Recently, there has been a huge debate about Senator Lindsey Graham's statements (regarding the DNA test and Iran) being racist. I'm a native Iranian, but I live in South Carolina and I hear these remarks from my friends — even my American friends — that he offended the Iranian people by his statements. I read a summary of his statements here from CNN. The apparent insult was:

On Tuesday, Graham joked during an interview on "Fox & Friends" that it would be "terrible" if a DNA test revealed that he has Iranian heritage. His comment came in response to Senator Elizabeth Warren's decision to take a DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry claims.

But it's still not clear to me: Is he really pointing to the Iranian people, or to the totalitarian regime of the Islamic Republic? Can someone explain to me why these comments went viral and were considered racist?

Also, I can't understand why he chose the Iranian people to make a joke in relation to Warren's DNA test case? Because there is no connection between the Iranian people and Native Americans.

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    I would suggest you do a little bit more research before you throw around words like "totalitarian regime". Iran has a pseudo-democracy, with an elected president. Compared to many other countries which are direct allies of the US, they hardly rank as "totalitarian". Simply take a look at Saudi Arabia, a far more repressive society than Iran, and a close US ally.
    – Kai
    Oct 20, 2018 at 3:24
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    @Kai I live in Iran for almost 28 years, so when I'm saying "totalitarian" I know what I'm talking about... By the way, I don't really care about Saudi Arabia or other US allies and their government system which is not related to this question directly. My main concern here is the possible offense of Graham to Iranian people. Oct 20, 2018 at 3:56
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    Whether you see someone as racist or not, often depends more on whether you are on the same political side, than what they actually say, do or believe.
    – vsz
    Oct 20, 2018 at 11:10
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    Perhaps the word you are seeking is authoritarian. The distinction is important, considering the sort for rhetoric that people like Lindsay Graham and others like him (Mike Pompeio, Donald Trump, John Bolton) use to push a regime change agenda.
    – Kai
    Oct 20, 2018 at 14:18
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    @Kai the distinction seems moot. Authoritarian is an adjective that can describe a multitude of nouns, among those people, laws, leaders, governments, etc. Totalitarian is used singularly for governments - it derives from totalitarianism. You could argue that totalitarianism is an extreme form of autoritarian government - but we'd have to define the limits in order to produce anything meaningful towards establishing what is what. In any case, asking whether something is racist or not, requires sharp definitions of what IS racist - which is a bigger problem. There are few. Oct 20, 2018 at 14:51

6 Answers 6


Let's get academic about it. I think the term racism is often used to address a basket of discriminatory positions.

The folks over at Oxford Dictionary on Racism

Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.

So then we follow up with Race

Each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.

A group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group.

So then we need to infer intent. Since it's clear the comment:

"I'll probably be Iranian. That'd be, like, terrible."

The comment definitely isn't speaking about Iranians in a positive tone or sense. I'm not going to include the rest of the exchange because the hosts on the show quickly re-contextualize his comment:

"Well, they have great people, just bad leaders," co-host Brian Kilmeade said.

That's not a re-contextualization from Mr.Graham, but from the news anchors. So now they're guiding him, in defining the meaning of his quote. Or leading him to a better answer / position.

So, he's discriminating against a people but we haven't proven one part of the accusation:

based on the belief that one's own race is superior.

We need to determine whether Mr.Graham indeed holds this value. Because he is clearly holding a very deep discriminatory attitude towards Iranians.

An interesting additional quote...

"Everything I know about the Iranians I learned at the pool room," [Graham] said. "I met a lot of liars, and I know the Iranians are lying."

However... Graham has been really solid in his defense of Islam and it's clear he comes from a well meaning position.

In terms of definitions, Mr.Graham is likely a bigot

a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices

...and it's clear Mr.Graham is "obstinately devoted" to his perception of Iranians.

Bigotry and Racism often get lumped together, so it's possible the definitions get mixed up. The accusation of Racism, is often more of an assessment of a person's openness to others, rather than some direct sense of racial superiority.

Is Graham's quote racist? Maybe not by definition. But the common use term of Racism is very complex and nuanced, and it's likely many people would consider it racist. If you replace the word Iranian with any race, it's VERY bad...

"I'll probably be Black. That'd be, like, terrible."

Or Consider....

"Everything I know about the Blacks I learned at the pool room," [Graham] said. "I met a lot of liars, and I know the Blacks are lying."

This simple word replacement really does demonstrate the intent. In my view, it's not racist by definition, but the tone is spot on.

Remember definition of race is actually quite ambiguous... and depending on your definitions of race... and racism... Mr.Graham is indeed making a racist remark.

Then there's a larger context: Elizabeth Warren released DNA tests in response to a claim Donald Trump made about her. There's an unsettling inference from Mr.Graham's joke. He's saying "If I took a test, I might discover I have DNA from a group of people I consider unfavorable." Implying, that Warren's test is a link to an "unfavorable" group of people.

Update: Race has come up in the discussion and I need to point out that race,isn't a real scientific distinction and it's purely a fabrication of the culture. Which means, that the broad definitions of race, will often help define how the term "racism" is directed and used. Since race and racism are linked, there's a real chance, they're interconnected. Which means the application of racism is likely tightly coupled to one's perception of race (including Mr.Graham's).

To quote my source...

Science today tells us that the visible differences between peoples are accidents of history. They reflect how our ancestors dealt with sun exposure, and not much else.

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    – CDJB
    Mar 10, 2021 at 8:47

Viral because it's a inappropriate stupid remark, not racist (by my definition) because "Iranian" is not a race of people.

Could Iranian-Americans be offended? - sure, because the Senator is implying that a DNA test proposing that he had some Iranian blood would be offensive to him.

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    Exactly at the first place when I heard these notes, I said: Iran is a nation not a specific race cause the race of Iranian people could be classified as Caucasian. Oct 19, 2018 at 13:49
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    "X is not a race" isn't a very good argument to mark something as not racist. The concept of race itself isn't a biological one, but a social one (that's why Italiens or the Irish (and to a lesser extend Jews) could migrate from "not (really) white" to just white; Iranians seem to have moved in the opposite direction; the average modern racist would definitely not classify the average Iranian as white).
    – tim
    Oct 19, 2018 at 14:59
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    I'm not saying that Grahams comment was definitely racist, but I think it requires more analysis of the context than just saying Iranian isn't a race. If it was basically an "Iran (the country) is (currently) bad", that's not racist (just possibly offensive); if it's "Having 'brown' DNA is terrible" (ie using Iranian as a stand-in for Persian), then that would be racist (even though Persian is also "not a race").
    – tim
    Oct 19, 2018 at 15:03
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    @AloneProgrammer If Grahams point was that he prefers to be 100% "white" - ie not having his DNA test reveal that some of his ancestors were not what might be considered "white" (eg Persian) -, then that would be racist.
    – tim
    Oct 19, 2018 at 15:52
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    @tim yes the definition of race is evolving, perhaps becoming more cloudy than clear. Officially the US census has the following categories of race " White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. Persons of Middle Eastern origin are classified as White.
    – BobE
    Oct 20, 2018 at 14:35

The first part of his comment basically came down to something like: "Every American has at least one ancestor that makes them not truly 'white'." Meaning that Warren isn't anything special by having one Native American ancestor 150 years ago, and that it seems like 'luck' determines the 'odd' ancestor. The second part was trying to engage in self-depreciating humor, saying that with his (bad) luck, he'd take an ancestry test and find out he had an Iranian ancestor. This is only funny because he believes Iranian/Persian to be the worst possible result.

When he walked back his comment, he mentioned the Iranian government/regime was bad, not its people. But the 'joke' doesn't work if he was referring to political affiliation, not ancestry, so it's a bit confusing what he actually meant.

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    This is what makes it racist. There is no such thing as true 'white'. The Nazis believed 'pure' whiteness was Nordic stock: blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin, and attempted breeding programs and eugenics to promote this idea. Graham is still in a post-9/11 conservative mindset that any Middle Easterner is a potential terrorist. So if he had Middle-Eastern blood, he might be a closet terrorist.
    – Carduus
    Oct 19, 2018 at 14:11
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    Even by using Nazi's standards to define what a true "white" means, still the Iranian people could be classified as true "white" race cause before WWII occupation of Iran by UK, US, and Soviet Union, Hitler had a close relation with imperial government of Iran at that time. I don't wanna be racist but I think there was more clear choices for his joke if he looks at the citizenship of 9/11 hijackers. But it seems he chose Iranian people cause he thinks they're the weakest ones and can't counter back his offence. Oct 19, 2018 at 14:16
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    @Alone Programmer or because there's a rather large spat currently ongoing between the USA and Iran.
    – user19831
    Oct 19, 2018 at 16:01
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    @Carduus: Careful with that, because most Iranians will definitely inform you that they are not Arabic (an ethnic race, not a religion), but Persian (also an ethnic race, not a religion). Both are Islamic, but Iran is a Shi'a State, not a Sunni State (Both are Islamic, but they hold different beliefs. The big divide is on the legitimate successor to Muhammad. Shi'a says its a lineage based successor, Sunnie says it's an elected position... The closest Christian element would be the different sects feelings on the authority of the Pope.).
    – hszmv
    Oct 19, 2018 at 19:27
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    I don't actually think either the political association with Iran, or the Persian ethnicity has anything to do with what makes the statement racist. The problem is with the Stereotype. People with Iranian backgrounds are generally not considered "white" by the people who care because the stereotype says all Middle Easterners are terrorists, they are Islamic, they are the "Other". And once someone is an "Other" there is no logic, or compassion, or human decency.
    – kleineg
    Oct 19, 2018 at 22:11

Although good answers already exist, I want to focus on the "But Iranian is not a race" critique that has been mentioned several times here.

First of all: Modern biology refrains from using races. From this point of view, there is no racism. But that is unsatisfactory, since few would say that someone who exclaims "black genes make you stupid" is no racist.

The point is, that someone can very well be racist if he believes in races or something equivalent. If I think I am of the race "foo", and people of the race "bar" (let's say, those guys with very small fingers and orange skin) are much inferior and should be treated as such, I am a racist. For this, it is completely irrelevant that there is no race "bar", that it is utterly nonsense to believe that having small fingers makes you part of the race "bar", etc. It is the mindset that counts.

The point with Graham's statement is that it is akin to such racist ideas, because it insinuates that having Iranian ancestry alone is terrible. That many Iranian people, especially in the US, actually oppose the Iranian government, is obviously irrelevant to the statement; the only thing that matters is DNA. So yes, it is a racist statement.

However, making a racist statement and being a racist are two different things. While the latter would typically include the former, the other direction is not always correct. People can make jokes without thinking about all the consequences that can be derived from it. People can just repeat statements they heard somewhere else without thinking too much about it. Politicians should watch their words more closely, but it still can happen. While I would point out that Graham's words were actually racist, I would not be sure if he really meant to be racist, or shares such a mindset. There is a certain probability that he just tried to be funny ("oh my god, after opposing so strongly against the Iranians, it might turn out I am part Iranian myself"), and did not think about the fact that this is funny only on a racist value base, since if you don't think in races and DNA, you would just think "but many Iranians oppose the Iranian government, so what should be terrible about Iranian DNA?".


I'll add mine in since most people seem to be making the same assumption regarding Lindsey Graham's (LG) comment about having Iranian ancestry would be "terrible". As one answer already pointed out, this doesn't make much sense if Graham was joking (which he implied he was when he walked back his statement).

I think what most are missing here is the context that LG's comment was made in reference to Elizabeth Warren's (EW) recent gentics report. This report, which in LG's view was at minimum an inconvenience for EW and her future presidential campaign, is the parallel I believe LG was trying to make here. He is implying that a discovery of Iranian ancestry would be inconvenient for him politically. This is unsurprising given America's recent history with Iran and their oppositional relationship to Saudi Arabia who is currently headlining news.

There have been many attempts in previous answers to define race and racism from an academic sense. While this is a good place to start, much of the analysis stops there. They end without an investigation LGs comments in full context. By doing that, I think they fall short of answering the question of whether LGs statements were racist or not.

If we allow ourselves to be put in the shoes of LG in the process of examining his comments, rather than distancing ourselves from him, then we can see what his beliefs are regarding Saudi Arabia's future relationship to the U.S through his assumption that Iranian ancestry would be inconvenient for him.


But it's still not clear to me: Is he really pointing to the Iranian people, or to the totalitarian regime of the Islamic Republic?

Following the link at the original question

When asked for further comment, a spokesman for Graham referred CNN Business to his follow-up Fox News segment. "Name one person who's been a bigger defender of the Iranian people to fight back against their oppressor," said Graham, adding that the comment was a joke intended for "the Ayatollah," not the Iranian people.

and Fox News posted

.@LindseyGrahamSC on controversial Iranian comment: “The Iranian people are brave and cultured. To my liberal friends who are offended by my statement, [at] least I didn’t vote for an agreement that gave $150B to the man who kills Iranians in the street.” @FoxNewsNight

which should answer that part of the question, as to intent, from the primary source. Of course, an individual is free to not accept that explanation; that is an individual choice; or if an individual relies on a group to make their decisions, a communal or organizational choice.

What the individual appears to have been doing is satirically pointing out that a politician was being politically opportunistic (at the expense of "Native Americans" for the referenced politician) by publicly disclosing selected genes from their DNA results (compared to the Cambridge Reference Sequence), while potentially omitting disclosure of other genes documented in the report (at the expense of "Iranian" for the referencing politician). No politician or other individual highlights Neanderthal or Denisovan genes (if present) in their DNA report, as that portion of their physical composition is not politically advantageous.

It is perhaps beyond the scope of this board to answer the question as to what "race" and "racism" are, and are not. There is no universally accepted definition of "race". Given that "race" is a political classification, the politics surrounding the use and application of that term has multiple perspectives. As pointed out in comments, the fact is that "Iranian" is not a "race" in the United States. According to the Census Bureau of the United States "Middle East" is one of the "origin" of "White". "Middle East" was first used as a term to describe a strategic region in the 1850's, then again in the earlier 20th century, by British and U.S. government agents, not the people living in those regions themselves. Whether or not an individual self-identifies as "White" or "Persian" or "Iranian" or "Iranian American" or "Muslim", etc. is their individual choice.

Can someone explain to me why these comments went viral and considered racist?

Also, I can't understand why he chose Iranian people to make a joke in relation to Warren's DNA test case? Because there is no connection between Iranian people and Native Americans. I appreciate any ideas or suggestions.

It should not be shocking if a U.S. politician makes "racist" comments. "racist" ideology is alive and well in the U.S. And, again, the original comment could be interpreted as a jab at the propensity of politicians to self-identify with groups for their own political gain; certainly not because they actually practice a "Native American" culture, evident by their daily lives and policies: that individual is a U.S. government representative, not a representative of any "Native American" nation.

Am not able to get into the individuals' mind to state for certain why they chose to say "Iranian" in conjunction with "terrible". Again, the remark could be satirical or rhetorical in nature. Or, could have been what was on their mind at the time. In any event, you have to decide if what that individual says has any relevant meaning to you. That is, if the individual praises "Iranian" people, does one then become overcome by cheer and delight; without any suspicion as to the reasons for praise and offense equally. People might flatter simply to distract from their diabolical intent.

Even where "Iranian" is classified as "White" in the U.S., or "Iranian Americans" decide to self-identify as "White" in the U.S., it would be naive to presume an exemption from the political conflict within that political group. Individuals who self-identify as "White" have no issues mistreating other individuals who self-identify as "White"; see White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain's White Slaves in America by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh; The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control by Theodore W. Allen; How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev.

As to why the topic went "viral" - within the specific media that you are consuming, there are daily instances of topics regarding "race", you only need look for such news or other documentation on that topic; whether it be application of the death penalty being unconstitutional as-applied to certain "race", or events involving ordinary people being accosted by "racist" individuals. There is no shortage of "news" items involving "race", from a Dallas, Texas off-duty police officer claiming to have mistakenly went to the wrong apartment before killing a "Black" man, to the Washington state Supreme Court declaring that the imposition in the state of the death penalty was unconstitutional due to "race" of the defendant being involved, to a guilty finding by a jury as to the murder of a "Black" child by a Chicago police officer. If one only looks at an event as "racist" because it involves the political group that they self-identify with, are they really concerned with "racist" activity at large; or are their feelings hurt as to their own political interest or identity being used as political fodder; which must be answered by that individual; no one on this board can answer that for you. A feeling does not translate into a cohesive political decision or policy to oppose a real or perceived offense; a feeling is simply an emotion.

If an individual "joked" about the nationality or culture of a people, they invite being "joked" about; for example, why they are not married; if one decides that the "offense" was a stark disregard for their nationality, culture, or whatever group they self-identity with. Alternatively, an individual could use that remark to promote their own narrative; using the mention of their group as fuel from which to use the buzz to parlay into how you define yourself. Or do both, or smile for the mention and move on. What would be startling is the idea that somehow U.S. politicians do not make "racist" statements; which is inconsistent with the entire historical record of the U.S.; a recent example being 'Race-baiting' and 'disinformation' roil CA contest between indicted GOP Rep. Hunter and Democrat Campa-Najjar as polls tighten ("Mr. Najjar is a security risk," the elder Hunter charged at a press conference. "As an American congressman, he would have the right to know about American troop movements in the Middle East." -former Congressman Duncan L. Hunter); GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter, Under Indictment, Launches False Attacks On Opponent("DUNCAN HUNTER: And he changed his name from Ammar Yasser Najjar to Ammar Campa-Najjar so he sounds Hispanic. He just changed it again. He added a Joseph in there, so his signs could actually say Joseph Campa or something. That's - that is how hard, by the way, that the radical Muslims are trying to infiltrate the U.S. government. JAFFE: Just a little more fact checking here - Ammar Campa-Najjar is Christian, and Campa is his Hispanic mother's family name.").

"African Americans" or "blacks" in the U.S. have found a method of turning the screws in the opposite direction after being accosted by suspected "racist" individuals, even if such a response is not organized by some centralized body, but rather, an organic response nonetheless, where the accosting individual might not get the response they were expecting and not allowing themselves to be immersed in someone else's comments at their own expense without at least carving out a pound of flesh in kind; we know about "Pool Patrol Paul", "BBQ Becky", "Permit Patty", "Cornerstore Caroline", Road rager: Racist meltdown ‘ruined my life’ and, including, but not limited to, "SuperBecky", see #BabysittingWhileBlack: White Woman Calls Police on Black Man Riding Around With White Kids by Michael Harriot

A brave superheroine busted up a nonexistent child trafficking ring on Sunday when she noticed a black man riding around with two white children in his car and alerted the authorities to a kidnapping in progress.

CBS 46 reports that a white woman who was temporarily working for the Avengers (which, it must be noted, was not fully staffed after half of its workforce disappeared in a tragic Thanos-related work accident) spotted Corey Lewis at a Marietta, Ga., Walmart.

The unnamed woman saw Lewis, who is black, suspiciously riding around with two non-black children. Although The Root cannot confirm whether or not the woman had been bitten by a racist spider when she was a child, that’s when her whitey senses kicked in.

SuperBecky immediately approached Lewis and asked him if the children were OK. When he replied that they were, the woman summoned her white privilege superpowers and asked if she could speak to the children herself. While people on the woman’s home planet of Krypton might be totally fine with letting their children talk to strangers, Lewis declined, citing an ancient African maxim: “I don’t even know you like that.”

Undeterred, our brave Blunderwoman followed Lewis to his home in an attempt to thwart his villainous plans. But before Lewis could take his captors to his secret super villain laboratory where he did evil experiments like season chicken, the woman called for reinforcements from the League of White Justice, also known as the Cobb County police.

Lewis recorded the police interaction (because this ain’t Gotham, you never know) as he explained that he was simply babysitting the children. In the video, the 10- and 6-year-olds, seemingly unaware of this racism thing we speak of, told the police officer that they were fine and they were being watched by Lewis.

“He’s babysitting us,” the oldest child tells the officer. “And this lady started following us,” the girl explains as the cop repeatedly asks the children if they are OK.

Lewis told CBS 46 that he runs a mentoring program called “Inspired by Lewis,” which ironically inspired at least one woman to call the cops on him because the children exhibited no signs that they were in danger except for the fact that they were in the company of a Negro.

Although no one has identified the woman who called the cops, she is not thought to be hiding out in Wakanda.

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