Trigger warning: This article discusses some specific examples of how racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. show up in Armenian spaces. Some of those examples may be known, while others may not be, by the targets of those examples and may be caught off guard by their articulation here.
My fellow U.S. based Armenians, we gotta talk. We find ourselves, willingly or otherwise, in a country ruled by a narcistic despot wreaking havoc all over the U.S. – and honestly well beyond its colonized borders – within the first 100 days of his reign. I tend to be weary of alarmist rhetoric, but it is undeniable that these are alarming times. Sound ALL the alarms! I shudder whenever I think about those of you who chose this, who helped the ascension of a fascist regime, and who continue to stand by their decision to vote for Trump. Or even those of you that didn’t vote for him, but who are now saying, “Well, he’s the president, we have to respect that.”
After seeing what this administration is capable of within just a few months, I have one question for you: What does this man have to do for you to own up to your colossal error in judgment and/or intense prejudices? Does he need to go to Fresno or Glendale, wave a Turkish flag, and declare Sultan Abdul Hamid his greatest personal hero and inspiration, before he rounds up all Armenians and makes us march down to the Chihuahuan desert in Mexico? Maybe you think that because you voted for him, you personally won’t be targeted. Tell that to the Trump-voting relatives of the Syrian family who were not allowed to leave the Philadelphia airport and then got deported. Or the white woman who voted for Trump and then watched as they deported her Latino husband. It is such a cliché to quote Pastor Niemöller’s “First they came…” statement, but it is as true now as it was when he first wrote it. Personally, I prefer the updated version I’ve seen on many protest signs recently – First they came for the Muslims and we said “not this time, motherfucker.”
But I don’t want to talk with just those who actually cast their votes for Trump (or would have if they could). This is a talk I want to have with all of us. A deep, vulnerable, and honest discussion with each other. I know, that’s really hard for us Armenians to do. We are taught to value politeness and to keep our heads down, amongst each other and especially around any odars (non-Armenians). But let’s give it a shot here.
We have a sexism and misogyny problem in our community. Even though Armenian women are more often than not the ones driving our schools and our community centers and our organizations, we don’t see them as leaders. We don’t talk about spousal abuse and violence, even when we clearly know it’s happening, because it’s none of our business. I can attest to that first-hand. And we decry odar women who dare speak up or own their power as un-womanlike, unfeminine, bitches, and tell our women and girls not to be like them, because that’s just not how Armenian women behave.
We have an intense racism and xenophobia problem in our community. We see ourselves as a superior race, over and above everyone else – including the white people so many of us are clamoring to be like. We call everyone else odar (stranger), particularly ironic when many of us are odars and immigrants to this land ourselves. We call Black people sevs (the Blacks), usually as a pejorative and to distinguish them even more so than the odars, a point well-articulated by Nancy Agabian. In fact, I invite you to read that essay in its entirety, to reckon even a little bit with who we have been and are as raced/racialized beings in this country. Anti-Blackness and white supremacy has us believing that if we hate Black people enough, treat them as disposable and undesirable enough, then white people will see us as one of their own. How many of us have joked about how our parents would react if we brought home a sev partner? Because anti-Blackness is hilarious!
We lambast others for not knowing anything about Armenia and the Armenians, or the Armenian genocide, or our culture, or that Kim Kardashian is the most well-known Armenian. Yet, most of us don’t know and don’t care to know anything about the many peoples in this country. We refer to all Latinx people pejoratively as ‘Mexicans’ and as ‘illegals’ (another irony considering how many of us showed up here undocumented or as tourists lying about our intentions to stay). Immigrants are lazy and a drain on the economy (do I really need to spell out this particular irony?), and immigrants from Armenia, hayastantsis, are mobsters, untrustworthy, and shady. All Asian and Pacific Islander people are Chinese and we pull our eyes back and repeat “ching-chong” to mock them. Our only reference of Indigenous people are cartoon characters with tomahawks who dance around and chant in loincloths. Our way is always better, more sensible, the right way, and everyone else is stupid for not learning from our mastery of life.
We have a Christian hegemony problem, mostly built on Islamophobia. Let’s forget about the countless Muslims that literally saved our lives and thus our very existence during the genocide. Never mind that we sought and found refuge in Muslim-majority countries all over the Middle East and north Africa. It has been especially shameful to hear Armenians celebrating what is happening in Syria today, considering the central role Aleppo played in our survival. We believe and propagate every nasty and oppressive stereotype there is out there about Muslims, love and rarely call out how Muslims are depicted in the media. But our Christian hegemony problem doesn’t end with Islamophobia. Anti-Semitism is also rampant. We buy into conspiracy theories, the same ones that supported the Holocaust. We don’t seem to have learned from our own history what demonizing entire populations can lead to. We disingenuously mask this anti-Semitism by talking about the Israeli occupation and the settlements and atrocities committed against the Palestinians – but somehow actually manage not to mention Palestinians and end up voting for someone that is being described as one of the most pro-Israel (and simultaneously anti-Semitic) presidents this country has seen.
And there’s our heterosexism and cissexism problem. As a queer and trans person I am way too intimately familiar with this problem. It’s why for so long I have stayed away from Armenian spaces (well, not the only reason, but a pretty central one). Queer and trans Armenians don’t exist, and if any are welcomed/allowed into Armenian homes or events, there is an unspoken expectation that we display our utter gratitude by covering, by letting go of the numerous times people say “faggot” or how gross transness is, and by never bringing up queer and trans realities. And you wonder why we’re so quiet or so angry or so distant.
And let me be clear, these problems – each of which deserve far more discussion and nuance than I am able to articulate here – and many other ways that our community colludes with power and oppression, are not just propagated by Armenians who voted for Trump. In fact, I’m sure there are Armenians who voted for Trump who would be in the #NotAllArmenians camp and deny any of this motivated their vote. But they were also not dissuaded by Trump’s vitriolic racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, ableist and mysoginstic rhetoric and platform. That’s beside the point I am trying to make here though. Whether or not you voted for Trump, Armenians as a whole bear some responsibility for his reign of terror for three main reasons:
So it should not come as a surprise that relatives and friends and other Armenian peers voted for Trump, when we have all in our varying ways cultivated or at least left unchallenged a community ethos built on individualism, ethnic superiority, bucking to authority, and respectability politics. We have a special word we like to wield to maintain that respectability – amot (shame). Amot drives our complacency and silence, our conformity so as not to embarrass family or community. But is it not shameful for us not to stand on the side of justice, us as survivors of genocide denying or ignoring at best that we live on stolen lands and the genocide of Indigenous peoples? Is it not shameful to not acknowledge how we benefit from our proximity to whiteness in a country built on African bodies and labor, and institutions maintained by anti-Blackness? Is it not shameful that we chose to distance ourselves from Asian people and other people of color, so we could own land and businesses and be unaffected by immigration exclusion acts? Is it not shameful that we turn our backs on the very region of the world that we owe our continued existence to and allow the expansion of empire in the Middle East? Amot on us for choosing access to power and whiteness over solidarity and movement building time and time again.
If I sound angry, it’s because I am. I admit that anger is motivating a lot of this writing, but I also think it’s high time I expressed that anger among my own; to claim you as my community even if you don’t claim me and even when you actively push me away; to argue with you and dialogue with you and be supported and challenged by you. As Yervant Yacoubian said, “Do not tell me that it is not God-like to get angry or go into a fit of rage. God himself when enraged will grasp a star and hurl it through the heavens.” I would not be this angry, if I also did not have hope or a recognition of our potential as Armenians. If I didn’t think we could do better, that I could do better, then I wouldn’t care enough to feel anger.
I know of our potential as a people, because I have seen time and time again how we can rally when one of our own needs support, housing, a job, etc. I know of our potential as a people, not just because we have survived but because we have shared our talents and contributions in our new homes, and managed to maintain a sense of Armenian-ness. I know of our potential as a people, because I see how we celebrate when one of our own does well. Just look at how folks came together to create and share “The Promise” in a country that continues to refuse acknowledging our history.
I have hope because I have seen progressive-minded Armenians come together since the election and especially the inauguration. I have hope because so many Armenian women showed up at women’s marches across the country – and the world – proudly proclaiming themselves as Armenians for justice. I have hope because I have met Armenians, particularly other queer and trans Armenians, refuse to deny our Armenian-ness to make way for our queerness and/or transness, and still many of us who continue to struggle to make room for their coexistence. I have hope because there are Serj Tankians in our midst who are not afraid to use their platforms to speak up for justice despite the online vitriol they then face by other Armenians. I have hope because more of us are willing to stretch and deconstruct and reconstruct our definition of Armenian, and telling our stories as intersectional and whole human beings.
I’d love to see that hope materialize into more action, and that includes my own contributions. We have to understand how our fate is intimately connected with the fate of others, that we are at a point in this planet’s history that we either make it through together or perish together, that when an authoritarian regime is willing and able to dispose of and criminalize any one group, then they are willing and able to do so to us as well. Individualism is short-sighted and unsustainable. We of all people should know that. We have to show up for Black Lives Matter, for the water protectors, for immigrants and for Muslims and LGBTQ people and disabled people and working class and poor people. As Alice Walker once said, “activism is my rent for living on this planet.”
James Baldwin said “It becomes clear — for some — that the more closely one resembles the invader, the more comfortable one’s life may become.” Aligning ourselves to or modeling ourselves after those in power will not save us, it will dehumanize us, because our humanity is intimately connected to everyone else’s humanity. I call on all of us to resist Trump and his administration’s destructive and fascist regime, as well as to the ardent and violent haters that they are emboldening. We can’t just get involved because he deported some Armenians or because he didn’t recognize the Armenian genocide. If that’s your entry point, great, come on in. AND come on in with the intention of learning and joining with others.
Let’s put our time, skills, resources to use in the ways that we can. Let’s undo whatever damage we have caused by building with each other and non-Armenians. Let’s claim our responsibilities and place in this/these beautiful, diverse, leader-full movement(s). Let’s heed Gostan Zarian’s calling that, “Being an Armenian is a merciless task and a heroic enterprise. It is a commandment, a mission, and a destiny that history has imposed on us from the depths of centuries. We are the shock troops of the struggle between light and darkness… And we are charged with an awesome responsibility.”
 I used “we”, not because I think these statements are true about every single Armenian person in the U.S., but because we are all implicated. These statements might not all apply to you specifically, but they are about us as a collection of people, we all variously benefit or are hurt from the ways our community acts and presents itself, and it is our collective responsibility to reckon with these issues.
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society - Jiddu Krishnamurti
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