My Ethnic Diversity (Re)Defines My Transracial Parenthood

My name is Lola Shahdadi.  I am a wife, mother, lesbian, and a Person of Color.  I have always known that I wanted to find love, and be a mother.  I knew I was a lesbian at a young age, and came out at 19.  But I did not understand that my Lebanese-Iranian heritage made me a Person of Color (POC) until recent years.

[bctt tweet=”I did not understand that my Lebanese-Iranian heritage made me a Person of Color (POC) until recent years.” username=”ParentVoiceMag”]

Lola 6 years
The author at age, 6.

Let me explain..

My mother was born in Abadan, Iran, to a Lebanese mother and native Iranian father.  My grandmother was Catholic, and my Grandad, who was raised Muslim, was a staunch atheist.  My Grandad worked for the Iranian Oil Pipeline and they were unconventional and very wealthy.  

When my mother and her siblings finished high school, their father sent them away to other countries to further their education.  My uncle and one aunt were sent to America to pursue fashion and music.  Another aunt went to Italy and became a nurse.  My mother was sent to secretarial college in Oxford, England, even though she didn’t speak English.  She did not finish school, but stayed and made a life for herself in Oxford.  Her social community was diverse.  She learned to speak English quickly.

When she told her family that she was engaged to a blue collar Englishman, her family asked her to come home for a visit.  One day during her visit, a couple and their son arrived for dinner.  It didn’t take long for my mom to realize that her parents and the couple were trying to arrange a marriage between her and this stranger. Appalled, my mother changed her departure date, left Iran, and never went back.  She married that Englishman. They divorced a few years later.

Lola Age 7 Veroa Italy Honeymoon
The author, at age 7, in Verona, Italy, with her mother, on her honeymoon.

She met my biological Iranian father, who was a student at Oxford University, around that time.  They did not know each other long before she found herself pregnant with me.  The facts that she was not a virgin, divorced, and not a practicing Muslim made it impossible for him to stay in the relationship.  His student visa was eventually revoked and he was sent back to Iran. My mother swore off Middle Eastern men and never looked back.  He and I have never met, other than a few phone calls (but that’s another post).

My mother raised me as a single parent and the only exposure I had to Persian culture was when my mom got together with her Iranian friends, heard them speak the language, ate the delicious food, and listened and danced to the beautiful music.  She did not speak Farsi to me.  She had largely rejected her own culture.  I spent most of my time with white Brits. 

Lola 7th bday Oxford
The author celebrating her 7th birthday in Oxford.

My American stepfather came into our lives when I was 4.  He was in the Air Force and stationed in Oxford.  They got married when I was 7, and we moved to America.  I was raised Catholic, in a rather rural area where the diversity around me was limited.  There were a few Black students, and some Latin-American students at school, but the majority of the student population were white.  Though I faced racism as a child and teen, I didn’t fully understand it.  

Lola Great Adv NJ 1985
The author with her stepdad in New Jersey.

In fourth grade, during a spat with a classmate, she called me a “sand niggar”.  When I told my mom what she’d said, she knew it wasn’t good, but didn’t fully understand what it meant.  My stepdad was furious, called the girl’s father and reported the entire thing to my Catholic school.  At that point, my mother told me that if anyone ever asked what nationality I am, I should say Italian or Spanish. She was embarrassed by the racist remark, and by her native country, which had many U.S.-derived stereotypes attached to it by then.  

In high school, when ordering pizza with a friend who placed a pack of Camel cigarettes on the counter, the server commented that those should be my cigarettes.  I was already an activist in my own right, old enough then to understand the camel comment, but I wasn’t attached enough to being Middle Eastern to be offended for myself.  

I thought I was white.  When I filled out forms, I chose Caucasian, unless Middle Eastern was a specific option.  That is how my racial identity went until I moved to Los Angeles.  My Grandad immigrated to the L.A., along with over a million others, as the revolution in Iran began in the late 1970s.  I moved here to live with him in 2004, when he was 82 and I was 28.  I suddenly found myself surrounded by people who looked like me, and had an immersion experience living under his roof.  It was a shock.  But still, I did not identify as a POC.  I was experiencing my own heritage and racial identity as an outsider looking in.  I had been raised to ignore my racial identity, and I didn’t feel attached enough to my own heritage to be a part of it.  The fact that I didn’t speak Farsi, alone, left me out of many conversations during that time.  I met a large part of my extended family as an adult, and I felt intimidated by our cultural divide.  

Lola Wedding with Mom
The author, with her mother, at her own wedding.

I had been raised to ignore my racial identity, and I didn’t feel attached enough to my own heritage to be a part of it. 

Before I became a work-at-home-writer-mom, I was a freelance interpreter for the Deaf.  One day, when I was about 30, I took an assignment at a festival for queer women of Color.  Suddenly, I was listening to and interpreting music, spoken word poetry and comedy from women who were talking about my life through their own.  It was a mix of empowerment and sadness.  I suddenly found myself mourning a part of myself that was kept from me, and of which I felt too far away from to become a part.  Thank goodness I was wrong. 

When I adopted my daughter, who is African-American, it was important to my wife and I that we were educated about racial identity.  We wanted to be aware and able to empower her.  My extended Iranian family here has welcomed us with open arms, and include me in all of their family celebrations. 

We will celebrate Nowruz (Persian New Year) in a few weeks.  I quickly realized that my own journey and racial identity is infinitely valuable to this process with my beautiful girl.  Now, I can share this beautiful culture, it’s rich story, and the most poetic language in the world.  I can be an example to her to show how even though we, her family, are transracial, we can and must connect to our race, culture, and traditions. 

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