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Beyond Jermag Yev Sev: A Roundtable on Armenian American Identity

IN 2017, the digital platform Ajam Media Collective published an essay titled “How Armenian-Americans Became ‘White’: A Brief History,” by Aram Ghoogasian. The text traces the history and racialization of Armenian refugees in the United States, who were displaced by genocide in the early 20th century. Initially, these refugees were classified as “Asiatics” by the American government; they were ineligible for citizenship because they were not “free white persons.” This classification was later reevaluated, and Armenians were deemed proximate enough to whiteness to justify legal naturalization. In one landmark case, the naturalization of Armenian immigrant Tatos Cartozian was provisionally approved after Cartozian offered himself for the “visual scrutiny” of the court. Cartozian subsequently became the target of an attorney general who disputed his whiteness, and was only granted approval for citizenship after winning the case. The United States v. Cartozian ruling affirmed the potential for Armenians to “amalgamate readily with the white races.” In his essay, Ghoogasian didn’t approach Armenian racial status as a stable ontological fact. Instead he demonstrated that racialization was, in part, a product of the US juridical apparatus: legislatively determined and repeatedly renegotiated.

The essay circulated widely, to astonishing misreadings. Many held up the text as evidentiary proof — first, and tacitly, as evidence of the ontological stability of whiteness. And second, evidence that Armenians — whose homeland is situated in West Asia and whose communities span Iran, Lebanon, and Syria — are indisputably white. This misinterpretation was so widespread that quotation marks were added to the word “white” in the text’s title after publication. In the co-authored essay below, Ghoogasian joins Sophia Armen and Hrag Vartanian to discuss the history of Armenian American migration, the politics of citizenship and race, as well as the slippages that distinguish becoming white from becoming “white.”

— Mashinka Firunts Hakopian

HRAG VARTANIAN: Aram, I’ve wanted to have this conversation for years. When your article “How Armenian Americans Became ‘White’: A Brief History,” first appeared on AJAM Media Collective, I was relieved that someone was finally kicking off the conversation around Armenian Americans and racialization. I hoped it would be a departure point for rich debate, but in many ways, it felt like it stopped a conversation many of us were hoping to have. Particularly around the complexity of Armenians and their racial status in the United States, where the topic of race has taken on a renewed urgency in every sector of society. What was your intention with the article and how did you perceive the reaction?

ARAM GHOOGASIAN: My biggest frustration with the reaction to the piece has been that many seem to have missed that I was trying to understand Armenian Americans’ racial status as a specifically juridical process of becoming, as stated in the title, not as a static ontological condition. In other words, Armenians were not born into the fabricated category we call “white,” they were placed into it, just as MexicansSyrians, and South Asians were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through different court cases that often contradicted each other. I was not at all concerned with finding out whether Armenians are white or not. That, to me, is an uninteresting question, one that does not have a productive or useful answer. Rather, I sought to understand the logic underpinning two racial prerequisite cases in the first quarter of the 20th century, In re Halladjian (1909) and United States v. Cartozian (1925), which deemed Armenians legally white based on race science, “common knowledge,” and legal precedent. The brevity of my essay allowed some readers to project what they wanted onto the piece, irrespective of whether or not the text itself supported their preconceived notions of how race functions vis-à-vis Armenian Americans.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books