LOS ANGELES — On Thursday, February 12, four academics joined for a lively virtual discussion to highlight the importance of “ethnic studies” and its inclusion in the K-12 curriculum, something which has mostly begun on the West Coast, and to delve into the future of Armenian academia in the US and how it will grapple with pressing issues of race in society.
The attendees of the meeting were from a broad spectrum of scholars and members of the Armenian community. The four discussants were Dr. Suzie Abajian (PhD in Education and activist for Ethnic Studies in California); Sophia Armen (PhD candidate in Ethnic Studies, UC-San Diego); Kohar Avakian (PhD student in American Studies, Yale); and Thomas Simsarian Dolan (PhD candidate in American Studies, George Washington University). The panel discussion was organized by the Armenian Action Network and the Armenian-American Studies Collective.
The conversation was opened by Abajian, who gave an extensive history of Ethnic Studies in the Arizona and California public schools curriculum, something which she helped fight to make possible over the years. As of late, Ethnic Studies has been banned in Arizona under the theory that it is “racist” while in California there is currently a mandate for a model curriculum to be created by next month, for Ethnic Studies to be included in K-12 schools as well as colleges.
Abajian’s discussion of school curriculum was difficult to follow for someone not acquainted with the contours of the debate in California and Arizona. Abajian did make a point about Armenians in regard to Ethnic Studies. The Ethnic Studies curriculum initially focused on the four categories of Black, Native American, Asian and Chicano. Because Middle Eastern ethnicities were not included, some political groups who were opposed to the Ethnic Studies curriculum had claimed that the Armenian community, among others, did not support Ethnic Studies. Abajian’s colleagues, in concert with the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), protested this categorization, saying that Armenians support Ethnic Studies but want to be included in it. Abajian implored listeners to support the Ethnic Studies inclusion in state curricula, so that “students can see themselves in the curriculum.”
The other discussants appeared to be concerned with a wholly different issue: the intersection of Armenian Studies and racial issues in America. Several topics consistently were raised, one of which was the status of Armenians in America as “legally white” which was defined in the Supreme Court case, US vs. Cartozian (1925). The fact that Armenians are supposedly “white” in the US conflicts with experiences of racism many Armenians have faced in this country. Sophia Armen discussed the Cartozian case at length. The landmark case defined Armenians as legally white in an era when “Orientals,” which often included Middle Eastern ethnicities, were not allowed to become naturalized citizens. The members of the panel discussed that not only was “whiteness” imposed on the Armenians by the US government, but that the Armenian community was rallying to gain this status at the time, to avoid the imminent threat of mass deportation. Therefore, racial categories were not only a top down construct but the people themselves also participated in that construction. (It should be noted, as one of the discussants did, that the star witness at the trial, Jewish American anthropologist Franz Boas, declared in his testimony that “race was a social construct.”) Nevertheless, many Armenians at the time as well as today have experienced racism in the United States. Because of this, the definition of Armenians as white sometimes seems like a technicality, stemming from a Supreme Court case that only made such a declaration for the purposes of now-defunct immigration laws, and this definition raises questions and problems for defining Armenians’ experience in the United States in regard to race.
Armen also discussed the foundations of Ethnic Studies, stating that the field is rooted in questions of “power and race” and that it talks about “narratives that have been erased.” This is important to Armenians, she continued, because we have been bumping up against erasure during our entire experience in the US. She stated that sometimes “we humble Armenians” are shy to place our stories in these contexts. The field of Ethnic Studies is evidence driven and data driven, she says, and while race is a construct it’s also “a social fact.”