Coexisting with Two Identities


Why it took me until college to finally feel pride in my Scottish-Iranian Heritage.

by Jennifer Roxanna Mackie

Discussing my heritage was not an activity I enjoyed while growing up. I remember my stomach twisting into knots in grade school as it got closer to my turn when we went around the classroom and announced our ancestry. I was jealous of students who could simply say Italian, German, or Spanish, and who only spoke English at home; they were never made fun of. “I’m half Scottish and half… Iranian,” I would admit timidly. “Ew, I-ran?” the students would tease and laugh. “Where did you run to?” When I told the class I also spoke Farsi at home, some would giggle and say, “Did you say fart-si?” I felt different from the other students. Neither of my parents was raised in America and my mother spoke a different language. She spoke English with a foreign accent and cooked foods like rice and lamb, not spaghetti or macaroni and cheese like other mothers. I wanted to feel normal and to be like everyone else.

No room for Scottish and Iranian

I tried to focus more on my Scottish heritage than my Iranian background, but it wasn’t always convincing; perhaps because of my dark features. I remember in fifth grade, we had to complete an ancestry project and bring in an authentic dish. I was excited to do my project on A History of Scotland, a book written by my great grandfather, J.D. Mackie, and to share Shepard’s Pie with the class. When my teacher saw my project, she looked surprised and said to me, “But you’re not Scottish, you’re Iranian.” My face reddened. I was Iranian, but I was Scottish, too. I was both. Yet, I could see that I wouldn’t be accepted as Scottish and I didn’t want to be just Iranian.

Another incident occurred that December, just before the long holiday break. In front of the entire class, the same teacher asked me if I celebrated Christmas. I wasn’t sure how to reply. I thought to myself, of course I celebrate Christmas, why would she ask me that? And why hadn’t she asked anyone else? Ah, it dawned on me, she assumed I was Muslim. But growing up my parents never asked me to choose a religion. It was true that my mother was Muslim, but my father was Christian and we celebrated holidays from both traditions. It was clear that my teacher seemed to want to be able to identify me as Iranian and didn’t seem willing to accept the concept of Scottish-Iranian. Maybe people find it easier to place others into clearly defined categories. It was around this time that my grades began to drop significantly. I went from being an A student to receiving straight Cs.

By the time I reached high school and moved to a new school district, I figured I would give myself a fresh start and had come up with a solution to hide my embarrassment—I would lie. When people asked me about my heritage, I would declare, “I’m Italian” or “I’m Greek.” It was certainly much easier to fit in. I asked my mother to stop speaking Farsi to me in public, especially when she came to school, so that the students wouldn’t discover my secret. I felt guilty about lying, but in high school, being accepted was my highest priority. I didn’t realize how much that must have hurt my mother until I grew older.

Finally, there were others like me…

It was only when I went to college that I was able to open my eyes to the beautiful culture of the Middle East, rich with history and traditions that I had been trying to suppress for so long. I became acquainted with a community of students who were Iranian or other unique combinations. Roxanna was half Japanese and half Iranian; Mehdi was half African American and half Iranian; Carolyn was just like me, Iranian and Scottish. I slowly began to feel comfortable and even proud to discuss my background. I declared my major as Middle Eastern studies and became captivated with books on the Middle East and especially with understanding what my mother and her family experienced in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Last year, news spread quickly that a Middle East Coexistence House had opened for women from the Middle East to live together and to learn from one other. I imagined this would be a perfect venue for me to mix with other women from different backgrounds. However, when I was accepted into the house my senior year, I still worried that the women would have a negative impression of Iran. Unfortunately, Iran does not hold a favorable perception in the media, especially after a conference was held several years ago in which the validity of the Holocaust was questioned. I feared Jewish members would assume I held similar views and prejudge me. I wondered if it was a mistake to put myself in an environment I knew could potentially become hostile and confrontational.

My fears proved groundless. Once I became a resident, I felt, for the first time, that people were genuinely interested in my upbringing, and my mixed heritage was at last treated as a positive quality. This past summer, I traveled to Iran for the first time in fifteen years, and upon my return, I was delighted to see how eager my peers at the house were to hear of my experience. In the Middle East Coexistence House, I met others who came from different mixes—like Jewish Americans and Muslim Americans—and I noticed a greater acceptance of these mixed identities. We discussed the similarities between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; an Arabic-speaking friend asked me to teach her Farsi, and when sensitive topics arose, we debated in a civil and respectful manner.
Although the main goal of the house may be to encourage different groups to live together in peace, perhaps its greatest accomplishment is allowing people to feel more comfortable with themselves—by living in an environment where they can proclaim their identity, rather than hide it.

About the Author

Jennifer Mackie
Jennifer Mackie graduated this past December from Rutgers University with a double major in French literature and Middle Eastern studies. She hopes to return to Iran again this summer to visit her family and to continue her studies on the Middle East in graduate school.

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