For the majority of my life, I have struggled with accepting my identity as an Armenian woman. I grew up being told by my father that because we were Caucasian we were white, and I accepted that. When you grow up in rural America, diverse representation is extremely limited. You do not see or hear much about race or ethnicity beyond Black, white or Asian.
I accepted that for a long time. I remember telling people that I was of Middle Eastern descent and then having to defend myself because my skin tone was tan but pale for what many people identified with the term Middle Eastern. I was white — Caucasian meant white, right?
It has become common for white people to use the term Caucasian to describe their race. Caucasian is sometimes even the only category of forms in place of white. I even grew up thinking that Caucasian was just a fancy word for white. I specifically remember telling people when I was a kid that Caucasians were just white people who have descent in the Caucasus region. I was misinformed by my father — I know now that is wrong.
Caucasian typically refers to those who inhabit or descent from the Caucasus region. The countries mainly included in this region are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and parts of Southern Russia.
The term is also rooted in standards of beauty that were held in the 18th century that identified “Circassian beauties” in the Caucasus as the peak of human attractiveness. When the term Caucasian is used synonymously with white, it fed into a racist narrative that somehow white people are better than others.
Likely the most famous Armenian Americans are the Kardashian family. Perhaps I am just unobservant, but I did not know they were Armenian until a few years ago. I do not blame them for playing into the whiteness narrative; it allowed them access into the spaces they needed to succeed while facing little prejudice based on their heritage.
The Kardashian women are revered for their attractiveness as white women with “ethnically ambiguous” features. Many times I have been asked, “so like, what are you?” in different variations.
Over the years, I have struggled to accept my ethnicity and see myself beyond being just some white woman with “ethnically ambiguous” features. Despite knowing the difference between being white and being Caucasian, I and other Americans of Southwest Asian and Northern African (SWANA) descent have to describe their race as “White” on the United States census and other forms. SWANA is sometimes referred to as Middle Eastern or North African (MENA). The U.S. census is broken into several race and ethnicity categories: Black or African American, White, Asian, American Indian and Alaska Native, Hispanic or Latino, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, Not Hispanic or Latino, Two or More Races, or Some Other Race.
On Sept. 21, the United States Census Bureau released data that 3.5 million people were reported as MENA. This MENA population is similar to the data of those reported for American Indian and Alaskan Native (3.7 million).
However, as people filled out the 2020 U.S. Census, they still had to identify themselves as white — underneath in the boxes, they filled out their ethnicity. Many Middle Eastern groups reject this classification and simply check “Some Other Race” on the census and other forms. This leads to underwhelming numbers in government data and leaves this community relatively invisible. This government classification of being “white” simply does not reflect the experiences that we have had in life.
In middle school through high school, on state tests I had to check off “White (including Middle Eastern origin)” as my race. If Middle Eastern was considered as “white,” wouldn't “including Middle Eastern origin” be understood?
This classification can be traced back to the Naturalization Act of 1790, which only granted citizenship to “free white persons.” In 1909, Armenians had to go to court in order to prove that they were white in order to seek refuge from the Ottoman Empire (Armenian Genocide, 1915).
On Dec. 24, 1909, four Armenians were granted citizenship on account that Western Asians “have become so mixed with Europeans during the past twentyfive centuries that it is impossible to tell whether they are white or [if they] should come under the statutes excluding the inhabitants of that part of the world,” Judge Lowell said in The New York Times.
Armenians (and other SWANA) have had to fight in order to identify as white for their survival, to escape the genocide in their country and to be able to ensure their freedoms in America. Being “white-passing” has allowed Armenians to avoid discrimination, yet we still face prejudice from white people and even other minority groups.
During my freshman year at Shippensburg University, I attended an event for a campus organization that was celebrating and uplifting a specific group of minority students. I was there in order to write an article on the event; despite not being a part of the group, I was welcomed and treated kindly.
While covering the event I learned a lot about the differences and similarities in the cultures that made up the group. They also discussed stereotypes that each person had faced on campus.
At the last panel, the situation suddenly became very uncomfortable for me. One of the guest speakers made a joke with the punchline being “all Middle Eastern people are terrorists.”
After three hours of hearing of the stereotypes that these students had endured, I felt like my own struggles and people were simply reduced to one line for a few laughs. Perhaps I didn’t look “Middle Eastern” enough to be picked out of the crowd as someone to not make the joke around. Or perhaps the speaker did not care regardless.
At that moment, I wished that Caucasian was just a fancy word for white.
If Caucasian meant white, I would not have felt the joke on a personal level. Perhaps I would have cringed at the poorly placed joke, but I would not have wished that I was not the one writing the article. I would not have felt sick every time I sat down to start the article. I definitely would not have felt immediately ostracized from the otherwise welcoming group — I was just a punchline.
The decisions that were made over a hundred years ago have trickled down into our census, our standardized tests, our forms and our perception of the word Caucasian. We have let white people feel “cool” using a fancy word like Caucasian for too long – we are not the same.
We are people of color — we were never white.