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23 August 2021

Who is “Caucasian?” I Thought I Was Before Moving to Canada

For Sanam Vaghefi, a PhD canidate at the University of Victoria in Canada, it was a shock to realize that she was considered a person of colour, and that the term “Caucasian” no longer applied to her. This sent her on a journey of self-discovery, where she found that “naming oneself, and telling one’s own story is... an act of power.”

Who is “Caucasian?” I Thought I Was Before Moving to Canada

Sanam poses for a photo near Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Image: courtesy

Growing up as an immigrant in Turkey, I never had a simple answer to 'where are you from?' Could I say, “Iran,” although I never lived there? Could I say “Turkey” when my ID documents, the language I speak with my family, the food that my mom cooks, and the music that my dad listens to, say otherwise?

Maybe I could say 'I'm Persian,' as the Iranians in the US used to do to avoid the negative prejudices attached to the 'Iranian' identity. But wait, I was not Persian! Yes, many Iranians are Persians, but not me. My mom speaks Azerbaijani Turkish with her family, and my dad's grandparents didn't speak Persian at all. They came to Iran during the Soviet era from the Caucasus. They lived near Baku, and escaped in the 1930’s by crossing the Aras River when my grandmother was a newborn baby.

In Turkey, exploring my ethnic identity and ancestral histories eventually gave me a semblance of an answer. I still didn't have a straightforward response - as saying 'Azerbaijan' would make others assume that I am a citizen of the Azerbaijani Republic or that I lived in Azerbaijan, neither of which are true. So I settled on “Caucasian”. It was perfect. Not only did it make sense both in Turkey and in Iran, but also it reminded me that my ancestors were strong enough to cope with displacement for generations, and so am I.

Then I moved to Canada.

White in Iran, Brown in Canada?

In North America for the first time in 2017 as a PhD student, I tried to adjust to my new life on a new continent. My Canadian colleagues made it less difficult. They were friendly, they were kind. “It's nice that people here enjoy small talk,” I thought to myself. The environment was handy for improving my language skills, and helpful in my quest to learn the culture. I was there all by myself, with no friends or relatives, so a bit of socialization couldn’t hurt. One day I was chatting with my officemate about how I would like to visit Seattle but was unable to do so, because of Trump's travel ban on Iranian citizens. Doing her best to empathize, she said 'Well, the US is a nice place, but for white folks, so I see how things are difficult for you.'

“Wait,” I thought. “Am I...not white?” Apparently I wasn't, and my pale skin had nothing to do with it. Coming from a non-European background made me a 'person of color' in Canada. In some cases, I would even be categorized as 'brown,' together with everyone else who came from Muslim-majority countries. As a sociologist, I knew that race was not a fixed biological reality, but rather a socially constructed category. But did this mean that Caucasians are not white? That didn’t make sense to me, because Caucasians were famous for their fair skin in Anatolia, or at least Turkish folk songs about Circassian girls said so.

An interaction with a student solved this mystery. 'The Caucasian one!' A student responded this way to a professor, who asked her which assistant taught their tutorial sessions. In a few seconds, I realized that she was referring to my British-Canadian colleague, rendering me the only 'non-Caucasian' in the classroom. So my hunch was right. Caucasians are white! I was confused because I had missed a small point: the 'fact' that apparently I am not a Caucasian, despite my heritage and ancestral homeland being the Caucasus.

This, of course, was preposterous to me. Instead of drowning in my identity crisis again, I thought I would stick to my 'Caucasian' culture and try to introduce it to my friends in Canada. At the end of the day, Canada is known to be welcoming of all kinds of diversity, so I thought it would be easy. I showed pictures of ancient church buildings in the South Caucasus to my Canadian friend, thinking that this is a good way to represent the diversity of the region while making my ancestral homeland more visible. 'Oh, these are gorgeous...by the way, I still think that it's hilarious that a place with this name exists!' my friend said.

“Time to give up” I thought to myself. “From now on, I will just identify as being from the Middle East and avoid talking about my origin.” But then again, why should I give up certain aspects of my identity for society's convenience? Isn't this the opposite of 'being your authentic self' which is so encouraged in Canada? 

I tried to finalize my ruminating thoughts – “Well, identities are contextual. At the end of the day, isn't that what social construction means?” The easygoing part of me, the one that wanted to get along and play nice with others was putting in it’s two cents’ worth. The sociologist in me quipped back 'Not when others are socially constructing your identity on your behalf.'

How Do We ‘Socially Construct’ Race?

After several years, I continue to think about these experiences that I have gone through as a newcomer in Canada. I know that the people in these interactions were well-intentioned, and these mismatching terminologies ultimately were not 'offensive' for me in any way. Rather, these interactions made me think more about the ways in which we (don't) talk about race and ethnicity. Nuance needs a bigger place in the conversation. Why is the claim to talk and teach about diversity limited to mainstream discourses of diversity? I understand that as multiracial societies, Canadian and American experiences shape a majority of the literature and discourse about these topics, but can't we create more space for narratives and terminologies from different parts of the world?

Certainly this is not easy, as talking about race is often uncomfortable. Even among liberal and progressive circles, it is more convenient to think through dualistic categories such as ‘white’ versus ‘people of color’. After living in Canada for more than 3 years, I, myself am used to occasionally identifying as a woman of color. It is practical, especially when referring to additional social barriers that I (and many others) face in multiple areas of life, compared to those of European descent. 

However, I cannot help but realize how this terminology affects me: It reminds me that I am systematically disadvantaged, marginalized, and underprivileged, compared to 'white' people. It does so by positioning my identity in an equation that centralizes the dominant and powerful identity, and reduces my identity to its difference from the dominant category.

This is the exact opposite of how I used my Caucasian identity in Turkey. There it reminded me of the strength of my ancestors, and made me feel less alone in my experience of displacement. Previous generations of my family had survived displacement as well. It reminded me that I, too, belong to a homeland, an ancient culture and territory, like many others.

Embracing diversity should include welcoming different terminologies and ways of belonging, even when they are unfamiliar. At the end of the day, naming oneself, and telling one's own story is important. It is an act of power.