This is an essay on identity, ethnicity, culture and victimhood. It originally appeared in 39 Null, a print magazine based in South Tyrol, Italy, in 2018. In this online version, I have used my own art in lieu of the original magazine layout.
I remember being American, growing up in the Californian suburbs to my dad’s record collection - Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, Steely Dan. I remember watching movies with my mom - My Cousin Vinny, Groundhog Day - and how she renovated the house at every stage of my childhood, the shabby hippie home evolving through the yuppie 90s. I remember my school and classmates in a town typically full of whiteness. I remember grunge music, Super Mario Bros, Air Jordans and fitting in. If I strain my memory, I can faintly recall antagonisms, being ostracized, kids talking behind my back perhaps, referring obliquely to my otherness. Of course I felt insecure, at times embarrassed. But if something inborn about me made me different, I would have to struggle to conjure it.
Being white used to be called Caucasian. I think it’s better than the black/white dichotomy of common parlance, which seems incredibly dangerous in reference to human populations. (Do people really think it’s productive to associate skin tones with the ancient paradigm of good and evil?) No skin is the color of paper, of clouds - no one is white, really. Especially not me. I may not even be Caucasian, depending on how one defines it. Some people consider me a “person of color”, an other. I don’t identify that way. And I wonder how far back I need to remember in order to feel separate, persecuted, to demand my own racial identity language. How far must I scrutinize history, and when does it stop being my own?
The word Caucasian comes from the Caucasus region between Europe and Persia, between the Black Sea and the Caspian. It’s the southwestern part of Russia, along with the sovereign states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and perhaps some part of Turkish Anatolia. It’s this awkward part of land not associated with anything, really, where Noah supposedly landed his arc in the biblical story. My ancestry actually includes this area, my father’s family being Armenian. Do people think of Armenians as white? It depends who it is, and who’s being asked. Cher, Andre Agassi, Kim Kardashian - are they white? It’s kind of a stupid question.
It’s silly to focus on heritage, but it’s also a fascinating topic of study. We don’t want to label people, but we’re obsessed with it simultaneously. We want to celebrate diversity, but we don’t want to say people are actually different. It’s such an odd contradiction, isn’t it? We all have interesting backgrounds, so it makes sense to explore this inquiry: who am I, where do I come from, what’s my identity? How does it inform me as a person??
I took one of these ancestry tests recently. I spit into a little vial, which was analyzed by a lab, and it tells me about my DNA, which region of the world “it came from”. And I wonder how accurate it is, how much it can detect…
There’s a field of science called epigenetics. Studies of lab rats show evidence that certain trauma can be passed down through semen, from one generation to the next. DNA can be altered or imprinted by life experience – apparently this is a real thing.
My father’s grandparents escaped the Armenian Genocide before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. He tried to teach me about it that part of history as a kid. I still recall some of the horrendous details, but I largely ignored it, preferring my typical childhood of whiffle ball and MTV. But maybe I can empathize with victims in some deeply profound way, in a way that gives me a sense of identity. Maybe I remember being one. I’m trying.
The first African-American president was supposed to signal in a post-racial world. Somehow it didn’t quite work out like that. The age of his successor has brought an even stronger identitarian political moment. A small minority of European-Americans are now entrenched in their own identity (their whiteness, apparently) in response to the fracturing of American democracy. The Democratic party, which supposedly stands for each and every kind of person, belabors on about niche identity groups. The USA has become a land of stereotypes and pejoratives: evil white men, objectified women, persecuted blacks, misaligned Hispanics, token Asians, and on and on.
My mom’s ancestors are Korean. She herself isn’t, as she’ll insist - no real connection to the language, the food, the history, the culture of it. But her grandparents did escape the peninsula before the Japanese conquered it. How could she be a part of that, growing up in mid-century modern Los Angeles? And yet I wonder, when I read the news about Kim Jun-Un, if it doesn’t spike my compassion more than most world events. Surely I feel deep injustice about this place, a real anger and sadness about the state of millions of Koreans.
In Anatolia, Turkey’s president Erdoğan is currently rolling back the secular values of the country’s modern founder, Ataturk. The hatred toward Christians and secular people is growing, and the denial of the Armenian Genocide continues, 100 years later. And I wonder if I remember. Do I remember the brutality and dehumanization of the Turks? Do I still see it, when I think it? And do I have to remember something inside of me in order to really understand it? To show compassion? Where is my compassion best directed?
There is real suffering in the world, real threats to human flourishing. There are people starved by totalitarian governments, battles over drinking water, corporate takeovers of nations, and corrupt online public spaces. There are belief systems that contradict each other, religious zealots standing against technological progress, arcane ideas sewn into cultures that limit human progress. There are debates to be had over ideas, important things to discuss.
There’s also a persecution complex. Who is to blame for my lack of success? I would love to point my finger. I know the founding fathers of the US came from Western Europe. They were white men, as have been the majority of celebrated people in Western culture, from music to science. They also slaughtered natives, enslaved foreigners (as if these were novel concepts). So are whiteness and maleness the problem? Oh, how easy it would be if it were true – that a race of people were the root of all evil! I could easily cling on to my tanner skin tone, the slight hint in my eyelid of the epicanthic fold, these distinguishing features of otherness. Would this absolve me, make me virtuous? Could I hold this like some key to success?
I meditate on the historical trauma that still affects my dad’s parents. Even as they gained wealth throughout the 20th century on New York’s Long Island, they felt judged, micro-aggressed. Surrounded by the Jewish community, they felt alienated even among the alienated. They embody the ethnic culture of boisterous Italians, the neurotic mannerisms of Woody Allen. I too derive humor out of the embers of historical suffering, of persecution passed on like folklore. I don’t see it now, nor did I when I was a kid. But it’s there for the taking. I focus on the harmony among my social group - a mixture of different backgrounds, our own unique histories running in the background of our actual, mutual interests.
It’s hard for me to understand the persecution complex of individuals, let alone that of entire groups, even as I recognize that groups have indeed been marginalized throughout history. What do we do about it? Do we entrench ourselves in the memory of our ancestors, in the terrible fights they fought, ignoring the immense progress they also made? Do we put social focus on superficial differences, rekindle the hateful and dehumanizing spirit of our baser, tribal antagonisms? There’s a deep, complex well of natural emotion in me, a wild, animist energy that understands the howl of ravenous beasts. There’s an untamed power in the heart of all humanity. There’s a raging fire always, but also the unending current of purifying water, a peaceful flow that erases all things. I want to remember, but I’m also happy to forget.