Dr. Janice Okoomian

Armenian Americans and the Construction of Whiteness


By Janice Okoomian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

As people who once suffered genocidal racism, Armenian Americans are ethically obligated to oppose racism wherever we find it.  Anaïs DerSimonian made a strong case for why Armenian Americans should support the Black Lives Matter movement in the June 4th issue of the Mirror-Spectator, as did Razmig Sarkissian and Alik Ourfalian in the June 1st edition of Asbarez. We are living through an extraordinary era, in which members of the public are becoming better informed about systemic racism, and it is heartening to see so many Armenian Americans taking an interest. In order to fight racism we must understand how racism functions in the US and how each of us is positioned in relation to it.

It remains to be seen whether the current Black Lives Matter demonstrations will result in meaningful reform, not only of policing, but of all the other systems and structures that sustain and reproduce racist domination in our country. In order for us to understand the relevance of Black Lives Matter to our lives, it is essential for Armenian Americans to understand the history of our own racial status in the United States. When in 2002 I published an academic article on this topic, it did not make much of a splash. All these years later, however, when Armenian Americans are becoming interested in our racial status, my article has become salient, as indicated by the number of requests I am receiving for copies of it.

What is race, anyhow? Most people think that race is an objective or essential trait that we were born with, so when we identify our race (on a government or employment form, for instance) we are merely stating a preexisting truth. But in fact, it works the other way around.  Multiple social institutions (governmental, educational, business, entertainment media) “construct” your racial status.  Scholars from multiple fields (including evolutionary biology, anthropology, and sociology, to name a few) have demonstrated that it is a total fiction.  Common sense understandings of racial categories, based on physical features, language, or culture, simply do not have any grounding in objective or scientific fact.

Scholar Ian F. Haney-Lopez uses the term “fabrication” to indicate just how artificial racial constructions are.  And yet, even though they are fabrications, racial categories are powerful indexes of social power, almost always involving domination of some racialized groups by others.  It is important to understand that racism is woven into our social structures. What that means is that racism resides not only in the attitudes, beliefs, or intentions of individuals but also, and more subtly, in social structures themselves, which function to perpetuate white supremacy and privilege. Even if we as individuals oppose racism in our minds, we end up contributing to systemic racism by interacting with everyday institutions.

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It is also important to understand that most of us have little or no ability to choose our racial status ourselves.  Especially for marginalized peoples, race is determined from the outside. You cannot put your race on and take it off at will, as you would a hat or a garment.  Instead, racial categories are created and constantly reaffirmed by the legal, judicial, educational, and other social structures and processes that we encounter every day.  Those structures and processes shape or influence the consciousness of individual people, who then ascribe race to others based on the way they look, talk, behave, or worship.

It is easy to determine which racial category most Americans fall into. But for some of us – Armenian Americans as well as a number of other groups – it is not so clear. We seem to be not really people of color, but also not quite white, at least not in the way that most people mean when they refer to racial whiteness.  Consequently, it is not easy to understand how we fit into the racial economy of the US.

I became interested in thinking about Armenian Americans and race while I was a doctoral student in American Civilization at Brown University in the 1990s. Amongst a cohort of students and faculty who were thinking deeply about race and its complexities in the US, I began to interrogate my own racial position. We were also beginning to think about whiteness as a racial category (rather than a neutral or non-category), but what we understood about whiteness was entirely based on characteristics of Euro-Americans and reflected only parts of my experience. I wanted to understand how Armenian whiteness is different from Euro-American whiteness, and to do that I dove into the legal history to discover how and when Armenians came to be considered white.

The first big wave of Armenian immigration to the United States took place during the first two decades of the twentieth century, which coincided with the period of the Asian Exclusion Acts.  Beginning in the 1880s, the United States passed a series of laws whose intent was to exclude or limit the immigration and naturalization as citizens of “Asiatic race.” These laws were aimed mainly at the Chinese, who had worked on the transcontinental railroads as laborers but whom the US did not want to settle permanently on American soil, thinking them “unassimilable.” Because Armenians (along with Lebanese, Syrians, and others) came from the continent of Asia and were generally darker-skinned than Americans of European descent, some argued that they too should be considered part of the “Asiatic race” and thus excluded from immigration and/or naturalized citizenship.

The claim that these Asian immigrants were not white resulted in a number of lawsuits in which the legal racial status of each group was adjudicated. Two of these cases concerned Armenian Americans, in re Halladjian (1909) and U.S. v. Cartozian (1925). Interestingly, in Cartozian Harvard anthropologist Franz Boas took the stand as an expert witness, testifying that race is entirely a social construct and that, therefore, there was no such thing as an “Asiatic race.” Had the judge accepted Boas’ argument, it could have led to the abolition of all racial designations under US law. But of course, this did not happen. In both cases, the judge found that Armenians were white, but their logic still relied on “common sense” understandings of race. The reasons Armenians were deemed white were that a) Armenians were thought to be more like Europeans than Turks were; and b) it was thought that they would assimilate into US culture, i.e. lose the marks of difference that make them look and behave like non-Europeans, through intermarriage, learning English, etc. This logic was based on the idea of the “melting pot,” the conception, popular in much of the early- to mid-twentieth century, that immigrants’ differences (in foodways, dress, speech, etc.) would melt away over time. In other words, you can be accepted here, as long as you agree to give up the distinctive practices of your culture. Religion and skin color were considered aspects of a person that would not melt, and so Muslims and people with very dark skin were considered unassimilable. The bottom line is this: the very discourse (the cases, the logic used in the cases) that granted Armenians legal whiteness was part of the discourse that excluded other Asian immigrants. Although we did not ask for this, our whiteness was established on the backs of others who were deemed not white.

So Armenian Americans are fully implicated in the politics of race in the US. The fact that our ancestors were not slaveholders, that most of our families weren’t even here until after Reconstruction, or that we are not descended from those who colonized this continent by committing genocide of its indigenous peoples, does not absolve us from responsibility for the privilege conferred by our legal whiteness.

In recent years I have seen some lively and sometimes heated discussions in online forums about whether Armenians are white in the US. Legal status meant that Armenians could immigrate and naturalize, but it did not guarantee that they would not be subject to racist behavior, as many other white immigrant groups (the Irish, the Italians, etc.) have experienced. In the 1930s, Armenian American raisin growers in California were called “raisin n—–s” by white raisin growers who resorted to violent harassment to prevent the Armenians from participating in the raisin business. When I was young and growing up in a very white town, I was made to feel how different I was and those experiences had a lasting negative effect on me. I have heard convincing testimonies from some recent Armenian Americans that they have sometimes been treated like people of color. However, many Armenian Americans have been able to be accepted as white, through dress and behavior, which means that most of us are treated as white, with most of the attendant privilege whiteness confers. By contrast, most people of color are never able to pass as white, and thus race affects almost every area of their lives.

It is equally important to be mindful that for people of color, race is not chosen. We Armenians might indeed want to call ourselves people of color out of a desire not to be aligned with white racism; we might feel a connection and desire for solidarity with the struggles of people of color based on some parallel elements of the Armenian experience in our homeland; we might want to reject Eurocentric cultural imperialism. But these perceptions are internal. If you are able to choose what race you identify with, you have an important element of white privilege and you are probably white.

And yet in the end, things are not all that black and white. Armenian Americans inhabit a racial borderland – not Euro-white, not African-descended, not “Asian” in the sense most people think of it (East Asian or South Asian), despite the fact that our ancestral origins are in Asia; and not quite “Middle-Eastern”  (if we are Middle-Eastern, then who is Near-Eastern?). The borderland can be a frustrating place to be, neither one nor the other; but it can also be a fertile ground which can lead us to develop a more complicated understanding of race. Precisely because we do not neatly fit into the racial calculus of the US, Armenian Americans can help to expose the arbitrariness of racial fabrication, as well as the problems of binary, black-white thinking.

We must not pretend that we can make race go away – we cannot wish it out of existence with claims like “I do not see race.”  But the long road to racial justice can and should engage Armenian Americans who, from the vantage point of the racial borderland, can help ourselves and others to see race in more nuanced ways and ultimately to eradicate racism altogether.

Dr. Janice Okoomian is Assistant Professor of English/Gender and Women’s Studies at Rhode Island College.

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