“Race Issues” by Maral Bavakan

“For a long time when I first came to this country I felt at ease checking the box next to “Caucasian” whenever I was filling out a form that asked for my information. In my mind, this word did not translate as “White,” but as someone from the Caucasus, the region of the world where Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and several other countries are found. I was familiar with the Russian term “kavkazets,” which means someone from the Caucasus and assumed that it meant the same thing in English. Charles King writes in a book on the history of the Caucasus, “The collective categories that would eventually come to be used for ethnic groups, nationalities, and religions in the Caucasus were not present, fully formed, when the Russians arrived. They were products of the imperial system itself- negotiated, reworked, and in some cases wholly invented as part of the process of imperial absorption and administration.”

I no longer check the box under “Caucasian” because I do not identify as “white.” Often there is no other box left to check but “Other,” which is comical in itself. The part of the world where I come from is in between East and West, Europe and Asia, sometimes associated with the Orient, Oriental, Other. Until recently I did not come into the knowledge that what people sometimes find so “beautiful” about my curly, unruly hair and dark features is that it is “exotic.” Depending on the environment and people I find myself surrounded by, I am seen as different, my ethic background some unknown mystery.

I never know what to tell people when they ask me what Armenia is considered a part of: Europe? Eastern-Europe? Middle-East? Asia? I get confused for Latina, Arab, Italian, mixed-race. People come up to me on the train and speak to me in Hebrew. Just as the country where I come from is in-between, so is my identity. I can be Italian, Israeli, Colombian, Palestinian, Turkish. What does it mean to be Armenian, to look Armenian? Some of us have darker features, some of us have green eyes, light hair. Some of us have lighter skin than others, some have straight hair instead of curly. We can look Georgian, Azerbaijani, Iranian. I was also once told that I could be South Asian.

Still, I also do not identity as a woman of color although most often I find my liberation bound up in the liberation of women of color (to quote Lila Watson). I believe that I have always benefited from my lighter skin color in this country, although this would most certainly not be the case in Moscow where my cousins struggle daily with their ostracized status as “black” in a Russian-nationalistic society, where race-driven killings are not uncommon. Is my identity then defined by where I benefit and where I have a privilege due to the color of my skin? Is it not then defined by the same system that creates these definitions, these categories, mainly to oppress those who fall in the lower ranks of that racial hierarchy.

By the way, I hate theory. So to bring it back to the practical, at the end of the day, race matters when you are someone affected by it. And as long as there is racism, we are all affected by it, although to varying degrees. Even my Armenian brothers and sisters are affected living in this country, practicing ignorance when they make racist remarks, when they do not recognize the ways in which they benefit from racism due to the privilege of their lighter skin color, when they do not question their upbringing rooted in being anti-Turkish, having never come in contact with someone who is Turkish.

When considering the term people of color I also think about the term “third world” and wonder how the two merge and how they do not. I have been identified by others as someone who comes from a “third world country” although I have often hesitated using the term to speak of the country that I come from. There are ways in which my memory of Yerevan in 1994 resembles a less “developed” part of the world and ways even today that Armenia may be considered a “developing” nation. But what is being “developed”? By who and for whom? Under whose definition of “development”? Do people in Armenia see themselves as people from a third world nation? How does this affect their identity if they identify more as European?

For now I am content with identifying as Armenian, although even that brings up the problem of being nationalistic, believing in borders. But the woman who went over my application and found that I had identified as “other” (due to lack of more categories, maybe even due to the fact that there arecategories and I was asked to use one to define myself) and written next to it “Armenian,” was not so happy with this. She laughed a little at my attempt to be rebellious, and changed my identity to White/Caucasian/Eastern-European. What do my efforts to self-define matter if at every turn someone else places me in a category they see as fitting to my appearance. “Gypsy!” someone once pointed to me and exclaimed.

I do not get upset anymore. I am whatever you think I am and everything in between.”

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