It’s a question many of us have asked, puzzled, debated, and even had heated arguments over. During this heightened national conversation about race in the US, it has become an increasingly important one for us to consider. Are Armenians white? I have seen an outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement among Armenian individuals and institutions recently, and it seems to me that if we are committed to translating these intentions into long-term and meaningful change, we must understand our own place within the system.
As we all know, our ancestors did not come from a place of ethnic privilege. In the Ottoman Empire, where many of our ancestors lived, Armenians were subject to centuries of ethnic discrimination that culminated with the violence and murder of the Armenian Genocide. In light of this history, some of our experiences parallel those of Black Americans and Indigenous People of the Americas, who were driven from their homelands and subjected to ethnic violence and cultural erasure.
However, once Armenians immigrated to the United States, their situation changed. As Aram Ghoogasian describes in his article “How Armenians Became ‘White’: A Brief History,” the Naturalization Act of 1790 limited American citizenship to “free white persons.” Armenians had to go to court twice to prove their whiteness, which would give them access to citizenship and permanently ensure their safety from the ethnic discrimination and genocide they had faced in the Ottoman Empire.
This was by no means a conclusive declaration of ethnic privilege. The court cases revealed the incredibly unscientific basis of defining race in America, declaring Armenians white because the “average man in the street” would recognize Armenians as white and that they “readily amalgamate with the European and white races.” Essentially, the courts decided that Armenians could be white because they looked and acted enough like white Americans. With this privilege came the pressure for Armenians to assimilate and give up their culture and history in order to become fully white. This is why I did not grow up speaking Armenian in an Armenian community, and for a long time refused to honor my Armenian name and history.
But ethnic discrimination against Armenians continued in places like Fresno where they were regularly subjected to racial insults and faced discrimination in landowning and employment. Discrimination is still a reality for many Armenians today based on factors like immigration status, physical features, language, and mixed Black, Indigenous, or other backgrounds. When I opened this discussion on social media recently, one Armenian mentioned that her dark-skinned Armenian cousins are often considered to be a different race than her, and thus treated differently. Another Armenian mentioned that her family members from Armenia are not treated as white and are often stopped in airport security, while she often experiences white privilege.
“Becoming” white did not just offer opportunities, it also meant becoming part of a system of racism.
However, the ability of many Armenians to pass as white, both legally and in society, has granted us opportunities that Black, Indigenous and many other Americans have never had. For Armenians, like many other groups, America was a land of opportunity, only made possible by the wealth that this country built on the enslavement of Black people and the genocide of Native Americans. Our privilege of whiteness, no matter how marginal, has in large part protected us from systems like mass incarceration, police violence and redlining, allowing us to use our hard work and perseverance to build new lives and communities in America.
“Becoming” white did not just offer opportunities, it also meant becoming part of a system of racism. My Armenian family settled in a community on the South Side of Chicago in the early 1900s; two generations later, they were part of the wave of “white flight” to the suburbs after real estate agents started to come to their house and tell them that Black people were going to bring danger and crime into the neighborhood. They did not create this system, but, having become white in America, they were necessarily implicated in it.
As I reflect on my own relationship with race during the current Black Lives Matter uprising, I come to see that since there is no natural characteristic that makes someone white, no child is born white, but rather we all are socialized into our race. In my case, I grew up reading books like the Little House on the Prairie series that glorifies settler colonialism and the genocide of Native Americans. I grew up living in white neighborhoods with mostly white friends, and in many cases learned to subconsciously dismiss Black people, culture and spaces. Nobody asked me if I wanted to be part of this system. That’s the nature of systematic racism.
However, in better understanding my own history of racialization I have a chance to change the way that I think and behave. I have the opportunity to realize that the system that taught me to fear Black people and isolate myself in white spaces is the same system that taught me to hate my Armenian name and to avoid writing about Armenia so much, lest I be perceived as too “exotic” or “foreign” for white institutions.
So, are Armenians white? It’s a question I do not want to answer, because I have no desire to change myself or any Armenian to fit in the system. I do not want to identify with, and continue to support, a system that taught me to create such mental barriers between myself and other human beings that it took this long for videos of police murdering Black people to shock me into action. While it is essential for us to acknowledge the reality on the ground, we can recognize that we benefit from different levels of white privilege. We can recognize that people will perceive us and treat us differently based on the way we look, without defining ourselves by a system of whiteness that forces us to give up elements of ourselves to conform.
Seeing our place in the American racial system shows us that the fight against white supremacy is our fight too. If we fight to preserve our culture and community, we must also fight for the rights of Black, Indigenous, and other ethnic groups do the same. We must listen to Black voices, donate our resources and efforts to organizations working for racial justice, and use our voices and our skills to contribute to a better future. As we know from our own 105 years of protest and struggle for genocide recognition, the fight against systems of oppression is a long one and requires constant commitment and the help of allies around the world.