You would never know by my name or my accent that I’m from Iran. I “pass” easily on the phone and in writing. I realized the consequences of this for the first time at a conference 15 years ago.
While having drinks at the hotel bar on the first night of the conference, my colleague told me that one of the senior executives was looking for me.
As a transportation lawyer with over a decade of experience, I already felt fairly confident in my field, but still, having this senior level executive interested in meeting me boosted my confidence. I wondered if he had heard about my work. The prospect of meeting him and finding out the source of his interest was exciting.
Being a female lawyer in a male-dominated field has its challenges. But being an Iranian American woman adds more complexities. So having this respected senior executive asking about me felt satisfying.
My friend and I stood at the only open door of the massive ballroom watching the attendees shuffle into the glitzy final event of the conference.
“Rebecca! Look! There’s the guy I told you about earlier today. His last name is also Morrison,” she said, impressed that this executive wanted to meet her friend. “He’s right there, standing next to the bar. Do you see him?”
“I see him,” I said, standing a little taller.
Wearing my way-too-expensive milk-chocolate pantsuit, I readied myself to meet him. I had made an extra effort to gussy myself up for the banquet, painstakingly plucking my thick eyebrows to accentuate their arches, and conditioning my long, curly, dark hair with a salon-bought cream to resist frizz.
Mr. Morrison was having an animated conversation with another attendee in the crowded gaggle of people waiting to squeeze into the ballroom. I zeroed in on them and saw the attendee pointing at me through the crowd.
As Mr. Morrison approached me, his carefree smile changed into an annoyed scowl.
“Oh, you’re not a real Morrison,” he said, inspecting me. “You just married one.”
He then walked into the ballroom without waiting for a response.
He was right ― my last name was recently acquired when I married my husband. This man was looking for a white American woman with that name. My Iranian-ness, the way I look, my otherness, was not only a disappointment to him but also an affront ― as if I’d taken something precious of his that didn’t belong to me.
Frozen, my mouth agape, I tried to process what had just happened. A fire rushed to my face and tears welled in my eyes. My friend was talking to another attendee and didn’t catch my pained expression. I wanted the ground to swallow me whole. Instead, I went to dinner with a smile forced across my face.
My father has a quintessential Iranian first name, Ghassem. Shortly after World War II, when he was 9 years old, his parents sent him to a European boarding school where he was cruelly teased about his name. He named me Rebecca because he wanted to protect me from the racism he experienced during those formative years.
“My Iranian-ness, the way I look, my otherness, was not only a disappointment to him but also an affront ― as if I’d taken something precious of his that didn’t belong to me.”
When I was 8 years old, my family left Iran. My parents moved us from city to city, and country to country, trying to find the right home. Growing up in a constant state of otherness took a heavy toll on me and created a desperate yearning for belonging.
When I came to America, a place I saw through the eyes of that little girl in Iran watching American movies, I felt like I was finally home. It was the land I had dreamed of where I could live free, thrive, succeed ― and most importantly, belong.
This senior executive thought a person who had his last name ― a name that had come to America hundreds of years ago from Scotland by way of Ireland and came to be shared by over 120,000 Americans ― should look like him.
By saying that I wasn’t a “real” Morrison and dismissing me, I felt he was saying that I didn’t have a right to his American-ness in the same way he did. He was implying that not only was I not a “real” Morrison, but also that I’d never be a real American. And at the time, I bought into his notion. I felt guilty and embarrassed for deceiving him ― as if I had fraudulently coveted my husband’s American identity.
When my friends asked me what happened when I met Mr. Morrison, I lied. I told them he said hello and introduced himself. I was embarrassed about how he had treated me but also ashamed at my own reaction.
As the years went on, I changed. I became a mother and realized who I wanted to be for my children ― someone who is proud of their American identity and their Iranian heritage without having to sacrifice either. I wanted to show them that the Fourth of July was just as meaningful to me as Nowruz, the Iranian New Year.
Teaching my children about Nowruz, a pre-Islamic Zoroastrian tradition where Iranians gather with family and friends to celebrate the first day of spring, became an important start of helping us appreciate and value my cultural heritage.
The Fourth of July also means a great deal to me. It is a time each year when we celebrate not just our country’s independence but how much America had meant to me as an immigrant who came here with dreams of freedom and prosperity.
During those same years, my country also changed. We have elected more state and federal leaders of different ethnicities and have had more books, movies, and TV shows that celebrate diverse cultures than ever before.
I began to transform how I saw myself and my home, and I came to believe that Americans not only deserve but also have a right to feel like they belong here without sacrificing where they came from or celebrations of the cultures that made them who they are.
I am an American and my husband is an American. We have different lineages and ethnicities and stories of how our families journeyed to America, but no matter how we became American, whether through birth or a pledge of allegiance, we are Americans equally.
And even though Mr. Morrison might not have seen it that way, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will. Because no matter what the old guard of American-ness wants or believes, America is moving closer and closer to a fully realized multicultural nation of people. People like me: Rebecca Morrison, Iranian American.
Rebecca Morrison is a lawyer, writer and painter. She lives with her husband and two sons in the Washington, D.C., area. She’s writing a memoir about leaving Iran and pursuing her American dream. You can follow her on Twitter @contactrebecca and read her work on www.rebeccakmorrison.com.