Iranian Americans are urged to stand up and be counted

Before comedian Peter the Persian took the stage and joked about his immigrant father’s mispronunciation of English obscenities, Nadia Babayi stepped to the front of the room and struck a more serious tone.

She told the group, gathered at the Brick Building in Culver City for a cancer fundraiser, that about 300,000 Iranians were counted in the last U.S. census. She said the numbers were grossly underreported.

“All of us know we are more than that. We are in the millions,” Babayi said. “As long as our amount is low, we will not have a voice.”

Since February, Babayi, a U.S. Census Bureau partnership specialist, has been making the rounds at Iranians’ events, handing out fliers, making pitches and allaying fears in both English and Persian.

Her efforts are part of a first-of-its-kind outreach campaign urging Iranian Americans to specifically identify themselves as Iranian, instead of some other ethnic category, in the 2010 census.

Before the Persian American Cancer Institute event, Babayi attended a business network mixer in Irvine. Her assistant spent hours the next day at a women’s empowerment conference. Babayi also has become a regular guest on KIRN-AM (670), known as Radio Iran, speaking about the benefits of an accurate census count, including better access to social services and more political influence.

But in June the campaign received an unexpected boost when millions around the world turned out to protest the disputed reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Outraged expatriates and Iranian Americans suddenly found themselves alongside non-Persians at demonstrations.

The opposition green movement may have failed to achieve its goal of political change, but it prompted much of the world to rally behind Iranian people in their struggle for reform.

“It has created a sea change in the way Americans view Iranians,” said Reza Aslan, author of “How to Win a Cosmic War,” who moved to the U.S. from Iran in 1979. “No doubt about it, it’s now cool to be Iranian.”

Some hailed it as a sort of coming out for Iranian Americans. The hope is that the effects of that change will be seen in the census count next year.

“It was a sort of boost or a shot in the arm,” Babayi said, because people were encouraged to say that they were Iranian. They weren’t hiding anymore.”

After the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, many Iranian Americans and expatriates chose to keep a low profile in what some saw as a hostile environment. The 1991 film “Not Without My Daughter” was blamed for helping to cast a negative light on Iranian men. Starring Sally Field, it depicted an American woman and her daughter fleeing Iran and an abusive husband. And in 2002, then-President Bush declared Iran a member of the “Axis of Evil.”

“I started thinking . . . we need somebody to step up and change our image,” comedian and actor Maz Jobrani said in a short video he filmed this fall for an online Iranian news site. “We need like an Iranian James Bond or like a Persian Jonas Brothers, you know, like the Jabbar Brothers.”

Then after the June 12 presidential election, a worldwide movement sprang to life, supporting the people of Iran for standing up to their government. Bloody clashes between government soldiers and demonstrators were seen by millions around the world.

“Iran is suddenly cool; you got people like U2 playing ‘Bloody Sunday’ and dedicating it to Iran, and Bon Jovi, a guy out of New Jersey, is singing in Farsi . . . and you’re proud, you’re proud to be Iranian,” Jobrani said. “The green movement has changed the way Iranians are viewed in the world.”

After the 2000 census, Iranian Americans expressed disappointment with what they saw as a low count of 388,000 throughout the country, Babayi said. Some joked that there were at least that many Iranians in Westwood alone.

Members of the community point to a number of reasons for the low count, including fear that cooperation with the census could lead to immigration or tax problems.

Some may have also been hesitant to identify themselves as Iranian or were unaware that they could.

Iranians are labeled white by the U.S. government and in 2000 Suzi Khatami, a producer and host with Radio Iran, didn’t know she could categorize herself as anything else on the race question by making the category “other” or writing in Iranian American or Iranian.

Aslan, who grew up in Northern California, said he spent the 1980s or ‘90s telling people he was Mexican. Others said they were Italian or Persian.

Jobrani, who is on a comedy tour called “Brown & Friendly,” said it wasn’t until he reached high school that he realized that some of his countrymen were trying to hide behind the term Persian.

The tactic eventually became fodder for his stand-up routine:

“We’ve learned how to trick Americans. We say we’re Persian. It sounds a lot nicer and exotic and confuses Americans,” Jobrani would say. “We’re always like ‘No, no I’m not Iranian. I’m Persian like the cat, meow. . . . I am not Axis of Evil, no, no. I am Persian like the rug. I am soft.”

But in the wake of the green movement, there are indications that is changing

“Few Iranians these days go through the fiction of calling themselves Persian,” Aslan said. “Calling yourself Persian is a way of distancing themselves from Iran.”