Where Are You From?

How place determines race for racially in-between immigrants.

July 4, 2002, was a particularly humid Independence Day in Boston. It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. I had stayed on campus to work, and for the first time my family had come to visit me in New England. That year, we found ourselves among the thousands of revelers who descended in undulating waves down to the banks of the Charles River to see the fireworks. My mom and little sister scrambled onto the first available patch of grass while I unrolled a blanket I had snatched off my twin-size dorm room bed hours earlier. My aunt unpacked almonds, cantaloupe, and soda from a plastic shopping bag; my dad, ambling slowly, as he does, brought up the rear.

As we fanned ourselves on the blanket, my parents discussed how twenty years earlier to the day they had boarded a Fourth of July flight to Portland, Oregon, with me, at nine months old, in tow. We were striking out on our own, away from New York City, where I was born and where, as new immigrants from Iran, my parents worked in a Persian rug store owned by my dad’s extended family.

That morning in Boston I was the last to notice the white woman on the next blanket over who was staring at us in disgust. She stared at my dad in particular, who in a bit of confusion politely smiled back at her between his bites of cantaloupe. She whispered something in her companion’s ear; they rolled up their blanket and left, flip-flop sandals smacking up and down against the ground. We didn’t see or think about the women for a few minutes until two men in sunglasses and cargo shorts began to walk in wide circles around our blanket. “Oh my God,” my mom whispered to me in Persian. “The cops are watching us.” The July humidity was already intense, but it began to feel suffocating. Within seconds, a uniformed police officer and his K-9 approached us.

“What brings you folks down here today?” the officer asked my dad. “Fourth of July, the fireworks,” my dad replied.

The K-9 sniffed the plastic bag that held our snacks as the officer probed further: “Okay, where are you from?”

“We’re visiting our daughter; she goes to college here. We are from Portland, Oregon,” my dad said softly.

Like the two women before him, who now stood smirking at a safe distance away from us, the officer seemed unconvinced. He scrutinized our blanket and what sat on it: four women, one man, all of them sweaty, with dark hair, skin between white and brown, speaking to each other in English and something else. The uniformed officer made a slight gesture and, before the plainclothes officers he’d signaled swooped in for backup, he clarified the question: “I didn’t ask where you live. I said where are you from?”

For a long time, where an immigrant was “from” defined his or her ability to become an American, or to even enter America in the first place. And where an immigrant was “from” functioned, in some ways, as an immigrant’s race. Whiteness was an imprecise business with incredibly high stakes. Being white or from a white place meant eligibility for citizenship, home and business ownership, and intermarriage with other whites. Immigrants from Asia and the broad Middle East put the boundaries of whiteness to the legal test in the early twentieth century. Their racial prerequisite cases etched into law exactly which immigrants from which countries were white and, in the process, even pushed groups not yet present in the United States back and forth across the color line. A half century before their arrival en masse, “Persians” were a racial hinge for competing claims to whiteness and strategically portrayed as white or not white to help determine the radically different fates of Armenian, Arab, and South Asian Americans.

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Although Portland, Oregon, is not typically known for its place in the racial history of the United States, one of the most famous racial prerequisite cases, United States v. Tatos Cartozian (1925), began there at the courthouse near my family’s rug store. In 1923, as a new federal Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was established, Tatos Cartozian, a Christian Armenian, applied for US citizenship in Portland, Oregon. When Cartozian was ordered to present himself to the court for visual scrutiny, he brought his wife, Helen, and three of their four children. Following Judge Robert Bean’s inspection of their “trifle olive-complexioned” skin and Tatos’s adequate ability to read and speak English, Cartozian’s citizenship and whiteness were provisionally approved, with the caveat that, if the government saw fit, it could initiate cancellation proceedings immediately.

Cartozian and his family found themselves at the mercy of V. W. Tomlinson, a particularly unforgiving naturalization examiner at the US District Court. Inspector Tomlinson, who had already received guidance from the new chief of naturalization to hold applications from “Hindus, Turks, peoples of the Barbary states [Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia] and Egypt, Persians, Syrians, and other Asiatics” for extra scrutiny, wrote to his supervisor in Seattle to object to the approval of Cartozian’s application. To Tomlinson, Armenians like Cartozian were “so closely related to the Persians, the Kurds, the Afghans, and the Beluchis that it is difficult to distinguish them . . . as white persons.” In short order, the attorney general’s office initiated a suit, United States v. Cartozian, to cancel Cartozian’s citizenship based on racial ineligibility. Across the country, a different US District Court ruled that, pending Cartozian, four Chicago-area applicants (Armenian, Syrian, Turk, and Persian) also did not qualify for naturalization as “free white persons.” In every corner of the United States, naturalization applications for these racially in-between immigrants were suspended, with all eyes on the Portland court to settle the matter.

Just as it was for my own family, Portland, Oregon, was not the original port of entry for the Cartozians. My parents arrived in New York City after leaving Iran; Tatos and Helen Cartozian arrived in New York City from Armenia, escaping the Armenian-Tatar massacres of 1905–7. Tatos, like my father, was put to work in the family business: Cartozian Brothers Inc., a Persian rug store. Within a year the Cartozian business expanded, and Tatos and Helen, like my parents, headed west to open a store in Portland. With them they brought their children, Hazel (age six), Vahan (age four), and Orie (age two), and had another child, Ardash, after their move. And just like my sister and me, the littlest Cartozian kids were raised on the rug store floor until they reached school age.

By all accounts, the Cartozians thrived in Portland. In short order the family opened two other store locations in the Pacific Northwest, transporting rugs in a distinctive “Cartozian Bros.” truck to remote communities across Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. They also established a busy rug export office in Hamadan, Iran, to support their retail operations. By 1925, when the government took Tatos Cartozian to court to test the whiteness of Armenians, his Portland store was celebrating its tenth anniversary at Tenth and Washington in the Pittock Block, the same storefront where my parents would open a store, and I would grow up, seventy-five years later.

Cartozian and other racial prerequisite cases lay bare how American immigration, citizenship, and race-based laws and policies demanded a performance of white identity from liminal, in-between people for the judgment of powerful, majority-group European Americans. For a claimant like Cartozian to effectively perform whiteness meant that he had to organize and deploy a full suite of characteristics, alliances, affiliations, behaviors, and appearances to the court. To win his suit—and to carry Armenian Americans along with him—Cartozian and his legal team not only presented sworn testimony supporting Armenian whiteness from expert witnesses like anthropologist Franz Boas but also called to the stand “ordinary” Armenians who had married especially well (meaning, they had “out-married” with white European Americans) or were Protestant rather than Apostolic. During a time of supposedly scientific racial knowledge, Cartozian was required to stage a social construction of Armenian whiteness.

One little discussed feature in these types of racial prerequisite cases are the roles played on- and offstage by claimants’ American-born or -raised children, even though the most famous image from Cartozian prominently featured Tatos with his young adult daughters, Hazel and Orie. Originally published by the Oregonian on April 8, 1924, under the headline “Racial Questions Involved in Trial,” the photo captured the patriarch from the waist up, a handsome middle-aged man in a fitted three-piece wool suit, watch chain draped prominently off the top buttonhole of his waistcoat. Cartozian’s daughters flanked him on either side: young women with slightly bobbed hair, the most conservative of the fashionable hairstyles of the mid-1920s. Orie (age twenty-two) wore a mink stole, its head turned prominently to face the camera. Hazel (age twenty-six) was tucked under her father’s outstretched arm and wore a modest overcoat, dress, and delicate necklace. It’s not hard to imagine that the image, conveying the family’s not-too-prosperous prosperity, was carefully staged.

At the trial, it was Orie and Hazel—not their brothers—who took the stand in defense of their father’s naturalization application. The lawyers for the defense presented the daughters as strong evidence of their father’s whiteness: upstanding, well-groomed, and confident young women with perfect attendance as pupils in local Portland public schools. They were, it was argued, proof incarnate of Armenian assimilability and Christian grace. With the fate of their citizenship on the line, the Cartozian family and their legal counsel strategically deployed or muted every possible piece of social evidence at hand to make Armenians legibly white to the court. Presenting the Cartozian daughters as having sloughed off their Armenianness in favor of a mainstream American identity was essential, to prove not only the whiteness of their father but the whiteness of their ethno-national community in its entirety.

Outside the Cartozian ruling, however, the evidence left behind about the everyday lives of the Cartozian daughters tells a slightly different story. Hazel, in particular, radically self-identified as Armenian and was strongly affiliated with her heritage in Portland. As a teenager at Franklin High School she appeared in the pages of the local newspaper with fascinating regularity: she was an outspoken leader of her girls’ debate team on which she orated about Armenian history during tournaments; she sang patriotic songs about Armenian liberty in her native Armenian tongue at a niece’s elementary school recital; she demonstrated Persian rug-weaving techniques for customers in the corner of her father’s rug store. Even as a teenager, and into her twenties, Hazel was an outspoken critic of war crimes against Armenia and raised thousands of dollars for the Armenian victims of massacre and genocide, delivering well-received public lectures to both secular and religious audiences around town.

Before the court, however, Hazel’s—and her father’s—race was debatable and contested. Through the prism of the Cartozian ruling, the racial fate of Armenian Americans was the subject of public curiosity and of grave legal consequence. In punishingly assimilative times, Hazel nonetheless practiced a hybrid identity as a second-generation youth. Evidence of her love, commitment, and affiliation with where she was from, not just where she lived, cannot be denied.

In July 1925, the US District Court in Portland ruled on Cartozian: Armenians were found to be white, and the government’s cancellation suit was dismissed. Cartozian could retain his American citizenship. In July 2002, on the banks of the Charles River, my family—with our similar quasi-threatening, semilegible race—warranted extra scrutiny too. To the Boston police and the concerned citizens on the next blanket over, the important thing wasn’t figuring out where we lived but pinning down the dark, elusive place where we, and the people who look like us, are from. Our white legal classification and American citizenship, granted by proxy since Cartozian, couldn’t shield us that day.

This post has been adapted from Chapter 7 of the The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race by Neda Maghbouleh.

Start reading The Limits of Whiteness »

About the Author

Neda Maghbouleh (@nedasoc) is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and author of The Limits of Whiteness: Iranian Americans and the Everyday Politics of Race.