By Hrag Arakelian
Being Armenian is the most treasured part of my identity because every other characteristic I possess comes from my Armenian-ness. Being Armenian has enriched my life with cultural traditions, a love for humanity and community, and a strong belief in the youth. I’m not suggesting that every Armenian has the same characteristics as I do, but rather that being Armenian has given me the opportunities to acquire these characteristics. For example, I understand others’ feelings and motivations because I have been involved in Armenian organizations. I am understanding of other cultures because being Armenian and a minority has allowed me to respect different perspectives. I am comfortable speaking in front of large groups because of my involvement in large Armenian community events. I understand the importance of community and helping others because of my involvement with the Armenian community. And I understand the importance of education and activism because I have seen the impact that educated individuals have made towards Armenian history.
I cannot imagine what life would be like if I was not Armenian, and I have therefore excluded myself from being considered “white.” However, I have been in an identity crisis lately, as I have become more aware of the privilege and power problems of our society. What I have come to understand is that no matter how I identify myself, other people will identify me from what they see: I am white, male, Christian, non-disabled, and heterosexual. This puts me at the highest possible privilege and power in our society, according to many sociologists. Normally, people desire to be in a highly privileged and powerful state; however, this identity completely lacks my Armenianness. It makes me realize that I am where I am not because of my Armenianness, but because I am a white male Christian who is non-disabled and heterosexual.
For example, being white keeps people from thinking I did something illegal to drive a nice car; being male pays me 30 percent more at work; being Christian gives me days off from school and work during my holidays; being non-disabled allows me to not worry about how I will enter a building; and being straight keeps me from getting harassed in public.
You may feel that society is fairer than that. You may also tell yourself that this does not apply to you and that, if anything, you feel non-privileged. That is because many people have subconsciously accepted the privilege and power system in our society. Anyone who allows awareness of this matter to enter their consciousness is bound to feel something about it. I have this awareness because of my involvement with human rights activities through the Armenian community, which has also given me the sight of an alternative path in our society. Everyone must become aware of the alternative paths so that they do not supplement injustice and suffering for people in culturally devalued and excluded groups.
For example, Hrant Dink expressed that it is difficult for Turks to admit to the Armenian Genocide because it is hard for them to believe they were a part of something that atrocious, but the Turks must admit to their atrocities because it did happen. Well, we must also admit to our privileges even if we don’t feel comfortable with them because denying it is, like the Armenian Genocide, looking the other way and allowing injustice and the suffering of people in culturally devalued and excluded groups. We must become aware of the problems of our society in order for things to change.
On the other hand, I have realized that there is a “who” and a “what” that constructs a person’s identity. For example, male privilege is more about male people than it is about male people. In this example, the male is the “what” identity and the people is the “who” identity. “What” I am is white, male, Christian, non-disabled, and heterosexual. “Who” I am is Armenian.
Although I do not favorably identify my self as “what” I am, it is critical that I am aware of my “what” identity in order to have a sense of ownership of the problem. Without that sense of ownership, serious work on issues of privilege will always be the last item on society’s agenda. Moreover, the better I can identify myself in the aspects of “what” and “who” I am, the better I can raise the awareness of privilege and power with others. Because awareness will give ownership of the problem to others so that people can begin to become part of the solution.