Black Lives Should Matter to the Armenian Diaspora

Arpi Movsesian protesting in Paris, June 2, 2020

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. 

A scene from a Black Lives Matter protest in Paris, where an estimated 20,000 people participated (June 2, 2020)

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. 

Arpi Movsesian

Arpi Movsesian

Arpi Movsesian is a published author and a scholar of comparative literature, including English, Russian, and Soviet-Armenian literature. Arpi is also a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

32 Comments

    • The only reason your young Armenian generation still speak the language, have the culture and enjoy the beauty of Armenian traditions, religion and all is your past generation. They fought for it to the bone. Build churches and schools where we lost lives over it. Kept the language where we need to learn other languages to survive. Hold tight to each others and stay together and multiply again. Shine and prove the society that we can and we are able to. You want to call it prejudice? The behaviour still is our first priority since we are living in another different country with all differences. When the minorities right getting abused or when minorities murdered everyone should rise. We will fight for black lives matter and we like to see blacks join us when we peacefully without destroying others properties going for April walk on LA. Streets.

  1. I have noticed a lot of Armenians repeating the phrase “all lives matter”. It is rather ironic as I don’t believe that an Armenian community anywhere in the world happy for people to say that all genocides matter at an Armenian Genocide protest and that “1915 never again” should read “every genocide matters”.

    One has to be careful using these phrases, an Armenian using the phrase “all lives matter” will then be told by a Turk to “get over the genocide” or that “all people have been discriminated against not just Armenians, so why go on about what happened to your group ?”.

    • My Armenian mother, born and raised in Iran, and now an American citizen says that. She does not say it with malice or ill intent. She says it because she’s in her 60s, and not social media savvy. She has no idea what hashtag buzzwords mean. She is honestly just baffled that anyone would have thought that one group or another’s life didn’t matter. be gentle with our older generations, they don’t use language the way we do, and they don’t know much about this current social justice movement, or what every phrase means in that context.

      It’s not always said with such knowledge.

  2. Speaking of “riot”, that itself is a loaded word. It implies destruction for no reason. In reality, as MLK put it, a riot is the voice of the unheard. These are in fact uprising against oppressive systems.

    I just saw the movie Shoes of the Fisherman. One of the lines is “Violence is the result of conditions becoming intolerable.” Perfectly applicable to the present.

  3. Honestly this is very unfortunate to see, in a time where the nation and the city is filled with rage and hate, there is no need to spew more hate and slander. There is no need to single out any city and generalize hatred, there is always a way to share an opinion without so much negativity. Not only is this piece drawing out hate towards a specific population in a very specific city but it also further rages hate on other reporters. She preaches for more acceptance and love yet the majority of the article focuses on hate. Unfortunate truly and deeply disappointing, instead of coming together we write articles that single out people and spread hate.

  4. Hi Arpi, thank you for writing this article. As an Armenian-American from Baku, I’m deeply saddened by the fact that too many Armenians are flat-out racist, either stemming from ethnocentrism, fear, or hate, all of which are deeply hypocritical self-sabotaging behaviors that will hold back the progress of an otherwise largely brilliant and resilient community of people. I’m also very hopeful that there is positive change in thinking taking place within the community as well, and look to see more of that.

    • Juliet : I don’t see it that way at all. I see that Glendale being historically a sundown town (as is Burbank by the way) needs to be double conscious of its position and its support of black community. Additionally Armenians though having had a lot of unresolved generational trauma including a 20th century genocide and fear-based immigrant mentality (us vs them ) needs to understand that looting and unrest as a response to mounting black injustice can be likened to the assassinations of Talat Pasha (and other Turkish perpetrators) as a response by Armenians to their own continuous unresolved trauma. I think this is an eye opener. I learned a lot from this article. Well written.

  5. Beautifully written and poignant article!!! As a first generation Armenian American in LA, We need to stand against all injustice with our black community and educate ourselves about our white privilege.

  6. Hello and Parev (hello in Armenian),
    I am a proud born Armenian and a proud naturalized American living in Florida, USA for 34 years now. This is how I feel and what I am telling my 2 boys, 10 and 12. It was very wrong and unjust for that police officer to kill the African American fellow. He needs to be punished for that based on US law. This kind of acts are not acceptable. At the same time, it is very wrong for protests and riots to turn this violent claiming more innocent lives. Two wrongs don”t make it right. 1.5 million Armenians got killed in 1915 out of 2 million population and it is past time for the US to fully acknowledge this tragic evemt.
    With peace and love,
    Avo Oymayan

    • Armenians of all people should understand this movement, u talk of 1.5 million ? We are talking in excess of 15 million African lives killed in transitions not to talk about the millions that died on American Soil , u have the privilege of claiming white , that’s cool but u guys were discriminated against at a stage , that in itself should make u more sympathetic towards the black matters movement , America says it’s the land of the free when it’s minority are classed as second class citizens and are treated as such , nobody agrees with looting and the aggression , but who crystallised looting , burning , ? Do know about black Wall Street , do u know about , rosewood ? to mention just 2 but lynching, the moose, forced labour of the black people is what built the privilege you are enjoying , u Armenians were not considered white before u went to court cause u do wanted to belong , we of Nubian decent don’t have that choice but we don’t even want to be different cause the black race has always being blessed , truth is Africa has always been blessed but was destroyed by the Roman Empire with the queen of Spain and the Vatican , during the time of Solomon , Tyre was a city , a sister city to cartharhage in North Africa , they supplied Jerusalem it’s materials , gold, tin, silver, copper , dye , u name it ! Till this day most materials , including cobalt , without it , there won’t be those mobile phones u carry about , America was built on blood shed and has tied to alter its history cause the truth is greed is the foundation of America’s history and wealth , the Nubian race is the most feared on this planet, let me ask u as Christians , God made man from sand / clay , what colour is sand / clay ? 2, where did civilisation start ? 3 where was Joseph the dreamer sold to and what did he become and where ? 4. Where did the first man come from ? People don’t have a clue and don’t care as long as the privilege they enjoy is not questioned , the day it gets questioned ? Trust me , u will have a rear view of racism and u will not be so relaxed but people talk like they know cause that privileged position u enjoy of the backs of those u criticise for fighting for their rights for over 400 yrs is a position u don’t come from and will never understand cause when u work into a store, restaurant or even your own stores , the look of accusation isn’t one u get and that’s the basic , a lot of people are ignorant but claim supremacy on the downside of their skin, the fridge, washing machine, microwave, computer to mention a few, were invented by black people and the credits stolen , I didn’t say it , do ur research , be more informed about ur awareness cause it makes people look or sound so retarded when they voice opinions without facts , two things , 1. All lives matter , yes but right now , we are fighting for equality in America For African Americans not just Nubians but all minorities including yourselves , oh sorry, u are whites now, right? , till there isn’t a need for u to be ,except u are saying the people , full Cutizens but minorities like yourselves , who have built a country are less entitled cause of their skin ? The only place I don’t feel racism is Africa , as a Nubian I stand out , the melanin that gives Nubians our complexion is what makes us unique to our African environments , Nubians didn’t ask to go anywhere , we were ok in Africa but who came looking for us ? We welcomed , were hospitable , curious and trusted but guess what betrayal was bestowed upon us ? African generations everywhere in the world need equality, respect we so deservedly be accorded cause we are a race of deep love but will turn if oppressed as revolts proved during the incarceration of slavery , bible says Hebrews/ Israel were slaves in Egypt for 400 yrs , Nubians were slaves for 400 yrs ? They roamed in the wilderness for 40 yrs before getting to the promised land , well it’s been over forty years since the civil rights act , I think it’s true implementation in its true sense and meaning of what it stands for is well and truly overdue 2. Black lives matter isn’t dividing but saying that all over the world , in the Americas, Argentina, Costa Rica , Brazil , Portugal, France , Germany , Italy , Spain ( Europe ) , Asia – China , Japan , India , Pakistan , Sri Lanka , Indonesia , Australia ! In all these countries where oppression is alive today , and finally when all the people of Nubian decent are treated and regarded on the same pedestal , then the world and all of us can chant all lives matter cause we are equal and treated as such and no one will feel or even notice the difference , yes , All lives matter when all lives are equal , the youths understand it , that’s why we are mixed , whites , Nubians , Indians , Latinos , Asians are all moving under one banner “ Black lives matter “ when all minorities lives gets better, then the world can shout out , in unison , “ All lives matter “ but until that day The “ slogan is “ BLACK LIVRA MATTER

  7. I’d like to say thanks to Arpi for writing this and even though there were a couple points that I didn’t agree with, I don’t want to make this an unpleasant message. Armenian- Americans and African Americans in some ways I’ve noticed are alike, the way we dress, the swagger, the mentality, and we are both very proud people. I don’t really know or really care what the reason was for the animosity between the two, I just know one thing it will not end well for anyone if this continues to get fueled by thoughtless, careless individuals who don’t have enough wits to understand that this is their time to shine, let them shine because when it’s our turn to shine we will too. No disrespects to my people and likewise to anyone else.

  8. Excellent article! As a biracial individual living on the border of Burbank and Glendale, this is very enlightening and explains a great deal about racial dynamics I’ve noticed. Thank you for bringing the issues out into the open. It’s important to acknowledge and have compassion for all the struggles people have had to endure simply based on their ethnic backgrounds or skin color.

  9. Beautifully written article- i mean it, the way the words flow is spectacular. However, i would’ve liked for you to go more into depth about armenian whiteness if you were going to bring it up at all. While, yes, legally we count as white in the us, and we achieved that status before the rest of MENA folks (it is my understanding that this was largely because of our Christian status, and because Jewish people had already been granted the same access- being seen as ‘white’ by the law, and therefore they felt they could not subject a west asian group to a non white status without stripping Jewish people of the same right. It is also my understanding that Christian Syrians gained the same right soon after us) and this has put us at a vantage point from other non european minorities legally, since the rest of MENA countries were tardier in achieving that recognition, it does not mean that we are white in the american sense of the word, nor that we are guarded from prejudice or discrimination. We are not european, no matter what our phenotype or characteristics. And neither is any MENA group. And while being a Christian nation puts us at great risk in many islam majority countries, it has the effect of shielding us from a lot of islamophobia in the us, and a lot of us are lightskinned and can pass as white, but some can not, and the fact of the matter is, while acknowleding that we are privileged in re to not experiencing anti blackness, that many can pass, that we benefit, especially lighter skinned people, from colorism, that we have benefitted from the law seeing us as white in countless ways, let’s not get it twisted- many of us are proud to be west asian, even if we have had to assimilate as a community. I know this is a blm article- i agree with the cause and what you write here. But so often i see things that are like…ok, i agree, but it feels like you’re writting about us as if people in the us saw us as european or we saw ourselves that way, and that’s not the case for the majority. What i’m saying is idk why i haven’t seen a single blm article from armenians that acknowledges this, when all have spoken about the law seeing us as white. By all means bring it up and discuss it, but if bringing it up and being like ‘so i guess we must be’ (not saying this is the case here) is disconcerting to me? Idk. (Yes i know some armenian and MENA people identify as white, they can do as they wish, but to think the whitness as a concept in the us has accepted us, or that we are european by proxy is…odd imo)

    • There is actually a US Supreme Court case that defines Armenians, and it has nothing to do with other people – not that the opinions of odars matter. You may want to read it.

  10. Thank you for this article. As one of the few black people living in Glendale (a black woman with a black son) I think this needed to be said. I think many have forgotten the sordid past of Glendale. Peace be upon you.

  11. I AM WHITE BUT NOT ARMENIAN. I LIVE IN BUFBANK, CALIFORNIA WHERE THERE IS A LARGE GROUP OF ARMENIAN LIVING HERE. I HAVE NOTICED EXTREME PREJUDICES AGAINST AFRICAN AMERICANS. THESE ARMENIANS ARE FOR THE MOST PART UNEDUCATED. FOR EXAMPLE, JERRY MY CAR MECHANIC MAN DOES NOT EVEN HAVE A HIGH SCHOOL DEGREE, THE SECONDE EXMPLE(S) IS MY HAIR DRESSER RUZANNE AND OTHER ARMENIANS WHO WORK FOR HER IN HER SALON. AGAIN SHE ONLY HAS A HIGH SCHOOL DEGREE. BOTH ARE VERY PREJUDICED. AT ONE POINT I REMINDED THEM THAT WHILE THEY ARE BOTH EMIGRANTS, BLACKS HAVE LIVED HERE FROM THE TIME MEMORIAL HAVE BEEN SLAVED, PERSECUTED, LYNCHED AND KEPT IN POVERTY. BLACKS ALSO CONTRIBUTED TO THE PROSPERITY OF AMERICA, REMEMBER PLANTATION ETC. I REALLY ENJOYED READING YOUR ARTICLE AND MUSY ADMIT THAT I AM PLEAED TO SEE THAT NOT ALL ARMENIANS HERE ARE SHOP KEEPERS OR MERCHANTS
    AND THAT THERE ARE ALSO THOUGHTFUL AND INTELLECTUAL AMONG THEM. IN PARTICULAR I LIKED YOUR REFERENCE TO ARMENIAN GENOCIDE. OBVIOUSLY THESE PEOPLE DON’T EVEN KNOW THE HISTORY OF THEIR OWN PEOPLE. I CAN GO ON AND ON BUT I MUST STOP. I WOULD LIKE TO ASK YOU A FAVOR. WOULD YOU KINDLY SEND ME YOUR ARTICLE SO I CAN CIRCULATE AMONG FRIENDS. BEST WISHES,

    BOTH ARE CATEGIRES ARE WELL TODO A

  12. Your article about Armenian privilege is totally nonsense. The same Glendale police were always targeting Armenian youth. Enough of an apologist stance. You the author are in no position to claim anything. In this vast planet no one really cares about the struggle of the Armenians, yet Armenians have to worry about other’s struggles? Before you start to write this garbage learn history. Armenians are sensitive to the looting because throughout their lives they were forced to other places, their lives and livelihoods stolen from them. 20th Century crimes against Armenians: 1915 Genocide, 1930s Soviet gulags, 1940s Armenian population had less than 1 million Armenians yet 600,000 Armenians fought against the Axis powers. This was done by the Soviet system to wipe out all of the Armenians. We survived and rebuilt. 1979 Iran revolution, lot of Armenians forced once again to build from scratch. 1980s Lebanon civil war Armenians came to the US much like the Iran Armenians. 1988 pogroms in azerbaijan, earthquake, and 1991 dissolution of USSR, 1990 to 1994 bloody war, war of survival against azeri attempt of ethnic cleansing. And people came here settled and worked creating livelihoods. Now they are witnessing another societal upheaval and a threat to what they worked hard to accomplish. Now you talking about privilege? You are a bobblehead. Know where all the Armenians are coming from before you start typing. Armenians in this past 100 years have survived so many calamities.

    • 100 yrs ? No one or race should be subjected to oppression , ur country is 97% Christians , thought I understand u have various denomination of Christianity , u have the apostles, catholic , church of Armenia etc but ur country is mostly Christians and I believe I ate unique in that way, I believe Armenians are physically one of the most beautiful people on the planet whenit comes to physicals but understand that 400 yrs of suffering here

  13. Let’s not conflate issues please. Armenian history has nothing to do with the present issue: whether there is racism in policing of blacks? The only way to figure that out is by collecting data and running a statistical analysis (which, by the way, we can do). That said, I suggest you pull the DOJ record on violence in America if you want a dose of reality.

  14. While most of the article was fine. Why did you have to put down Armenians from Armenia? Can’t you make a case without dogwhistle self hate?
    It’s not that hard.
    Yes only Haystanzis were against Armenians supporting BLM. You ran those numbers yourself?
    What a ignorant and most importantly out of place remark.

  15. Another “Armenian” with a guilty conscience and something to prove. Why can’t you just show solidairty without reverting to anecdotal assumptions about Armenians in general. That’s a racist approach, no?

  16. I am a non-Armenian that has married into an Armenian family. This family tends to have some backwards, prejudiced views regarding African Americans even though they are highly educated and well off (who knows what they really think about me!). You would think that as descendants of survivors of a genocide, they would make it their mission in life to spread tolerance to honor their ancestors: 1) since that’s what a good person should do, 2) so that others do not go through what their people went through, and 3) so that other people hear their voice and serve as allies in spreading recognition of the genocide – a much sought after goal of the Armenian diaspora. Somehow, none of this registers with them. They choose to write off systemic racism as both non-existent or as a problem everyone faces and therefore all are equally held back (a simple Google search can teach you about excess discrimination towards black folks in the form of education, health, jobs, wages, etc., etc.).

    I wonder if the Armenian community realizes these kinds of attitudes hurt their cause (see #3 above). Why would you expect people to acknowledge your pain and suffering if you don’t acknowledge theirs? Also, I’m pretty sure that as Christians you’re SUPPOSED to do this sorta thing but maybe that’s asking too much.

  17. Racism should not be tolerated anywhere.
    Armenians faced racism all their lives, and we don’t lectures to condemn racism when we see it.
    What happened to George Floyd is a crime. That cop will face justice. There is no systematic racism. The numbers prove it.

    All lives matter. Period.

    • 100 yrs ? No one or race should be subjected to oppression , ur country is 97% Christians , thought I understand u have various denomination of Christianity , u have the apostles, catholic , church of Armenia etc but ur country is mostly Christians and I believe I ate unique in that way, I believe Armenians are physically one of the most beautiful people on the planet whenit comes to physicals but understand that 400 yrs of suffering here

    • If I think systemic racism doesn’t exit u are definitely living in a bubble , bet u live in Glendale ? Hmmmm , that will explain the unrealistic perception of ur comment

  18. absolute liberal nonsense. More and more armenian youth are being told that trannys and gays are ok in this world, your culture is against all of that. You take away a part of your culture that molds the youth, and you will have absolutely nothing in 25 years. I like my culture, ill keep it the way i like it. As for you arpi, youre washed over by your environment and should be ashamed for it. After all, you did go to UCSB, really prestigious party school. Im sure that’s where you connected with all the minorities.

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