THIS PIECE APPEARS IN THE MISTAKE ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL, NO.27.
LIKE SO MANY NONPROFITS AND LITERARY COMMUNITIES, MANY OF LARB’S FUNDRAISING SOURCES HAVE BEEN UPENDED. IN ORDER TO CONTINUE PROVIDING FREE COVERAGE OF THE BEST IN WRITING AND THOUGHT, WE ARE RELYING ON YOUR SUPPORT NOW MORE THAN EVER.
DONATE $5 A MONTH, RECEIVE THE MISTAKE ISSUE OF THE LARB QUARTERLY JOURNAL AS AN EPUB OR PDF.
FOR $10 A MONTH, RECEIVE IT IN PRINT.
IN 2017, the digital platform Ajam Media Collective published an essay titled “How Armenian-Americans Became ‘White’: A Brief History,” by Aram Ghoogasian. The text traces the history and racialization of Armenian refugees in the United States, who were displaced by genocide in the early 20th century. Initially, these refugees were classified as “Asiatics” by the American government; they were ineligible for citizenship because they were not “free white persons.” This classification was later reevaluated, and Armenians were deemed proximate enough to whiteness to justify legal naturalization. In one landmark case, the naturalization of Armenian immigrant Tatos Cartozian was provisionally approved after Cartozian offered himself for the “visual scrutiny” of the court. Cartozian subsequently became the target of an attorney general who disputed his whiteness, and was only granted approval for citizenship after winning the case. The United States v. Cartozian ruling affirmed the potential for Armenians to “amalgamate readily with the white races.” In his essay, Ghoogasian didn’t approach Armenian racial status as a stable ontological fact. Instead he demonstrated that racialization was, in part, a product of the US juridical apparatus: legislatively determined and repeatedly renegotiated.
The essay circulated widely, to astonishing misreadings. Many held up the text as evidentiary proof — first, and tacitly, as evidence of the ontological stability of whiteness. And second, evidence that Armenians — whose homeland is situated in West Asia and whose communities span Iran, Lebanon, and Syria — are indisputably white. This misinterpretation was so widespread that quotation marks were added to the word “white” in the text’s title after publication. In the co-authored essay below, Ghoogasian joins Sophia Armen and Hrag Vartanian to discuss the history of Armenian American migration, the politics of citizenship and race, as well as the slippages that distinguish becoming white from becoming “white.”
— Mashinka Firunts Hakopian
HRAG VARTANIAN: Aram, I’ve wanted to have this conversation for years. When your article “How Armenian Americans Became ‘White’: A Brief History,” first appeared on AJAM Media Collective, I was relieved that someone was finally kicking off the conversation around Armenian Americans and racialization. I hoped it would be a departure point for rich debate, but in many ways, it felt like it stopped a conversation many of us were hoping to have. Particularly around the complexity of Armenians and their racial status in the United States, where the topic of race has taken on a renewed urgency in every sector of society. What was your intention with the article and how did you perceive the reaction?
ARAM GHOOGASIAN: My biggest frustration with the reaction to the piece has been that many seem to have missed that I was trying to understand Armenian Americans’ racial status as a specifically juridical process of becoming, as stated in the title, not as a static ontological condition. In other words, Armenians were not born into the fabricated category we call “white,” they were placed into it, just as Mexicans, Syrians, and South Asians were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through different court cases that often contradicted each other. I was not at all concerned with finding out whether Armenians are white or not. That, to me, is an uninteresting question, one that does not have a productive or useful answer. Rather, I sought to understand the logic underpinning two racial prerequisite cases in the first quarter of the 20th century, In re Halladjian (1909) and United States v. Cartozian (1925), which deemed Armenians legally white based on race science, “common knowledge,” and legal precedent. The brevity of my essay allowed some readers to project what they wanted onto the piece, irrespective of whether or not the text itself supported their preconceived notions of how race functions vis-à-vis Armenian Americans.
SOPHIA ARMEN: Aram’s article starts to probe at the history of why we see the category “White (European, Middle Eastern, North African)” included on the US Census, a category whose relationship to Armenians is actively contested in the current MENA Census checkbox debate. If anything, I think Aram’s article should have been titled “How Armenians, Arabs, Turks, Iranians, etc. … Became ‘White.’” These “becomings” not only took place at similar times, but relationally. To date, very few have probed the Armenian dimension of this process. I would argue that we are central to it.
What we do know, especially in Armenian communities, is that Western academia and even Western archives are characterized largely by our erasure, except in instances where we have created initiatives and departments ourselves. We have to consider the historical ghosts and absences in Western academia on these subjects, and instead have to value our own sites of knowledges. We have to write and speak through erasure.
We have to think about what we consider within the purview of history and what we exclude. Our histories don’t just live in Western or English-language history books. They live in our stories, in a rich tradition of oral storytelling and memory work that is passed down through generations. So much of the era discussed in Aram’s essay, for our communities and for communities of Assyrians, Arabs, Kurds, Iranians, and Turks, is illegible in current English-based academic work. We need Armenian stories written by Armenians that tell Armenian histor(ies).
We need to start affirming ourselves as the experts of our own experiences. There is a need for studies of migration and refugeehood based in how refugees and migrants have theorized, dreamed, and organized themselves. Many people like Yen Le Espiritu are doing this through critical refugee studies, specifically for East Asians. West Asians could utilize these frames and think through our differences. Instead of framing refugees and migrants throughout history as a “problem,” these theorists and organizers approach them as central political figures who bump up, think through, and organize in and against the realities they face.
HV: The early Armenian American community was dominated by refugees, and by a sense of desperation. There were cases of Armenians being sent back to the Ottoman Empire (which would later become Turkey) facing death in the immediate wake of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. There’s a 1921 Associated Press article titled “Seventeen Armenians Killed After Being Deported from U.S.” that captures that stark reality, and also gives a sense of the stakes.
Those early refugees arrived predominantly from the Armenian parts of the Ottoman Empire, and later waves arrived from Iran, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere during times of crisis in those nations. The latest wave of refugees from Syria was actually rejected from the United States, as we know, so they went to Canada, Australia, Germany, Armenia, and elsewhere. The history of our presence in the United States is not one of being embraced, but one that is constantly being negotiated.
SA: During the early Armenian displacement to the United States, American officials were throwing up the entire might of the federal government to try to deal with this refugee population. Most of the time, it resorted to using a legislative framework that allowed for anti-Asian exclusion. The era of the Cartozian case was defined by the United States actively denying citizenship, and thus refuge, to Armenian Genocide refugees. The Naturalization Act of 1790 granted citizenship via whiteness only, and thus whiteness was the only thing that could stop deportation. Armenians of this era didn’t win naturalization because of the benevolence of the United States. Armenian refugees won their naturalization because, in the middle of a genocide, they organized a large transnational campaign against the state to prevent their own mass deportation to villages that no longer existed. Quite simply, they had nowhere to go. In desperation, Armenian refugees crowdfunded and pooled their resources across geographic distances in order to hire the best legal representation in the country and to win. They even secured the legal testimony of anthropologist Franz Boas. They were battling much of the anti-refugee racism that refugees from the region face today, including Armenians.
And why were Armenians pursued by the state so aggressively in these legal cases? We weren’t the only ones, there were cases like Dow v. United States arguing for naturalization through whiteness, United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, and others. Armenians had to be dealt with by the US court system because there were so many of us coming to the United States at the time. That wasn’t the case for many other groups from the region. US immigration records not only attest to how race is constructed with respect to Armenians, they are also proof that the Armenian Genocide occurred.
HV: In many ways, Armenian American identity was very much hoisted upon us. It’s an imperial identity insofar as all American identities are the products of empire.
It’s important to remember that US definitions are far from universal and are constantly shifting. Elsewhere, as in Canada and Australia, Armenians are classified as visible minorities. In Europe, they’re often categorized as “Middle Eastern.” Similarly, in the United States, the use of this term is historically connected to Armenian Americans. Throughout the 20th century, when people in the United States thought about the Middle East, they often thought of us. In 1952, when the New York Times writes about one of the recipes at Aram Salisian’s Golden Horne — a celebrity hotspot near Broadway — they frame it as a taste of the “Orient.” The professional wrestler Harry Ekizian — who switched between personas throughout his successful career — was most famously known as “Ali Baba,” but also the Terrible Turk, the Krushing Kurd, Ali Yumed, and the Armenian Assassin.
Armenian identity, in the US imagination, is exotic and malleable. In Whitewashed: America’s Invisible Middle Eastern Minority, John Tehranian discusses Middle Eastern representation in the media as the “last minstrel show.” He writes that the media constructed an image of the Middle Easterner by conflating various different typologies of the “other.” This endures today. Consider the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, when some strange stories about Misha, a Muslim of Armenian descent rumored to have influenced the bomber, began to circulate. Considering the history of conflating the people of West Asia, this otherwise bizarre story kind of makes sense.
In that context, Armenian culture has been systematically subjected to Orientalization. The US government considered that culture more alien than our bodies. This is how you come to have an Armenian display at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, right beside the World of Islam display, and in the same building as dinosaurs, Indigenous North American dioramas, and African artifacts. “White culture,” especially for most of the 20th century, was on display across Central Park at the Metropolitan Museum. It tacitly communicated to visitors, especially school children, that our culture was the purview of the past and belonged with the natural world. Even today, the display of Armenian art at the Met remains limited, while at the AMNH, Armenians are behind glass as mannequins dressed in bright fabrics, standing on rugs, and showing off ceremonial objects under a prominent wall label that spells out “craft.” My favorite line in the vitrine reads, “The powerful role of the work ethic in personal identity places Armenians among the most enterprising Near Eastern people.”
SA: Exhibitions in the United States developed through the horrific history of “human zoos,” ethnographic villages, and World Fairs. The fascination with probing and exoticizing non-Western cultures unfolds alongside the active denial of Armenians’ inclusion in the category of citizenship, and thus in subjecthood deserving of foundational rights. As an identity, “Armenian American” has been essentially defined by bans and by exclusions from entry into the nation from the period of the Hamidian massacres and the genocide through to events like the Nakba, the Lebanese Civil War, and the Iranian Revolution. Even Soviet Armenian migration was determined by who the nation-state defines itself against. The nation-building project of the United States takes on specific forms of racialization for refugees from West Asia, and is bound up with the construction of the enemy and the foreigner — someone outside the nation and thus outside its protections.
HV: The institutional oppression that Armenians experience through the US imperial apparatus is often incurred through borders. My family in Syria is still banned from coming to this country, and the initial version of Trump’s Muslim Ban — which most certainly impacts Christians, Yezidis, and others — didn’t even make it clear if I, as a green card holder, would be able to return to my home in Brooklyn after going abroad.
This kind of violence through border policing abroad is too often overlooked, and remains unrecognized as a form of violence.
One of the strangest things I experience with non-Armenians is when people say, “Oh, you’re from Armenia.” I respond that I’m not from Armenia and it becomes a whole different conversation. People dismiss any identity they consider too complicated, even if it feels straightforward to us. When someone decides your identity is too complicated, they stop listening. Which is partly what happened with Aram’s original article, I believe.
AG: That’s part of the problem with how we talk about Armenian Americans. We can say some Armenians benefited from “legal whiteness” early on. They were deemed eligible for naturalization following the 1909 racial prerequisite case that granted them that right based on their proximity to whiteness. For instance they were de jure exempt from the California Alien Land Law of 1913, which denied migrants who were ineligible for citizenship the right to own or lease land. This restriction was aimed primarily at Japanese and other East Asian arrivals. (It didn’t always play out that way de facto, as Armenians nevertheless faced a number of barriers to land ownership and lending in the state.) But that shouldn’t be taken as evidence that Armenians writ large reap the benefits of whiteness today. Where do Armenian Americans who left Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Palestine, for instance, fit into the picture? Or Armenians who currently live in those places? It’s misleading to lump people who, for decades, have been on the receiving end of the full destructive power of American imperialism and its proxies into a racial category that is synonymous with political, economic, cultural, and social power. These nuances get glossed over or outright ignored when we focus only on how American racial hierarchies operate.
HV: Armenians were allowed to naturalize in the United States under the stipulation that we’d assimilate. Is there any other group for whom this was an explicit stipulation? As John Tehranian explains, Armenians were subjected to “white performance as a proxy for white racial belonging.” This was dependent on Armenians adapting to so-called “European standards,” not limited to religion or skin color. “Performance was what mattered,” he writes.
Only when you provincialize Armenian Americans does the assignation of whiteness make sense — i.e., when you approach Armenians as purely American subjects, dissociated from a global Armenian community.
SA: So much of Armenian diasporic literature and political theory is about anti-assimilation as a response to ongoing anxieties about erasure, the driving force of genocide. Our nationalism, it means something different than the nationalism of colonial powers. It quite literally means nation — a body of people of which one is a part, a collective belonging that is a connection to land and community beyond borders, and the struggle of self-determination over our own lives. It’s really useful for West Asian communities to think about the “nation,” particularly because so many of the borders were drawn on the tables of powerful men outside of the land itself. These borders have also moved and shifted over time.
Much like the Kurds and Assyrians, we are a nation — one that only became an independent nation-state very recently, despite previous attempts and a very long history of struggle. A nation is defined by its people, and those people can have borders layered on top of them in a variety of ways, over many different frames of history, marred by violence, displacement, genocide. The borders move, the empires come and go, but the people are being pushed about in various configurations on the land.
What we would call Hayastan has lived for far longer than current Western notions of us as a “nation-state.” It was why my great-grandmother’s name was Hayastan, when the Republic was only a dream. For these reasons, we benefit from understanding what Indigeneity means in the West Asian context, specifically. What it means to be a nation through time, and not through the frame of the nation-state. Hayastan has lived for a very long time.
This is why it is so complicated when someone asks, “Where are you from?” And why “Go back to where you came from” invokes not just rage, but sadness. That where is an existential question often tied to loss, and sometimes, to many different answers. But in the US you are a “where” because you are assumed not to be a “here.”
HV: There are two terms in Armenian that are useful to consider in relation to this topic. They are jermag chart and sev chart: white massacre and black massacre. The first is used to denote assimilation, and the second refers to extinction and displacement. These terms are more commonly used in the West, rather than in West Asia or elsewhere. They capture the anxieties around the ideas of assimilation and whiteness, and many of us certainly grew up seeing the two as related concepts.
AG: We can play with what “jermag” is doing in jermag chart. It means “white” because it denotes a bloodless massacre, but in the American context the word “jermag” has the additional connotation of becoming a white person or a non-Armenian, even if that isn’t what the term has meant historically. The discourse of jermag chart is present across global Armenian communities, but it has slightly different implications in the US given the way race operates in this country. Proximity to whiteness may mean access to power, however limited, but it can also spell a sort of cultural “death.” You can debate whether this discourse of massacre is too severe, but it doesn’t make the concern any less real.
I think it’s fair to say that linguistic assimilation, or the fear that subsequent generations of Armenian Americans will not speak Armenian, is most often the primary concern. It is indeed the most easily quantifiable indicator of jermag chart. This has little to do with ancestry, blood, or race. Social, personal, and collective identity — which are always in flux — are more resilient than language retention, which may contribute to these identities but is not necessarily constitutive of them. At the same time, anxieties over the loss of the language and of Armenian identity more generally are not easily disentangled, and they likely cannot be in any meaningful sense. To further complicate the matter, the desire to remain Armenian can coexist with the desire to reap the social and economic benefits of unhyphenated Americanness. This tension is at the heart of the issue of assimilation for many Armenians living in the United States.
SA: [The writer] Monte Melkonian, who is considered a national hero for many Armenians, discusses the term jermag chart in his early political writings. He was deeply influenced by liberation struggles around the world. He trained with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and participated in the movement to overthrow the Shah during the Iranian Revolution. Beyond that, he also learned from his time at UC Berkeley building solidarities with the movements of other oppressed groups in the US. And yet, nobody studies him as an Armenian American — a boy who grew up in Visalia, talks about his childhood experiences of racism, and goes on to become a guerrilla fighter. In The Right to Struggle, Melkonian argues that “if Armenians of the diaspora do not claim their right to live in their homeland they will gradually lose their common cultural identity […] and if this happens, the white massacre of our nation will have succeeded.” For Melkonian, a revolutionary fighter and organizer, Armenian identity was a question framed through the lens of Indigeneity, and one with high stakes.
HV: This is a good example of Armenians defining their own realities, using language they created. One of the interesting things about jermag chart as a term — and I’ve been asking people about this term for years — is that no one seems to know its origin. Even author Ara Baliozian, who has opined about the term in his writing through the decades, never knew where it came from.
SA: There are very valid reasons why these histories are often not spoken about publicly. They are deeply enmeshed with histories of surveillance and targeting. There is also pain and shame involved in reliving them. How many times, infuriatingly, have I heard, “Don’t ruffle any feathers. Keep your head down,” as a strategy of survival. These words carry allusions to being targeted by previous governments we lived under, and also reveal the mechanisms of the US nation-building project. They say less about anything innate within our communities and more about the multi-scalar systems of oppression that they navigate.
HV: That silence perpetuates harm. Consider this in the context of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), the terrible post-9/11 surveillance program for mostly non-citizen Middle Eastern-born males in the US. A number of people I met during that period openly doubted my narrative and personal experience with the program, despite the fact that I was told to register. Several suggested that such a program didn’t exist. Possibly because NSEERS was publicly framed as a way to tackle “terrorists” — a term that, by then, was closely linked in the US imagination with Middle Easterners. Of course, the program didn’t unearth any terrorists. Nevertheless, NSEERS lingered until 2016, even if most people — including me — were taken off the list before then, when it became clear how useless it was. We saw a more virulent version of this program emerge under Trump, which is being called the “Muslim Registry,” even though its impact extends beyond the Muslim community.
AG: You were on the NSEERS list because of where you were born?
HV: Yes, I was born in Syria.
AG: I ask because I think it’s important to point out, even if it may be obvious, that Armenians can be more than just Armenians. Armenian Americans’ racial status did little to help you, because not all Armenians across space are treated in the same way by the national security state. In your particular case, you were marked as potentially dangerous because you were born in Syria, not because you are Armenian per se.
HV: I’m not sure I know what my Armenianness versus my Syrianness is. And frankly, I don’t think anyone else does.
AG: That’s what I’m trying to get at. Armenians in Syria, just like those in Lebanon or elsewhere, are integral parts of the nation-states in which they live. They don’t exist apart from them and aren’t any less Syrian by virtue of their being Armenian. That is, the US national security state treats Armenians differently, depending on their geographic origin. An Armenian traveling from the United Kingdom would not receive the same scrutiny as, say, an Armenian from Iran. Armenians aren’t treated as a uniform group by the federal government, irrespective of how they have been racialized as Armenians in the US.
SA: And yet, we do not start and stop being Armenian at national borders. It’s crucial to distinguish that racial categories are not ethnic categories, which is especially important given the way that American discourse conflates “West Asian” with “Arab” and “Muslim.” I would argue that the erasure of Armenians from the category “West Asian” is Turanism in action. Turanism, the basis of the Armenian Genocide, is a racial ideology that classifies Armenians and Assyrians not as Indigenous to the region, but rather as foreign implants, and thus justifies their expulsion or cleansing in the name of “purifying” the land. The notion of Armenianness as being somehow “outside the region” is connected to these logics.
Today, Armenians are banned from the US by the thousands because of the “Muslim Ban,” but their stories aren’t foregrounded because they complicate the narrative; because those stories are not valued in the discourse of power or the resistance to power.
HV: In that respect, Armenian identity is still often framed in the US as one primarily related to geography.
SA: It is tied to land, just not a Western view of land. I’ve long thought about the racial trope of the Middle Eastern Christian victim suffering at the hands of a fictive Muslim aggressor as a device of Western imperialism. The trope is used much like that of the “oppressed Muslim woman” that Lila Abu-Lughod theorizes. But there is also a racial trope in the region that constructs West Asian Christians as pawns — or active extensions — of imperialist powers, a trope that suggests that they are somehow exempt from being the targets of Western aggression. This is divide and conquer in action: a strategy of colonial power.
HV: What we see in the US is that othering was enacted through various mechanisms. Yes, naturalization happened in the 1920s, but Armenians still faced housing restrictions through racial covenants up until the 1940s. President Nixon lived in a home in DC with a racial covenant that banned Armenians, for instance, which he bought a decade after racial covenants were outlawed. Though they may not have been enforced, they continued to exist. The Afro-American newspaper reported on the covenant in 1951, and the covenant read:
No part of land hereby conveyed shall ever be used, or occupied by, or sold, demised, transferred, conveyed unto, or in trust for, leased, or persons of negro blood or extraction, or to any rented or given to negro people or any person or person of the Semitic race, blood, or origin which racial description shall be deemed to include Armenians, Jews, Hebrews, Persians, or Syrians, except that, this paragraph shall not be held to exclude partial occupancy of the premises by domestic servants of said parities hereto of the second part their heirs or assigns.
When sociologist Anny Bakalian conducted a survey of discrimination in the late 1970s, the numbers reflected that discrimination persisted — a majority of the small survey of US-born first-generation Armenian Americans reported that they faced education and job discrimination. A legal court case like Cartozian does not end everything, and the system wasn’t designed for us. It’s important to note that the impact of Cartozian wasn’t limited to Armenians being admitted to the US. Non-Armenians, mostly from Asia, also used the ruling to gain citizenship. In that respect, the Cartozian case lends itself to being read as a way Armenians were able to crack the system of white supremacy and the pseudo-scientific ideas about race undergirding its “logic.” That generation of Armenian Americans played the game and won, and the prize was being allowed to stay and gain US citizenship.
AG: You could have a judge in Massachusetts or Oregon rule that Armenians are white based on “scientific evidence” and “common knowledge,” but that may not wind up meaning much. What’s more, the judge presiding over the latter only approved Tatos Cartozian’s citizenship and whiteness provisionally, with the caveat that the government could initiate cancellation proceedings should it see fit. To take one example, in Fresno, where many Armenians wound up settling in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Armenians faced barriers to land ownership and employment. Restrictive covenants against Armenians in housing lasted decades after Cartozian. I think it’s also notable that insults hurled at Armenians — “Fresno Indian,” “dirty black Armenian,” “lower-class Jew” — often made reference to other nonwhite peoples.
Instances of anti-Armenian discrimination were commonplace across the country, and there are plenty of anecdotes about these sorts of quotidian interactions. My great-grandparents, for instance, were born about 150 miles apart in what was then the Ottoman Empire — in Tavra, a village near Sivas, and Evereg (Develi) — before relocating to Michigan after World War I. My great-grandfather had dark skin and thick, frizzy hair. On an outing sometime in the mid-1930s, my great grandmother was allowed into a public pool while he was denied entry because he was “colored.” He was also denied service at some restaurants in the state because of his physical appearance.
If we say Armenians are white because two cases in the first quarter of the 20th century said so, that’s missing the point. (Whiteness wasn’t even legally defined until a 1924 Virginia anti-miscegenation law.) That isn’t what whiteness is, really, at least not all it is. It’s beyond the realm of the juridical. These judges may have made prescriptive rulings, but reading those decisions tells us little about Armenian American life as it was, and is, lived. If you’re operating from the assumption that there is a yes or no answer to the question of whether Armenians are white, you’re bound to be frustrated. It’s a tempting question to ask, but it’s the wrong one.
The ambiguity is itself the point. The best we can do is historicize it.
HV: And do the memory work.
But it’s also important to note that we continue to grapple with the legacy of these debates and the violence at the core of these questions today. The internet has contributed to that. For instance, as a Boy Scout in Toronto in the ’80s, I was called a sand N-word at a jamboree which I attended with my Armenian Canadian Cub Scout troop. Now, on the internet, we’re racialized differently. The pseudo-logic of Cartozian focused on the “man on the street” argument and how they’d be able to discern your identity. On the internet, that’s no longer as central. Most of my interactions are mediated through a screen. So when people send me hate mail, it is often based on their reading of my name, my place of origin (which is easily Googled), or other data points about me available online.
In the last two decades, the rise in xenophobia in the US has also made Armenians more visible, which we know isn’t always a good thing. I remember going to a gay bar in Roanoke, Virginia, where I’d traveled to knock on doors for the Obama campaign in 2008. The bartender there was aggressive and thought Middle Easterners should go back to where they came from, so I left.
In the 1980s, after a series of incidents with the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), nationally syndicated journalists like Jack Anderson were going on the radio and saying things like, “Armenian terrorists are the most savage in the world…” I point these out to reinforce that there aren’t one or two moments, but a continuing history of racialization and surveillance.
The narrative in the media about Armenians is almost always crafted without our input. In Hollywood films, there’s a reason why Armenians universally anticipate the credits to look for Armenian names. That’s our representation. We got to keep our last names, most of the time, as long as they weren’t too difficult for white people to pronounce.
SA: In my own ethnographic work, it’s true that the surveillance doesn’t just start in 2001. This is true for most diasporic communities of the region.
AG: It’s important to identify how Armenians interact with a uniquely American taxonomic system that privileges certain people, so-called “model minorities,” in relation to others. This hierarchy has, since its inception, placed Black and Indigenous people squarely at the bottom. This taxonomy, in which race and class are inseparable, makes itself felt in every aspect of life here. It’s crucial to emphasize that Armenians don’t bear the full brunt of American apartheid, and they aren't overrepresented among the underclasses in this country. However, this doesn’t mean they have been accepted into the fold unconditionally. Armenians’ — as well as other communities’ — acceptance of a position above other minoritarian subjects is part of a social contract that reproduces anti-Black racism and settler-colonialism. This isn’t a question of personal convictions, of individual morality and immorality, or of education and ignorance. It’s about entrenched structures of power dedicated to preserving a highly stratified social order.
SA: The US is a nation not only born of genocidal violence against Black and Indigenous people, but one where that violence continues today. We know anti-Blackness to be the global governing structure. The three pillars of white supremacy at the heart of the US racial project — the logics of chattel slavery, settler colonialism, and imperialism/Orientalism — interact in myriad ways. But as noted by Black organizers, non-Black refugees and immigrants uphold the system of anti-Black racism, even as they are cast as perpetual foreigners in the US. This means we have to work harder as displaced people in the US to actively build joint struggle with Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities beyond our own, unconditionally. We are in the middle of an uprising, built on generations of labor and struggle. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement should not be articulated through words alone, but through action and labor to dismantle anti-Black racism systemically.
Cartozian’s Armenians knew it well. They left one genocide for a land with its own. The choices we make either fortify or disrupt that system.
All images courtesy of Hrag Vartanian, from the series "100 20th Century Armenian Americans" (2020)
Sophia Armen is a writer and organizer, born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She is a former staff member of The HyePhen magazine and has been building in the SWANA movement for almost ten years.
Aram Ghoogasian is a PhD student in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.
Hrag Vartanian is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic, as well as an editor, art critic, curator, artist, and lecturer on contemporary art.