By Melissa Lake
People, after learning I’m Armenian, often ask me how I identify myself. In essence, they’re asking me which little white box I check off on forms underneath the ethnicity section. White? Asian? Other?
Born fair-haired and light-skinned, from a young age I identified by exactly what I appeared to be- white. As I grew older and I discovered the palest shade of makeup was still too dark for my ivory skin, my ethnic identity was pretty firmly founded. And along with my ethnicity came the privilege that being categorized as “white” contains- no snide remarks were ever made about the color of my skin, no latent prejudices; the system was more skewed to work in my favor. I never faced racism or discrimination because of the color of my skin. I was (as almost sickening as it is to say) blessed for being born white. But my mother wasn’t so lucky. Already crippled by a thick and barely distinguishable accent, the combination of that along with her darker skin and her exotic features immediately categorized her as a foreigner, and by direct association, an outcast. People treated her differently than they would treat me. Clerks and cashiers in stores grew immediately impatient with her, people would slander her with terrorist incriminations or various snide remarks. She was often the butt end of every joke about foreigners. People on a consistent basis would tell her to “go back to where she came from”, to “learn English”- it was a constant onslaught of people reminding her of how much she didn’t belong, of how different she was. And where I was advantaged because of my race, she was hindered by hers. People, especially people who are privileged enough to not have to personally face it, tend to be very ignorant of the subtle racism that occurs within our everyday lives. Even blindly, unknowingly, seemingly subconsciously, we commit indistinct acts, seemingly harmless, of racism and discrimination- choosing a line that’s a little longer at the checkout to avoid the cashier with the accent, making a snide joke about the waiter- even I, born to a mother who is forced to endure these offences on a daily basis, am guilty. And my mother cannot be the only victim in this and I the only perpetrator.
Armenians are a people who have been ostracized for generations and while at times our voices against our oppressors speak loud and true, other times they are muffled pleas fading into background noise. Sometimes the fight has to be a small one, a single battle in a larger war. We are not voiceless victims and we must also be accepting and understanding of those who share the same fate and circumstance as our ancestors and that we still endure today. Being Armenian isn’t just being Armenian, it’s being human. It’s being strong and compassionate and empathetic. And for that reason we have to recognize that thousands of Armenians and other peoples face injustice and discrimination across the country for being considered foreign in a land they have called home for years if not generations. The struggle with being Armenian may start with the Genocide but it doesn’t end there, not with thousands being considered second class citizens for the way they dress or speak or look. The Genocide will never be acknowledged unless something is said, unless a voice is carried to an ear that will hear it and act upon it. And as much as it is an obligation for us all to speak for those who can no longer speak, it is also a responsibility for us to speak for those who speak and who will not be heard, for what good is a voice if no one will listen?