Kostan Zarian, in his philosophical work, Countries and Gods (Yerkirner yev Astvatsner, 1936) first published as a trilogy in Hairenik, the Armenian language counterpart of the Armenian Weekly, wrote about his encounter with a black man in Harlem:
He had the face of an intellectual. He was busily writing something down, but I am sure he had heard everything our friend said about his people. He raised his head, and our eyes met, and despite the fact that I was not part of that dispute, and I was foremost a friend to the black people, I felt guilty for the white race. Felt shame, as if I committed the most horrendous crime. Upon leaving, I walked up to him, and shook his hand firmly. I could not say anything, and he said nothing. [ . . . ] He simply, and with dignity, pressed my hand, and continued to write. [ . . .] After this occurrence, his eyes were walking with me in Harlem.
Living the life of the Other in Azerbaijan, Belgium and Soviet Armenia, Zarian sympathized with the black man’s plight in the United States, a country founded on the principles of liberty, but with a nonetheless tainted history of black oppression.
The Armenian word for “diaspora” is spyurk, which comes from the verb, sprel, meaning, to “scatter.” Past and current rebellions of black people in America, especially the recent and ongoing Black Lives Matter protests that have received much media attention around the world, have also reverberated within the Armenian Diaspora. How could they not? The story of oppression, injustice and perpetual wandering as an othered group is all too familiar.
But not every Armenian has been readily supportive of the current protests. In fact, in pockets of the Armenian Diaspora in the US, such as the Glendale bubble in California, an LA County suburb sometimes referred to as the capital of the Diaspora, the movement has received much backlash and unleashed a slew of racist rhetoric and deep-seated prejudices against black people. Social media monologues, ranging from mildly to deeply offensive, that are meant to spew hatred toward black people and mar the causes behind the movement, are circulating with a force that is both destructive to racial progress and to the hard-won positive image of Armenians in America. Meme-like images of the Armenian Genocide march in Los Angeles from 2015 meant to cast a comparison between the “peaceful” Armenians and “savage” black people whose sole purpose is to destroy Armenian businesses have been tainting the work many Armenians do for racial justice. Why are they looting? Why are they rioting? Why are they destroying our property? the bubble asks. The Instagram-operated news blog, The Armenian Report, which has focused its energy on posting about the broken glass of the few Armenian-owned businesses predominantly in affluent neighborhoods of LA County, like Melrose and Beverly Hills, rather than on the overwhelming support and participation in the movement by Armenians within and outside Armenia, has done more harm than good in fueling the rage a large group of concerned Glendale Armenians has expressed against the Black Lives Matter movement. On Monday, the Armenian Report posted a question directed at the Glendale City Council, “[W]hat are you doing to protect the City?” to which city council member and former mayor Ara Najarian, quick to satisfy his base, responded, “Gearing up. We’re not going to be a victim like la [sic].” The urgency of the exchange is especially odd considering the protests in LA County have been mainly happening in downtown Los Angeles.
For Glendale, a hive of first-generation Armenians, mostly émigrés from the Republic of Armenia who generally preferred their quality of life in the Soviet Empire to that in post-Soviet Armenia, it is difficult to draw parallels that put oppression into perspective, since the Soviet generation of Armenians, contrary to scholarly consensus, does not view the Soviet collective space as an “empire” or as a relentlessly oppressive machine. The myriad social media posts coming out of this specific Armenian community, denouncing the protests and black people as instigators of violence, have unveiled a set of attitudes that can be explained through the community’s relatively comfortable and oftentimes privileged current position in this corner of the diaspora. It is no secret that for centuries, we Armenians have often found ourselves under the yoke of this or that empire and survived through our unity, but we also cannot ignore the unsettling repercussions of bubble-thinking and bubble-living.
To those Armenians, myself included, who have been unequivocally supportive of the movement and have been a part of the protests against police brutality exercised against black people, this discriminatory and partisan attitude seems rather ironic and insensitive considering the position of Armenians as a minority in the US. It is not entirely shocking, however, that as a self-contained island that remains sealed, especially to black people, Glendale would air its prejudiced grievances in an unbridled fashion. The city’s demographics according to the 2014-2018 census, with its 73.7 percent white population of which Armenians account for roughly 30 percent and its 1.6 percent black population, speaks to the seriousness of the issue of racism echoed in the city’s dark history of whiteness. An article from 1994 in the Los Angeles Times refers back to a history not known to many Glendale Armenians: Glendale as grounds for abundant Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s, curfews for black people in the 1950s, and as a West Coast headquarters for the American Nazi Party, as well as for other nationalist organizations. Glendale Armenians, living in a city that from 1906 to this day has not had one black individual as its mayor or on its board of trustees, should tread extremely carefully on these grounds, while acknowledging their privileged position. As Armenians, we should understand that our “whiteness” and colorism in general, is a construct that Armenians, who arrived in California after the Genocide and were heavily discriminated against (being called “dirty black Armenian,” “low class Jew,” and “Fresno Indian”) had to fight for in an ongoing battle of the construction and re-construction of race. Aram Ghoogasian in his article “How Armenian-Americans Became ‘White’: A Brief History,” speaks of the Naturalization Act and the legal battles, including the famous United States v. Cartozian case, which argued for the “whiteness” of the Armenians, and in the courtly proceedings utilized quotes from such prominent figures as Herodotus and the anthropologist Franz Boas that support the notion of Armenians’ “whiteness.” We Armenians should not only credit our hard work and determination in being largely middle-class (the median household income in Glendale is higher than that of the national average), but also our privileged position in today’s America.
Let us then not be discouraged but inspired and encouraged by the #ArmeniansforBlackLivesMatter hashtag circulating on supportive platforms like Kooyrigs, a feminist organization which has called to action Armenians in Armenia for the Black Lives Matter movement, Charjoum based in Paris, which has done the same, and hundreds of other Armenian platforms whose benevolent work against racism is being muffled by racist rhetoric. After a moment of hasty judgment, let us not continue to rebuke another oppressed minority group or judge its tactics of resistance, lest we fall into a black hole of hypocrisy and undermine our own history of struggle with and against oppression on this and other continents.
Kostan Zarian, to whom the British poet Lawrence Durrell dedicated a poem called “Constant Zarian—Triple Exile” (1952), knew better. We owe it to ourselves and our history to know so too.
Editor’s Note, June 16, 2020: The article incorrectly named referred to Ara Najarian as the current mayor of Glendale, California. Mr. Najarian is a former mayor and current council member.