A number of months ago, I did some Googling. Maybe it was because of some actions or tweets by Kim Kardashian regarding her Armenian advocacy or appropriating another culture. Or maybe I was just curious to figure out where the word Caucasian originated. Either way, I found this article: “How Armenian Americans Became ‘White’: A Brief History.”
In a case called Halladjian, a few men – and many other Armenians – were deemed white by the white men on the the United States Circuit Court. As presented in a clip from a New York Times article from 1909, Judge Lowell “said that Western Asiatics have become so mixed with Europeans during the past twenty-five centuries that it is impossible to tell whether they are white or should come under the statutes excluding the inhabitants of that part of the world and applied usually to the yellow race [sic].” Lowell stated
“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.”
As the main article pointed out “Because of the malleability and general instability of racial categories, Armenians were able to take advantage of the blurry boundaries of whiteness, going from potential members of the ‘yellow race’ to white persons eligible for naturalization.”
I believe it was after this event that my great-grandfather came over here, followed by my great-grandmother, great-uncle, great-aunt, and finally, my grandfather in 1921. My grandfather was a refugee from Turkish Armenia (now Eastern Turkey). He was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide.
Without this ruling, my family would most likely not have been able to attain citizenship. Without this ruling, I would not have been born.
And without this ruling, I would not legally be considered white.
Now, I benefit each and every day from my white privilege simply by my appearance. While my father was Armenian and had a more-olive skin tone, my mother’s roots were from England/Ireland. When people see me each day, I don’t look very Armenian. I’m white.
But this ruling adds another layer to how I benefit from white supremacy and white privilege. White people were given the power to say who is and isn’t white. White people were given the power to say who is “us” and who is “them.” Ultimately, white people have been given the authority to who receives benefits and who does not.
When we peel back the layers of our lives, our culture, and our heritage, we see the ways we have either benefited or been negatively affected by the white supremacist system. My father’s side of the family still dealt with oppression in the Caucasus region of the world. They were not rich when coming to this country. Many lived with trauma. A few still had brown skin and looked Middle Eastern. But they still benefited from white privilege because the powers-that-be who happened to be white deemed it appropriate for them to attain citizenship.
Here’s something else that was determined about the white race: “Caucasian” has been appropriated from a few ethnicities to signify whiteness – forgetting that there are true “Caucasians” (Armenian, Azerbaijan, Georgia, etc.). For instance, I would be considered a Caucasian because my father’s side of the family came from Armenian, part of the Caucasus region of the world.
The article “Why Do We Keep Using the Word ‘Caucasian’? by Yolanda Moses states the following:
The term “Caucasian” originated from a growing 18th-century European science of racial classification. German anatomist Johann Blumenbach visited the Caucasus Mountains, located between the Caspian and Black seas, and he must have been enchanted because he labeled the people there “Caucasians” and proposed that they were created in God’s image as an ideal form of humanity.
It truly is disenchanting and horrifying that he considered one group of people created in the image of God. Since humans were believed at the time to have originated from the region (as noted in scripture), other races were deemed inferior – affirming slavery and other forms of discrimination. Over the years, Caucasian was redefined as white people saw fit and could benefit the most.
Many of us have been trying to explain white privilege to our faith communities. Being that the people with whom we speak are not rich, they often do not see the privilege they do hold. What we forget is that the people of Western European descent have had a hand in who has been able to come to this country and who receives certain benefits. Many along the way determined (and still determine) that white is closer to the image of God. Many along the way have ruled who is white, and from that many of us have received the benefit of whiteness.
So when we see adults and children in cages, we rarely see people who are predominantly Western European. To the certain powers-that-be, white is still being determined as closer to God. When people who are not white/who are brown are denied soap or toothbrushes, who are kept in close quarters with one another (like in slave ships), they are not seen as fully human. I received the benefits from the powers-that-be determining that my ancestors came from a place of “white” people. The refugees kept in cages by the border do not benefit in the way my family has.
White supremacy works because predominantly white people in power choose who receives citizenship, refuge, basic necessities, etc.
I continue to peel back layer after layer on how I have benefited from this system. It has not been easy to see how I have succeeded because of a decision or two made by white leaders over 100 years ago or the powers-that-be today. Just as I could not deny my white privilege before, now given all of this history of how Armenians were deemed white and how Caucasian what appropriated, my life has been completely shaped by the system- a system who has played God determining who gets to be part of the “in” group: the people who they have determined are made in the image of God.
The Rev. Michelle L. Torigian is the Senior Pastor of St. Paul United Church of Christ, Belleville, Illinois. Her essay “Always a Pastor, Never the Bride” was in the RevGalBlogPals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit. She also has chapters in the books Sacred Habits: The Rise of the Creative Clergy and A Child Laughs: Prayers for Justice and Hope. Torigian blogs at http://www.michelletorigian.com.
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