Meeting the Man on the Street by Nancy Agabian

Introduction to December 2015 Issue

You are walking down the street when your path crosses a woman whose identity is up for debate. She has thick black hair with gray streaks, dark brown eyes and thick eyebrows, and a triangular face that peaks at her large Roman nose, plump cheeks, and full lips. Many people would term her skin as “olive”: a tangy light brown with ocher undertones. She is short, five feet tall, of medium build. She is not unique-looking; her friends often tell her that they’ve seen her doppelganger on the subway.

If you were forced to identify this woman as either black or white, you wouldn’t call her black. You might hesitate to call her white, since she looks ethnic, but with no other options, you most probably would lump her in the white category. Since it’s outdated to be forced to term someone either black or white, you might call her a person of color. But you might not. Instead you might ask some questions about her ethnicity, her profession, where she lives, the language she speaks, or the religion she practices. However, if forced to judge only by what you can see, your discernment of her racial identity would depend not just on the appearance of her face, skin, or body, but also on the landscape, the people surrounding her, and most significantly: who you are and what your experiences have been with racism.  

* * *

As Armenian-American, I generally have considered myself a person of color with a caveat: If people of color have a range of experiences with discrimination, then I’m at the privileged end of the spectrum. Though self-doubt has often tugged at this determination, I have gone for years—decades—without the subject of my race being called into question by others. Recently, however, over a period of several months, I encountered a rainbow of people who kept telling me that I was white.

The first time it happened, I was in the basement café at a Whole Foods in Manhattan, explaining to a white friend that we should start an arts organization in my Queens neighborhood. She said, “I don’t know about you, but I feel uncomfortable with the idea of white people leading a project in a community of color.”

I understood her point but found it necessary to correct her: “I don’t consider myself white.”

“Well,” she said, seemingly annoyed, “the people of color in your neighborhood probably see you as white.”

She didn’t elaborate, I didn’t ask, and the conversation moved on. In the days that followed, however, I found myself irked. When I replayed the conversation in my mind, I pictured myself telling her, “You don’t get to decide how people of color see me.”  

The next time I was called white, I was in an artist’s two-day workshop in a repurposed public school in Harlem, assigned to create a skit in five minutes with a Black man and a Latino man. We figured out the scenario and were deciding who would play two people of color and one white person. The Latino man said, “This is obvious casting, but you’ll be the black person,” and he pointed to the Black man; then turned to me and said, “and you’ll be the white person.” We laughed, but I felt a smidgen of resentment. When the Latino man left for a second, the Black man said, “I hope that it didn’t bother you that he said you were white.” Comparatively, the classification made sense, so I answered, “No, it’s fine,” but was stunned to hear my voice betray my annoyance. By his expression I could see the Black man heard it too. I didn’t like being called white (because whiteness was responsible for all that was wrong in the world) nor someone noticing that I didn’t like being called white (because it felt like a secret had been revealed). I immediately tried to cover my shame by thanking the Black man for being sensitive. I wondered if the claim of my white friend was actually bearing out. Maybe people of color really do see me as white.

The next time it happened, I was in a Chelsea bar with friends, including a Polish-American guy and a Korean-American woman. In the course of the conversation, the man claimed that he wasn’t white.  

Following a nanosecond of disbelief, I thought, This is my chance to tell someone that they’re white! “What are you talking about?” I asked.

“I’m Slavic,” he said.  

“So you’re not a WASP. But racially, you’re white.”  

“Yes, but I don’t identify as white.” I knew what he meant; I had just made a similar claim at Whole Foods. He had grown up the child of working class immigrants in contrast to white people of economic and social privilege. 

“But if you’re in a room with Asians, Latinos, and Blacks, you’re white,” I said. 

My friend read my insistence and demurred. “Since I’m white,” he continued, “I should take advantage of it.”

“Like you don’t already? When’s the last time you got stopped and frisked on the street?” I felt pretty smart now.

But the Korean-American woman interjected to put me in my place: “You’re white too,” she said.

“I know,” I replied. Though she had limited knowledge about my history, having met me just once before, I didn’t question her, attempting to avoid the shame I had felt when I had been called white during the artists’ workshop.  

I should acknowledge that people were drunk, not so capable of an enlightened conversation. A few weeks later, my Polish-American friend expressed regret for what he’d said and described it as racist. His reconsideration helped me soften my defenses and prompted me to evaluate the advantage of my own racial status. Though there are intersections of identity that create a unique mix of privilege and disadvantage among all people—white, black, and everything in between—it seems there isn’t much of an opportunity to change things if even white people don’t want to be called white. 

* * *

One reason why it wasn’t easy for me to acknowledge my own racial privilege was that for the first half of my life, it seemed I lacked it.

I have a memory of walking down the street one day, on my way home from school, when I heard some kids behind me say the n-word. A few times. It didn’t occur to me to tell them not to use a bad word. The way they said it was not menacing and mean, but taunting and tentative, and they were giggling. It seemed they were trying the word out on me.

We were in Walpole, Massachusetts, a white, working- and middle-class suburb halfway between Boston and Providence. No Black people lived in our town, and they were rarely seen anywhere in it. This was the mid-’70s, before the advent of hip hop, and the term “nigga” wasn’t heard yet by suburban white kids. I was around eight years old, the age at which kids become aware of the differences among them. Most kids had pale skin, light eyes and fair hair in contrast to my long black braids and swarthy skin. Though the Italian kids were dark like me, it was cool in pop culture to be Italian, like Travolta, Stallone, and Fonzarelli. Being Armenian was obscure: The place where my family came from didn’t exist as Armenia on the map, but as Turkey. I knew my family had been violently driven out of their homeland by the Turks during the genocide of 1915, but this wasn't an easy history to explain to anyone, never mind fully understand myself. What remained of Armenia was in the Soviet Union, enemy to us Americans. But everyone knew where Ireland, Italy, and Germany were—and what they were. 

There were no Latinos or Asians in our town and very few Jews. Though there were a few other Armenian families, I had no peers at our elementary school. In other words, I had no racial education, no clue, no solidarity with other groups. So when the white kids called out “nigger” from behind me, I did not turn around to confront them. I worried that if I made one wrong move, they would get mean, so I just kept walking at the same pace, holding my breath till I got home.

I realize the vagueness of this episode can’t compare to what a Black kid would experience being directly called that slur, with its specific historical threat, hatred, and violence. Instead of letting that word haunt me with the fear of being different, I now wish I had turned my child self around and said, “You shouldn’t call anyone that name.” 

I doubt if such a statement would have made much impact. There was a roughness to our town’s culture, a palpable aggression, even among the girls; it was customary to defend oneself or taunt someone else in practically all social interactions. Walpole’s reputation as home to the maximum state penitentiary (where the Boston Strangler had been incarcerated) might have had something to do it. Or perhaps the toughness had filtered through the generations of Irish who had undergone multiple hardships in leaving their homeland. Considering this dynamic alongside the taciturn, rugged qualities of Puritan, Yankee culture, it’s not hard to imagine how people from my state have come to be dubbed “Massholes.”  

Later in my adolescence, I received a low-level form of teasing, rarely feeling comfortable outside my home. Though I had close friends, any kid seemed capable of making fun of me at any time for having a “mustache,” distorting my last name into a homophobic label (“uh-GAAAY!-bian!”), Orientalizing me, (“Hey, Arabian, your camel’s double-parked!”) and rebuffing the food served to them at my home (one of our shish kebab cookouts was reputed to consist of the meat of my recently deceased pet rabbit). At the time, I couldn’t help laughing since nearly everyone got teased for something. But the taunting about my physical appearance particularly stung. I sensed I was too much of an “other” for any boy to consider me a romantic interest: in other words, I thought I was ugly. Perhaps it was also because I had longings for girls that I hadn’t sorted out yet, but I never dated nor went to the prom, not to mention sexually experiment with anyone.  

In the public school system, I found a way to compensate for these feelings through overachieving. My teachers, unlike my peers, didn’t seem to see my ethnicity as a weakness or personal liability—they just didn’t see it at all. During my senior year of high school, I was one of the top twenty students in my school, which allowed me to work with a college counselor who guided me through the application process and lobbied on my behalf to admissions offices. These positive relations with an institution rendered my privilege.

This privilege then sheltered me. By the time I went to high school, the most violent years of the busing crisis in Boston had passed (though I had seen plenty of images on TV of white boys hurling rocks at buses of Black kids). Walpole was outside of Boston’s jurisdiction, anyway, but every year a few Black kids volunteered through the METCO program (Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, a program in existence since 1966) to be bused out of their blighted Boston school district to our suburban school. One Black METCO student was a year ahead of me and played drums in marching band. He was tall, thin, friendly, and well-liked at our high school of a thousand white kids.

This doesn’t mean there wasn't racism; I just didn’t see it. The most egregious example was the school spirit surrounding our championship football team. About twenty years before, it was someone’s bright idea to call the head coach“General”—his last name was Lee—and to name the team the Rebels. A confederate flag was painted on the stone wall by the football field, and our school song was “Dixie.” I hated tromping around in a red, white, and blue uniform on the football field, playing the song on my clarinet, cursing the fact that I’d ever believed such a dumb activity would appear impressive on college applications. But I don’t remember having a specific political grievance against such a heinous choice of cultural appropriation. We learned about slavery and the Civil War in school superficially, so it wasn’t enough for me to associate these symbols to a violently racist institution, and, regrettably, it didn’t occur to me (nor any responsible adult, apparently) that we shouldn’t celebrate them. The irony was that our band teacher was Black, and he conducted us as we played “Dixie.” As the sole African-American teacher in the town’s school system, he and our METCO bandmate were probably the only Black people at our games. They likely felt that any objection would have elicited even scarier shit among the townsfolk. When the flag was finally denounced and removed in 1994, it didn’t go easily with many Rebel fans, some who were reportedly still flying it at games in 2010.

In this “race-blind” environment where my ethnicity was either demeaned or ignored, I was fortunate not to be bused in order for my accomplishments to be validated. My family was seen as white enough—and harmless enough—to live peaceably in our town. My father made a decent living as a self-employed industrial appraiser working from our basement, and my mother was a substitute teacher who volunteered at a local art museum. Born in the U.S. during the Depression, they were second-generation Armenian-Americans whose parents and grandparents were survivors of genocide in a faraway land. They lived the American dream as the silent generation: With modest incomes, they were able to save money, buy a plot of land, build a split-level house, raise me and my two siblings, and put us through college.  

At the bottom rung of whiteness in our white town, we didn’t discuss such a placement, and we had little to no interactions with non-white people. We celebrated our holidays and practiced our culture completely separately from our neighbors. 

When we drove through Boston’s South End on the way to a museum or theater, my mother would tell us to lock the doors in this Black neighborhood. Sometimes, when we were among Black people in public, my parents would use the Armenian word for “black” to talk about them, as in, “There are a lot of sevs here,” to note their discomfort, which most likely stemmed from negative stereotypes of African Americans in the media. And yet, among the lineup of TV shows we watched, we loved those that featured Black characters. A particular favorite was The Jeffersons, perhaps because we subconsciously sensed that we had moved on up as well. Though loud and expressive in the privacy of our home, none of us were about to question the system that got us here.  

* * *

I wasn’t able to process these experiences until many years later when I moved to Los Angeles in 1991 in order to pursue work as an artist. Down the street from my apartment was Beyond Baroque, a literary arts organization that offered free poetry and performance workshops. The Black women who led those workshops, Michelle T. Clinton and Akilah Oliver, became mentors to me and many other women of various races and backgrounds, the most notable of whom was Michele Serros, (1966–2015), the groundbreaking and influential Chicana poet and writer.

In the poetry workshop, we were encouraged to write about race, ethnicity, and cultural history. The prominent discourse at the time was multiculturalism, which abandoned the melting pot and its image of assimilation, and instead opted for a tossed salad, a metaphor that suggested that we were all mixed up, but our ethnic and racial identities could remain intact. For the first time in my life, I had a space to sort out those feelings of being different in my white hometown.  

Then video surfaced of police officers encircling Rodney King and beating him while he lay on the ground. When the verdict was announced exonerating the police, violence immediately erupted in the streets to last for three days, and the multicultural dream was shattered. The problem with such a dream was not that it fractured American society with identity politics, but that it mistakenly encouraged Americans to believe that everyone had equal footing and equivalent experiences with racism and discrimination, rather than emphasizing the need to dismantle the hierarchical system of race long in place in the U.S.  The insurrection of South Central L.A. in 1992 made clear that oppression against Black people hadn’t gone anywhere. Our multicultural women’s poetry workshop wrote about feeling and witnessing these injustices, and I was forced to confront my own racism, which required pulling apart another event from my past, two years before.

I was walking down the street again, but this time I was twenty years old, studying abroad in London. I passed a disheveled white woman loitering by a store window who was muttering to herself. Soon I heard her screaming, “Black bastard! Black bastard!” (At the time, Indians and Pakistanis were colloquially called black.) I thought she was hallucinating, but when she didn’t let up, and I realized there were no South Asian people in the vicinity, I understood she was directing the slur at me. I’m not black, I thought. How dare you say that? I quickened my pace and turned a corner. Clearly she was nuts, but the experience triggered feelings I wasn’t even aware I’d had: I had been affronted at being called black.

During the remaining weeks left in London, I noticed that when I was with my pale, blond American friend, white people approached her to ask for directions, and they either ignored, avoided, or simply didn’t see me, their eyes averted from my body. Upon meeting me, white people would often ask me where I was from and then where I was really from. By this time, I had studied enough to know I was experiencing prejudice that Black, Brown, and Asian people had long undergone in the U.S.  Rather than empathize, I simply didn’t like it. 

As I wrote about these experiences in the poetry workshop, I realized that I had absorbed anti-black bias. I recalled how disturbed I was by how dark I looked in the mirror next to my friends in Walpole. In that white town, I wanted to be lighter; I wanted to look like everyone else. After verbalizing this deep sense of discomfort for the first time, I understood that I had somehow swallowed hatred for dark skin and directed it at myself. 

Admitting this brought liberation. I could now see racism in a way that I hadn’t before. I went on to write about the intersections of my queer and Armenian identity, as well as historical oppressions against Armenians. My writing was published and I hopped onto the spoken word circuit of the city. I was often curated on bills with artists and writers of color, our stories in dialogue with each other. 

So how did I get to this point in my life where I am now called white? Where I am and whom I am with determines how I am seen. In Los Angeles, a steady stream of Armenians fleeing upheaval in Iran and Lebanon in the ’70s and ’80s and later the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the ’90s created a sizable population of half a million people threatening enough to the status quo to be feared and discriminated against—to be considered “other.” Paradoxically, you have to be large enough in numbers to be “minoritized.” In the alternative performance spaces of Los Angeles, people wanted to hear my Armenian story as a person of color. In return, I grew from hearing the stories of others, confident that my experiences placed me within a diverse community vigilant to all forms of discrimination. 

In 1999 I moved to New York to attend a graduate program to write more in depth about my family history, and I eventually found myself on a creative path of retro-acculturation. I immersed myself in my family’s immigration stories. I became involved with the Armenian Gay and Lesbian Association of New York. I learned Armenian history, I took Armenian language classes, and I started Gartal, a literary reading series for Armenians that sought to bring traditional and progressive Armenians together in community and dialogue. 

New York is very different from Los Angeles, in terms of being Armenian, however. During the time that Armenians immigrated to Los Angeles over the last forty years, the advent of the third and fourth generations of Armenians on the East Coast have intermarried with other groups and have slowly lost their language and culture. In the metropolitan New York area, there are roughly 50,000 Armenians. There is no longer a readily identifiable Armenian neighborhood, so they are not sizable nor visible except to themselves. They may be Armenian at home, or feel alienated from their homeland, and even seek out events like my reading series to instill their culture, but they can find ways to slip into white supremacist culture in public to achieve academically, professionally, and financially. For the most part, East Coast Armenians can now take advantage of their lack of visibility to weave themselves into the fabric of whiteness. 

Without knowing it, over a period of ten years, I became enmeshed in this white sheet. Through my immersion in queer Armenian spaces, my friend circle shifted from multicultural to more Armenian and Middle Eastern. It also became more white as I went to graduate school and entered academia as an adjunct instructor, since those institutions were predominately white. I felt aware of race, read about race, taught about race (to many students of color), and often felt like an “other” among mostly white faculty.  I also experienced discrimination in one English department where I worked, ignored when full-time positions opened up and young white men were ushered into them by an all-white hiring committee. It seemed I was on the bottom rung of whiteness again, this time in academia.  

But that ladder was a construction of racism: I was forgetting that I did possess racial and class privilege that made going to college a given and graduate school within reach. The more accurate metaphor was that the fabric of whiteness cloaked not just my own identity, but the ability to see others. The upshot was that after a decade of studying and working in the Ivory Tower, I had few friends who were Black, Latino, Asian, or just plain different from me. Though I taught many immigrant kids of color, I was in a position of authority that I couldn’t dismantle, occupying a space separate from the lives and intimacies of people of color, concerned mostly with the disadvantage that I could see best: my own. I wasn’t just being seen as white, or being called white: I had become white.  

Privilege made me blind not just to others’ experiences, but to my past as well. In exchange for the gifts of power and access that people accept when they assimilate, they lose connection to their history. When people were calling me white, part of my speechlessness was that I simply didn’t want to say, “You’re right.” I didn’t want to take on the pain of such loss.

* * *

“Without being able to define a white person, the average man in the street understands distinctly what it means, and would find no difficulty in assigning to the yellow race a Turk or Syrian with as much ease as he would bestow that designation on a Chinaman or a Korean.” 

The quote is from James Farell, Assistant U.S. Attorney, arguing in a Boston district court in 1909 that Armenians weren’t white, but Asian. The case, In re Halladjian, resulted when Richard K. Campbell, the U.S. Chief of Naturalization, refused the citizenship petitions of four Armenian men. I’m guessing that Farell’s terms “Turk or Syrian” were familiar substitutes for anyone who was Middle Eastern at the time, but it’s telling that he wouldn’t name Armenians directly when referring to their racial classification. In supplanting Armenians with their oppressors, the Turks, he was shaking up the very foundation of their identity while silencing them, preparing for the creation of their racial identity “on the street.”

At the time, laws were being enacted to limit the ability for non-citizens to own land, especially Asians. Meanwhile, Armenians had been immigrating to the U.S. in significant numbers starting from the late 1890s when their persecution in the Ottoman Empire reached an untenable level. By 1909, Armenians had become a sizable population in California’s Central Valley, and they were farming land they owned. Legally limiting citizenship to Armenians, on the basis that they were Asian (since whiteness was a prerequisite for naturalization, till 1952), would thus benefit white landowners in Fresno and be quite devastating to Armenian farmers.

Judge Lowell who presided over the case disagreed with the U.S. government about the Armenian men in question: “I find that all were white persons in appearance, not darker in complexion than some persons of north European descent traceable for generations. Their complexion was lighter than that of many south Italians and Portuguese.” This visual, superficial observation was Lowell’s own “man on the street” designation.

In his report, Lowell established that there were no distinct European or Asian races, describing how people had mixed across continents for ages. Furthermore, if whiteness was decided by color, then why were “Hebrews”—many who looked Middle Eastern in skin color—not decreed Asian according to U.S. policy? He thus determined that racial categorizations in America for the purpose of naturalization ultimately weren’t reliable, and that history and culture also determined a person’s race. He referred to ethnography and pointed to Armenians’ Christianity as evidence that “the outlook of their civilization has been toward Europe.” In the end, he determined “Armenians have always been reckoned as Caucasians and white persons.”

Anthropological distinctions and ethnographic categories, born in the late eighteenth century, were used to assign power to whites as the U.S. was forming. Christoph Meiners and Johann Blumenbach, prominent German thinkers at the time, came up with the terms Caucasian, Negroid and Mongoloid; they theorized that the ancestors of white people in Europe came from the Caucasus mountains—which is where the term Caucasian derives. It also just happens to be where Armenians have lived for millennia, which makes the court case not just ironic, but further proves how racial classification is verily designed to benefit those in power. Later in the early twentieth century, anthropologists felt compelled to create “subraces” to further their conceptions of supposed superiority and inferiority. Armenians were now classified not just as Caucasian, but Armenoid.

It’s no wonder then that Armenian-Americans were questioned again. In 1924, Tatos Cartozian, a carpet vendor in Portland, Oregon, had his naturalization papers challenged by the Federal government. According to Earlene Craver in her article, “On the Boundary of White”, U.S. v. Cartozian was a test case, and the government was prepared to see it to the Supreme Court, hoping to limit citizenship to nationalities that didn’t fit the current mold of white, such as Kurds, Persians, Turks, Arabs, Afghans, etc.  

In contrast to the climate in 1909, when Armenians had hoped for their own homeland to one day return to, in 1924 they only hoped for survival. The genocide of 1915 had wiped out 1.5 million Armenians and had dispersed survivors across Europe, North America, and South America. (Though Armenia founded its first republic in 1918, it lost a war with Turkey in 1920, and was swept into the Soviet Union.) In the U.S., Armenians had put down more roots, establishing businesses and entering elite institutions of higher learning and white-collar professions. If they were now determined to be Asian, they would fall much further than before. So they rallied together, pooled their money, and bought the best lawyers they could find.  

Cartozian was tried in district court. His daughters, citizens who had integrated into American culture, were trotted into the courtroom, as were white fraternal organizations who testified to letting Armenians into their clubs. An Armenian woman who had married a white doctor and entered high society was also brought in as an example of the whiteness —and “superiority”—of Armenians. The defense also utilized Islamophobia by stressing Armenians’ Christian faith and their lack of “mixing” with their Turkish neighbors as evidence that Armenian miscegenation with whites was acceptable.

In the end, the judge in the case asked the jury to use the “man on the street” determination, i.e., Would the common man see the rug merchant as white if he were walking down the street, based on his appearance, demeanor and behavior? The jury decided he would. Since the Justice Department was changing hands from the Harding to the Coolidge administrations, the government did not appeal. The case was dropped and never picked up again.  

Previously, court cases had determined that Indians and Japanese were Asian and thus not eligible for citizenship. Later in 1924, a strict set of immigration quotas restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern European immigration (to stem the tide of Jews, among others). Only 125 Armenians were allowed entry to the U.S. per year. (My grandparents and great grandparents all arrived between 1895 and 1920, so they just made it.) But 125 was better than nothing: Practically no one was allowed from Asia (until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965), all in the name of maintaining the racial “balance” of the U.S.  Before the Cartozian case went to trial, one of the Armenian lawyers sent a letter to the commissioner of naturalization, defending the Armenians: "The Hindu and the Japanese have their Governments and their country to rely upon and return to. The Armenians have no place to go to. They will become truly a people without a country. Racially, they will be regarded lower than [he used the n-word here] who are allowed citizenship.”  

So that’s how Armenians were legally determined to be white—by using racism, lighter skin privilege, class, religion, and, ultimately, luck in their defense. They fought for their survival by squeezing through a window in legal history, thereby gaining more privilege to prosper as citizens.

Though they faced forms of discrimination such as exclusive housing covenants, the results of the court case clearly placed Armenians higher on the racial ladder. My paternal grandfather owned a farm in central Massachusetts during the years that Armenian racial identity was being decided; the outcome of Armenians being called white, and thus citizens, allowed him to keep that land. Though he lost the farm during the Depression, he became a carpenter and went on to construct his own three-story home on a small parcel of land that he had held onto; he provided an example for my father, who bought a plot of land and built a split-level for my family. Both stories are prime folklore in my family, which I never suspected had ever been threatened by the laws of this land. After learning this history, I now have a better understanding of the contours of my privilege. Had the 1924 court case gone another way, history might have tossed my family in different directions to eventually deposit me on one of those METCO buses, fighting much harder for a fair chance.

In grad school, I had researched the history of Armenians in America, including the ways they had been discriminated against. But I had either never come across these court cases, or I had forgotten them. No one in my family had mentioned them, and I had never gone to an Armenian event that centered around them. It seems that the determination of our racial status has been surrounded in silence.  

Shame is a common currency in our community, and I wondered if this episode had been silenced because of a continuing racism: that we had ever been thought of as NOT white was something to be forgotten. That we had been forced to prove our worth and our race—not just once, but twice—after being slaughtered for it previously in another land, might have also been too hard to acknowledge. The means by which we fought to stay in this country might have been something we would like to overlook. It could also be that we are very focused on much worse historical passages: in 1909 around 30,000 Armenians were massacred in Adana, a precursor of mass killings to the genocide. 

As I researched this essay, I came across articles about Armenians in America that lacked the words “race,” “white,” or “Asian.” Given that many Armenian Americans learn about the intricacies of the discriminatory system of the Ottoman Empire from a young age, it seems hypocritical not to look at the ways that we were pushed and pulled and placed into a discriminatory system in the U.S.  Armenian Americans constantly fight for the interests of their homeland and diaspora with money, prestige, privilege and power that they have worked hard to receive from a tainted system. The fabric of whiteness is a tangled bedsheet. 

Growing up, I gleaned racial dynamics from Armenians by our language. We called anyone not Armenian an odar, including whites, but we had a special word reserved for blacks, sevs: We weren’t like white people, or anyone else, but we especially weren’t like black people. In my early twenties, I would directly ask the question, “Are we white?” to the older generation, and the answer was always, “Of course we are!” accompanied by nervous laughter. Perhaps it was because they secretly worried that they weren’t really white. Such a question pushes a button in echoing a passage in history when others judged us and we were not able to define ourselves. During this time, we were placed in a position that we haven’t been able to identify, discuss, come to terms with, nor fight our way out of. Janice Okoomian, in her article “Becoming White,” points out that Armenians’ history with genocide became separated from them in the ways that their bodies were racialized during the court cases: “Their ‘Oriental’ differences had to be downplayed. Even their bodily suffering at the hands of Turks had to be downplayed. Instead, their physical suffering had to be linked with, and even displaced by, that of European Christians. In other words, legal discourse made the Armenian body irrelevant in order to establish Armenian whiteness.” Since the crimes against us were co-opted as white, we’ve been prevented from correlating them to the slavery of Africans and Native American genocide—to find solidarity. In effect, being deemed white—in court, on the street, and elsewhere—took away our identity and history and made our struggles invisible to others and to ourselves.  

* * *

So who is this “man on the street” anyway? Going around judging people, determining their color. How did he get to decide what’s what? And what the hell does he look like anyway?   

The obvious answer is that he’s a man and he’s white. He is on the street, so he is average, a Joe Schmoe, grabbing a smoke, going back to punch a time clock. He may not be happy with the system, but he doesn’t do much to question it, getting by as best he can, obeying orders of those who look like him. He wants to get off the street, into his own car, eventually into a limousine.

It’s been a long time since this phrase was coined, though, so I’m thinking the man on the street is a kid who called me the n-word in Walpole, the crazy woman who called me a “black bastard” in London, and my friend who called me white in Whole Foods in Manhattan. Even though none of them are men, they are all white, and they have power in our culture to tell someone who doesn’t look like them who they are, then claim that discrimination against them doesn’t exist.  

The people of color who deemed me white may not be the man on the street. But perhaps they have a little bit of him inside of them, considering that they judged me in their own court of racial classification. Within a span of seconds, and with few words, they determined who I was, and I let them decide that my privilege rendered my history inconsequential. This made me feel that I wasn’t fit to find solidarity in the fight against racism.  

When people called me white, I was ashamed that they could see my privilege; I mistakenly thought that I would somehow be less complicit in the system if I were viewed as a person of color. It was stupid thinking: no one is immune to the effects of racism, whatever color they are— we all internalize it to feel oppressed or superior to varying degrees—and no amount of validation from people of color about my identity would grant absolution. I didn't realize that I could fight racism by understanding it better.  I didn't know that privilege can grant opportunities to speak up when people aren't being treated equally – within and beyond our families and communities. Now I know that I can resist racism by saying who I am when people try to tell me, whomever they happen to be.

When I encountered all these people on the street, my power was that I was a mirror, reflecting back some of what they had experienced with race and racism. As they told me who I was, each revealed to me where they were from and what they knew to be true. This was helpful feedback in finding my way to myself: Because of who I am and where I have lived, I have come to understand my white privilege and to feel what discrimination is like against those who aren’t white. My very existence—like many of us with ambiguous, unclassifiable, or shifting racial identity—is a reminder that the whole system is a construct. So when you meet the man on the street, you can take down his ladder and tear up his sheet. Your complexity can be both a privilege and a disadvantage at once, but it can also be a tool: a mirror that reveals our contrasting details, rendering us all the more human.


Contributor Notes

Nancy Agabian is the author of Princess Freak (Beyond Baroque Books, 2000), a mixed genre collection of poems, short prose, and performance texts on young women’s sexuality and rage, and Me as her again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter (Aunt Lute Books, 2008) a memoir about the influence of her Armenian American family’s history on her coming-of-age. Me as her again was honored as a Lambda Literary Award finalist for LGBT Nonfiction and shortlisted for a William Saroyan International Prize. She is a member of the staff collective that publishes The Hye-Phen Magazine an alternative media platform for Queer, Trans* and radical Armenians. Her essays have been published in Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, Women Studies Quarterly and the anthologies Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place and Time (Seal Press) and Forgotten Bread: First Generation Armenian American Writers (Heyday Books). Collections of her poems appear in the anthologies Birthmark (Open Letter Press) and Deviation (Inknagir). Nancy has also written and performed several one-woman shows, which have been presented internationally — in Geneva, Milan and Yerevan.  A Fulbright scholar to Armenia for 2006-07, she is currently working on “The Fear of Large and Small Nations” a novel on the complexities between political ideals and personal liberation in post-Soviet Armenia and the Armenian diaspora.  Nancy teaches creative writing at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. In 2012, she founded Heightening Stories, a series of community-based writing workshops focusing on social issues as well as craft, online and in Jackson Heights, Queens.