Jon "JonTron" Jafari, the YouTube gaming personality who ignited the internet over a series of racist, anti-immigration tweets and comments this week, is half-Persian himself and the son of two immigrants.
Whether I want to admit it or not, JonTron and I actually have a lot more in common than I initially thought. We are both Iranian, yes — but also, we both grew up in southern California, currently live in New York and, obviously, are very into video games. On paper, we could be best friends.
Discovering that these xenophobic comments are coming from someone so similar to me makes this feel personal. So here I am, on the Persian New Year of all days, explaining what JonTron surprisingly gets so wrong about how race works in the Western world.
JonTron's response video is the same argument in a more scripted package
Following his tweets defending Rep. Steve King and the subsequent debate with Steven "Destiny" Bonnell, JonTron released a video in response to the backlash he'd been getting online. He readily admits that he's bad at debating and tries to explain his statements in a more scripted manner. To those of us who participate in conversations about race on a daily basis, however, this video is business as usual.
The core of the video is JonTron decrying racism against white people, a concept that anyone who's taken an introductory sociology class knows is nonexistent. I won't repeat what others have argued so eloquently — here's a recent piece with more detail — but I do want to address another statement from the JonTron video.
JonTron doesn't understand the history of "incompatible" countries
Let's start with one of JonTron's most ridiculous claims: "We don't need immigrants from incompatible places."
First of all, what qualifies as an incompatible place? A couple months ago — and again more recently — Iran was on the list of countries being banned by Trump's executive order. Is this what he means by incompatible? I understand if JonTron himself doesn't identify with Iran, but does he think of his father's native country as an "incompatible" country? These beliefs seem to stem from a lack of historical context — so let's look at some.
Perhaps contrary to popular belief, Iran wasn't always seen as oppositional to the United States. Some people might be surprised to see older pictures of Iran that look very similar to Western countries around the same time.
In fact, that rhetoric dates back no earlier than the 1950s. When Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh started limiting Britain's control over Iran's oil, both the U.S. and Great Britain organized a coup d'état to overthrow Mosaddegh and promote the power of then-monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. This attack on Iran's democracy directly resulted in the rise of the Islamic government in Iran and was the cause of the common distrust that many Iranians have toward the U.S.
My dad was one of many Iranians who moved to the U.S. between the late '70s and early '90s, during the Islamic Revolution. When I see videos of Iranian-Americans crying because their family isn't being allowed into the country, I can't help but cry as well. I see nothing but the confusion on their faces as they are blamed for the acts of a government they had nothing to do with — one that was created directly due to U.S. intervention.
JonTron tries to shift the blame away from racism
In the beginning of the video, JonTron explains what he was attempting to articulate in his debate.
"I was trying to speak to the increasing tribalization of our culture," he says. "These days, we're taught to think in explicitly racial or ethnic categories, or in terms of gender or sexual orientation, and I think this in itself plays a big hand in what's gotten our country into the volatile state that it's in."
This is another popular argument among many young conservatives: The "politically correct" left has forced society to directly confront issues of race and gender, only to "freak out and burn things down" when straight white men try to defend themselves.
The truth is that these divisions of race and ethnicity have always existed, whether we want to address them or not. Brown and black people have never had it easy, it's just that, for centuries, white people didn't have to care. Now that they're being forced to confront their own misdeeds, they suddenly act as though they are in fact the victims of discrimination.
It made me think of one of my favorite feminist essays, Sara Ahmed's "Feminist Killjoys," which uses a hypothetical dinner table to discuss these issues.
Here's a quick summary: Your entire family is gathered around a table, telling stories, laughing. Then, as often happens, someone says a racist joke. It's just a little one, nothing with any slurs or particularly nefarious implications. Everyone laughs except you. You sit quiet for a second and then tell everyone that the joke wasn't funny, it was racist. It's at this moment that you've ruined everyone's fun. You get blamed for the drama and are told you take everything too seriously. In short, they're arguing that it wasn't a problem that something racist was said — it was only a problem because you specifically addressed it.
JonTron is making the same basic claims, suggesting that these problems didn't exist before they were called out by society. If you falsely assume that these issues were only created recently, you're implying that before movements like Black Lives Matter existed, race relations were fine.
When we stop and analyze this argument, its flaws are obvious. Just because discussions about race tribalization have increased of late doesn't mean they're new issues. What is new, however, is that white people are becoming more aware of their own race and feeling the discomfort that comes with that awareness.
JonTron is working through his own racial identity, just like the rest of us
Despite all of my many disagreements with JonTron, there's one thing that I can actually relate to: the feeling of not knowing where you belong in terms of racial categories. Based on his recent tweets and statements, JonTron honestly seems to be internally working out his own racial identity for himself.
In his debate with Destiny, JonTron refers to himself as not fully white, but when Destiny later says "you think you're a white person when you're half Iranian," JonTron gets a little defensive: "So fine," he says. "Take the whiteness away from me."
It doesn't even end there. In a stream a few years earlier, JonTron did a convincing Persian accent and seemed to be on the side, albeit jokingly, of his Persian relatives who were offended by their representation in a specific film. More recently, JonTron asked a writer who was supporting him to change the section mentioning him to "American" rather than "Persian-American."
The Persian identity is complicated for everyone
While JonTron was trying (and failed) to make one point, he accidentally made a different, successful one: It's complex, as an Iranian-American, to know where you stand today in terms of race.
On one side, Iran was part of the Muslim ban executive order, and two Indian men were recently shot because they were mistaken for being Iranian. On the other hand, we're often lighter-skinned than other groups that would often be labeled as people of color. Even on the official census, all populations from the Middle East and North Africa are considered white.
What I've come to realize is that it doesn't have to be a binary. I can think of myself as a person of color while still addressing the privilege — I'm sure JonTron loves that word — I possess for my lighter skin. The joke I always say to explain light-skin privilege to people is that I'm just dark enough to get my picture put on a college brochure, but not dark enough to ever be worried about my safety around cops.
As part of that privilege, I feel that it's my political responsibility to address the racism and xenophobia I see in front of me. I understand why JonTron wants to be viewed as white. It's a common thing for many Persians, especially immigrants.
My genuine wish for this Nowruz is that Jon "JonTron" Jafari has a conversation with his father about the struggles of immigration — because I can't imagine him not learning something.
Dec. 22, 2017, 5:22 p.m.: This story has been updated.