Friday, March 16, 2012

All Those F@#$%ng Armenians!


One of the benefits from working at a progressive independent and wealthy school is that we have the luxury and feel the responsibility to have staff meetings where we discuss our diversity mission. This week we discussed Beverly Daniel Tatum's five stages of racial identity development for persons of color and the six stages for "whites" as it said on the sheet. I put "whites" in quotes because I think it's funny. I once was chastised for describing someone as "black" but I can't remember ever being referred to as Caucasian and I understand the point that I don't face oppression for the color of my "white" skin. I have only ever been seen as a white girl or even more specifically a white girl from the valley and sometimes nothing feels more "white" than to say "African American." I grew up in North Hollywood, California during the years of the LA Riots and the OJ trial and crippling earthquakes. My dad and my aunt worked in Inglewood running a JTPA program where he worked closely with the black communities of South Central, Inglewood, Compton and LA proper. My brother, my cousins and I spent many summer and winter vacations in that office helping file, staple, xerox, take lunch orders, hold epic rubber band wars in the conference rooms, sweat over math problems we were given by the tough, black remedial math tutor, Shel, who we all came to love like a second Grandpa, play soccer in the hallway with a ball of masking tape until we got caught, and generally annoy, laugh with and help the many different colored faces of my dad's very diverse office. No one ever said "African American" or "Caucasian."  There was no "Latino" or "Chicano." There was Black, White and Hispanic. Occasionally there was "Oriental" which is the only label I saw undergo a transformation into the broad umbrella term "Asian." And more recently, when visiting LA, I hear "Latino" and "Chicano." But the labels "Black" and "White" never changed in my world and I don't think they need to because there is "white America" and "black America" and I think it's important to not sugarcoat. I think it's important to not dress up the truth in "political correctness" when nothing is "correct" about race in America.

This Saved By The Bell: The College Years episode titled "Slater's War" where A.C. Slater begins to identify as Chicano, takes an audience member through Tatum's five stages of racial identity. Zac and Slater have a Tahoe ski trip planned for the weekend but Slater is drawn to come to a Chicano's studies meeting with the help of an attractive woman. At some point in the episode he no longer identifies with Zac and for the first time seems to see him as "the other," as "whiteness." The cheesiness is still there and Zac Morris's narcissism is in overdrive especially with lines like "Why did you have to pick this weekend to be a Chicano?" or an aside where he tells the audience, "I always thought he was Italian!" The episode is a far cry from riveting television but still pretty amazing that they tackled an issue not "widely discussed" in mainstream media. Afterward, we were supposed to talk with a partner about these stages and if we identified with any of them. (And yes, the exercise in itself was problematic in terms of boundaries and labels and stereotypes, but still led to fruitful discussion)

I have never been asked this before, but my partner asked me, "I have to ask...are you mixed race?" I stumbled over my words, not even really understanding what she meant. "No, yes, I don't know...I'm Armenian...and Irish, English..."  She said, "Huh, I wonder where that falls." I said I had no idea and that I'd never known but that anytime I told someone that I was Armenian, the responses were very similar: Huh, I see that. or Yeah, that makes sense or really, I didn't know that! And I always wanted to know what that meant. What does being an Armenian look like? Is it my eyes or my nose? Is it the olive skin some of my cousins have as soon as it hits June?  My partner knew I was from LA and she said, "Isn't there a large Armenian population out there?" I said, "Yup and the Armenian mafia is pretty big out there," but I also said it wasn't a population I ever identified with. "Really?" she said. And what came out of my mouth even surprised me. I admitted that the way the Armenian population was talked about in Los Angeles always seemed to be in a negative or gaudy light. They drove Beamers and Eclipses and played techno music really loud. They wore gold hoops before gold was back in and they hung out in big groups at the Glendale Galleria mall. They had lots of hair gel and overly manicured eyebrows and watches too big for them buried in a thick mass of arm hair.  They wore heavy gold crucifixes and baseball caps with the rims cupped so deeply you could barely see their already dark and "scheming" eyes. They were "shady," not to be trusted. These were the images, these were the "ideas."

I could remember when I switched schools in the middle of fifth grade there was a an Armenian kid, lets say, named Adam Kardashian, who was learning the hard way about when to start wearing deodorant. I remember a group of girls saying, "Adam smells...you know why? Because he's Armenian. Armenians are smelly." I remember thinking, I will go to my grave without telling a soul I am Armenian. Not to mention I had just suffered my own embarrassing where's that smell coming from experience. I went through junior high and high school only ever telling people I was Irish.  In high school, whenever going to the Glendale Galleria came up, there was always some joke, You mean Little Armenia? followed by a roll of the eyes. There wasn't a lot of comments, but enough to make me keep my lips sealed.

It wasn't until my freshman year of college when I began to appreciate the little bit of Armenian heritage that is left in my family. My aunt Rose asked me to help her prepare for Christmas dinner where she was hosting the families of her three brothers and her four sisters.  She taught me how to roll dolma and introduced me to the wonderful world of Lahmahjoons. She told me about some of the history of our Armenian side of the family and I started to feel not only an appreciation but also a regret that I had been ashamed of identifying with something that was undeniably part of what made me, me. My grandfather passed away when I was twelve but until this day his "Armenian temper" is that of a legends.

On a commercial shoot in LA, I once hit it off with a really charming caterer who was a proud Armenian. When I told him I was also Armenian, he gave me a big bear hug like I was part of some lost tribe. Maybe this was more because I was 22 and one of the few females on set, but he then proceeded to tell me a bunch of racist jokes towards Armenians that he took a certain rebellious pride in. The only punch line I can remember is, "Jews may screw you, but those Armenians will fuck you!" He played up the "shadiness" stereotype by poking at fun at it, never really letting on if he believed in it or not, and he used his charm and his business savvy to build himself a catering business that worked non-stop on big budget commercials. He was a self-made man, who worked all the time but valued his big family above anything, especially when they could also work for him...much like my Armenian grandfather.

My grandfather was devilishly handsome. He had big dark brown eyes, thick dark eyebrows, olive skin and jet black hair that eventually turned into an earthy salt and pepper shade. He understood people in the same way only immigrants and people who have to make a life from almost nothing understand people and life. He had a ferocious work ethic and a sense of humor that could win over any room. He worked in show business and people called him Tony (a shortened nickname of his already Americanized-no-longer-Armenian last name). They thought he was Italian and if you were called "Tony" and worked in show business, why wouldn't they? I still have an uncle who claims he is Italian, because well, why not? It makes more sense with our last name. And isn't it "cooler" to say you are Italian rather than Armenian? What is Armenian?

The older I get, the more I am reminded of my grandfather when I tell people that I'm Armenian. I have a certain pride in revealing this information about me, like an Ace I've been holding up my sleeve. And I have started to really embrace that being a little bit Armenian makes me feel a little bit special. Like I am part of a lost tribe that not many Americans know about. Two years ago, Mike and I sat at my brother's bar. He was bartending and serving up charm, chatter and a mean margarita. A couple sat down next to us, upset that they had driven from Orange County to see Toby Keith but had not arrived to the venue in time to buy tickets because of "all these fucking Armenians!" Mike smiled and put his drink down. He said, "That's interesting...my girlfriend is Armenian and the bartender who just served you your drink, that's her brother." They apologized through an awkward back tracking of what they really meant and slithered away. Last year, in a bar in New York, when an inebriated and friendly out-of-towner passing through New York learned I was from Los Angeles, he said something to the effect of, "You know what LA is full of? Armenian sluts!" He went on to talk about how hot they were but again came back to the slut factor. I let him make a fool out of himself for a little bit longer. (Mike knew I wanted to take this one) When there was a pause, I said, "That's interesting...'cause I'm Armenian...and I don't ever remember being a slut."

I still don't know what it means to be Armenian any more than I really know what it means to be white any more than I know what it means to be American other than asking these kinds of questions. I don't think racial identity development for people of color or "whites" is a linear journey nor do I think it is always progressive. All I know is that the more open I become, the more questions I ask, the more discussions I have abut the topic, the more I embrace my own heritage and am warmly reminded about a grandfather who was once larger than life.    

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