A Geopolitical Agenda | CAIS©.” Introdcution: Pan-Turanianism Takes Aim At Azerbaijan; A Geopolitical Agenda . The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, 2005. Web. 02 Aug. 2012. <http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/Iran/pan_turkism_takes_aim_at_azarbaijan/introduction.htm>.
Baghoolizadeh, Beeta. “The Afro-Iranian Community: Beyond Haji Firuz Blackface, the Slave Trade, & Bandari Music.” Ajam Media Collective. Ajam Media Collective, 20 June 2012. Web. 25 July 2012. <http://ajammc.wordpress.com/2012/06/20/the-afro-iranian-community-beyond-haji-firuz-blackface-slavery-bandari-music/>.