Privilege Talking

Arev as a kindergarten student surrounded by friends.

Every year as a kid, my elementary school would host the International Dinner. Kids and their families were invited to bring a dish unique to their culture and arrive dressed in traditional garb. I’d throw open the doors to the gymnasium, and all I could see were colors. Every color. Bright flags strung from one basketball hoop to the other representing the places we all came from. I’d search immediately for the Armenian one of course. My classmates were dressed in costumes and hanboks and saris and shuka and kilts. There were trays full of steaming food smelling and looking different from the things I ate at home. I’d fill my plate and find a seat dressed in the Armenian dance costume my mom stitched together for me—pennies hanging from my headpiece. I still remember sitting with friends from all over the world coming together in this special moment. We’d eat fried plantains, boregs, sticky rice, croque madame, kimchi, and whatever else we could fit onto our styrofoam plates. Sometimes we’d go up for seconds or even thirds. I was once told that unger means a person you share your table with. I was sure I was surrounded by my ungers. I was sure the world fit perfectly together just like we did, dressed in costume, sharing a meal in a vibrant gymnasium—that’s my privilege talking.  

Snapshot of the Fort Lee girls’ basketball team during a school pep rally.

When I got to high school, no one cared about culture or language or foods or traditions. No one worked to draw lines separating us; no one looked for differences, simply because there were so many. My classes were diverse. My sports teams were diverse. Student council was diverse. My closest circle of friends was made up of a Korean, an Indian, a Greek, a Dominican and an Armenian. I was surrounded by difference and culture, and I didn’t see the profoundness. I didn’t think about race. I figured everyone grew up in a place like me—that’s my privilege talking. 

Arev and her closest group of friends in high school.

I attended a private Irish Catholic college. Most of the student body graduated from religious high schools. They had photos of their first communion hanging in their houses, and their names were Patrick and Megan and Connor. Their parents met at this very same college, and their grandparents before that. If you look any further back in history, the school only admitted boys. I stuck out with my dark hair and dark eyes, against the blonde beauties and fair,  freckled faces. But after a month of mispronouncing my name and answering questions like, “Where are you from? But where are you really from?” I became like everyone else. Just a student—that’s my privilege talking. 

My first college roommate became my best friend. On move-in day, she shooed my parents out and promised them she would take care of me—and she did. We became inseparable; sharing meals and study tips, secrets and dreams. We made color-coded maps so we wouldn’t get lost on our way to class. She joined the AfroAm club, and I started an Armenian club. I’d attend the fashion show featuring all black designers and clothes stitched with African inspiration. She’d hold signs and chant with me in front of the State House on April 24th. She’s the whitest black person I know. She doesn’t talk like she’s black. She’s black, but not really. Yea, but she’s from Cape Cod. I knew the things people said about her, and she knew them too. I wasn’t sure if it bothered her, and I was afraid to ask—that’s my privilege talking. 

Protesters, including Arev and her best friend, during the centennial march in April 2015.

A few years later, I had a boyfriend. His parents emigrated from Guatemala to their house in the south side of Providence. They worked hard so he and his older sister could attend college—a familiar story for many of my Armenian friends. He showed me a world I didn’t know much about. His father would speak Spanish to me convinced that I knew more of the language than I was letting on. His mother tried three times to teach me how to make fried plantains, but I could never get it right. Race was on his mind constantly, and he was passionate and committed to sharing his beliefs. We watched Fruitvale Station and Dog Pound and Freedom Writers. He explained to me what the Dream Act would mean for so many people in his community. He tried to describe what it was like being the only Hispanic in his marketing class. He told me many of his friends were targeted by campus security. They were forced to show their school IDs while studying in the library or relaxing in the student lounges as their white counterparts were left alone. I told him I had never seen that happen first hand—that’s my privilege talking. 

Arev at the front of her classroom on the first day of school for the Paterson School District.

After I graduated, I got a teaching job in a low income district of New Jersey. On the first day of school, my fourth graders lined up in front of me with backpacks zipped up and eyes wide open. We walked in two lines up the stairs to my classroom—30 students—all either Black or Hispanic. I stood in front of them and thought about race. I wondered if they were thinking about it too. I wanted to know what they thought of me—who they thought I was. After about three months of teaching and learning and loving, one of my little girls came to me after recess. Her intricate braid had come undone. She handed over a small pink clip and turned her back, tight textured curls staring at me. I realized then that I didn’t know how. After doing my own hair for 20 years, after working at a sleepaway camp and setting pigtails for my campers every night for eight weeks, after mindlessly scrolling on Instagram and watching hours of hair tutorials, I realized I didn’t know how to do this little girl’s hair—that’s my privilege talking. 

Today, I reexamine these moments and others in my life when I had previously ignored my privilege. I reflect on aggressions I myself have committed, and I thank those who have pointed out those times. I devote myself to accepting that I will never understand some things, but acknowledge that I don’t have to in order to be an ally. I hope for strength as I pledge to stare my own prejudice in the face. I call on my Armenian brothers and sisters to do the same. And I pray my voice does not falter as I speak the names of those lost to race-driven violence even if that voice is my privilege talking. 

Arev Dinkjian

Arev Dinkjian

Arev Dinkjian grew up in an Armenian household in Fort Lee, NJ. She was always surrounded by art, sourced by her musical father and grandfather, Ara and Onnik, or her creative mother Margo. Arev graduated from Providence College with a degree in elementary and special education. She enjoys teaching language arts to her students and takes great pride in instilling an appreciation for literature in her classroom. She is a former member of the New Jersey AYF “Arsen" Chapter and a member of both the Bergen County ARS and the Sts. Vartanantz Ladies’ Guild. She also dedicated many summers to AYF Camp Haiastan, which she says remains her favorite topic to write about.
Arev Dinkjian

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  1. well said Arev but somehow I think your “privilege” allowed you to even have this open mind…xo

    • What a unique and interesting article. I agree that your values have guided you to a level of respect and your call for Armenians to lead is noble. My hope is that you keep writing. You have something to say that is genuine.

  2. Bravo Arev. This is so well written and genuine. I do Agree with Elyse that your “privilege “ allowed you to be so open minded and accepting of everyone. Thank you!!!

  3. I love this Arev, especially the ending, which is so honest. I too find myself thinking deeply about my own perspective and privilege. I feel dismayed at the divide between what I know cerebrally and what I have lived personally. Thank you for saying that full understanding is not what makes us an ally. I hope it is our willingness to understand and demand justice and not our proximity to racism and injustice that matters here.

  4. It is eye-opening to see the parents of today’s Armenian activists supporting their children’s endeavors. I think they must be reflecting upon the activism of Armenian youth in the 1980s (their own generation) with a more tolerant eye.

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