It was only three years ago that I heard the term “white privilege” for the first time (or at least paid attention to it). I had just begun a Master in Public Administration program at Harvard University. Very, very early in my first semester, I heard the term come up repeatedly. I was still trying to piece together exactly what my peers meant when they said it. Initially, it gave me a mental image of a mother playing tennis in the backyard with her son, who was visiting home from boarding school; that is, some variation of a stress-free life held up as a goal that one should strive to attain. But the tone of voice in which the phrase was uttered made it clear there was some underlying shame involved; like if the mansion of this imagined idyllic family had been built by slaves long, long ago
I thought of “white privilege” as a very American concept; an unfortunate legacy of waiting until 1865 to abolish slavery, nine decades after the Declaration of Independence explained how self-evident it was that “all men are created equal.” I definitely didn’t consider it to have any relevance to my life. Having grown up in multicultural Toronto, even the term “white” itself had an icky feeling to it when applied to a group of people. I never thought to apply the label “white” to any of my friends. Virtually all of them had at least one grandparent born outside Canada. If their roots were Polish or Hungarian or English- or French-Canadian, “white” was just not descriptive enough to be useful. It was also too ambiguous. Was my Greek friend “white”? Was my Coptic friend “white”? Was I “white”? Who gets to decide where in the beige spectrum the cutoff point is? One thing I was sure of was that I did not have any “white privilege.” My backyard had a deck, not a tennis court, and the private high school I attended did not offer a boarding option (unless you were an international student from Hong Kong, in which case they could help the family organize some kind of living arrangement).
But a few weeks into my Harvard degree… it happened. During a conversation in the cafeteria about politics – the majority of our conversations in the cafeteria were about politics – one of my peers shut down the point I was making by saying “How would you know? You have white privilege.” I was stunned speechless. Had I heard her right? As the shock began to subside, anger rushed in to take its place. How dare she! No one in my family tree had ever owned a slave! I was so far removed from white privilege that when the Thirteenth Amendment was being ratified, my ancestors were still considered giaours (infidels) in the Ottoman Empire, which legally made them second-class citizens. They were so second-class that it was fair game for their own government to murder them during World War I, not by sending them out as cannon fodder on the battlefield (their ethnicity made them unworthy of carrying a weapon), but directly. After my paternal great-grandfather had been killed, his widow, with my one-year-old grandfather, had to hide in an American missionary-run orphanage until it was safe enough to travel to French-controlled Lebanon. Even there, they had to piece new lives together from nothing. It was only thanks to Near East Relief aid that the foundations of a new community could be laid at all, that the orphans would be able to learn to read and write their own language.
Those were the thoughts racing through my head (in a slightly lower resolution) but I did not voice any of them. My friend had made an ignorant assumption and I did not want to embarrass her by pointing out, in a confrontational way, how wrong she was. It wasn’t her fault that she couldn’t understand my lived experience. I collected myself and resolved to find other opportunities to help her see things from my point of view more gradually, so that she would be more open to changing her perspective.
The insult had really gotten under my skin, though. Fortunately, I had another friend that I could confide in. She was Taiwanese. (“Asian” is just not descriptive enough to be useful. Are Tamils “Asian”? Are Arabs “Asian”? Am I “Asian”? Who gets to decide where in the continent the cutoff point is?) We had many conversations about race. Although Armenians were accepted as immigrants to the U.S. even before the Armenian Genocide (a 1909 court case considered them legally white, despite the government’s objections), Canada considered anyone from the Ottoman Empire or the Middle East to be “oriental” and did not want them as immigrants until rules began to loosen in the 1960s. In that way, Canada considered Armenians and Chinese to be in the same category. How could I possibly be accused of “white privilege”? There were very few of either group in Canada in the first half of the twentieth century. Chinese-Canadians had been brought in to build the transcontinental railway. Many died on the job. Those who went back to visit their family for too long were not allowed to return. Armenians could only arrive via a third country such as the U.S. or France; whereas, after the Chinese Exclusion Act, even British subjects of Chinese ethnicity were not accepted into Canada.
Canada did make one notable exception for the Armenians. Several church leaders had petitioned the government to allow some of the orphans of the Armenian Genocide to resettle in Canada. They were eventually successful in getting permission for 109 boys and 22 girls to be brought to Canada. Together they were called the Georgetown Boys, and were considered “Canada’s Noble Experiment” because officials were interested to see if these young orientals could be taught to work on farms and raised into integrated members of Canadian society. An important step would be to give them new, easy-to-pronounce English names. Some of the boys happily adopted their new names but a few of them protested. “We have lost our families. We have lost our villages. All we have of our old lives is our names. Please don’t take it away from us, too,” they pleaded. Their petition did not fall on deaf ears; it was decided that the boys could keep their foreign-sounding name if they wanted to. At the same time, the Canadian government was trying to integrate its First Nations population as well. First Nations children were forcibly separated from their families and placed into “residential schools,” the purpose of which, according to Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, was to “take the Indian out of the child.” Those children were given English names and were beaten if they didn’t use them. The last such school closed in 1996.
See? Armenians shared the same traumatic experiences as other visible minorities. They were viewed with the same derision by those who actually did have “white privilege.” My parents were not born into generational wealth. They struggled through the same adversity as any other immigrant, having both arrived in Toronto as children in the 1960s. They didn’t grow up in posh neighborhoods; their fathers had a tough time just finding work to support the family. Sure, I can’t say that I myself can relate to those struggles but it was only because my parents worked hard to give me more opportunities than they had growing up. And I had also worked hard to make the most of those opportunities. As long as the system rewards those who work hard, skin color had nothing to do with it.
I focused my studies on election administration. I knew about “separate but equal” segregation and the civil rights movement but it was at Harvard that I first learned about the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the underlying conditions that made it necessary. Literacy tests, poll taxes, gerrymandered districts, outright physical intimidation, I had not realized that these mechanisms were still used a century after the Civil War to shut African-American voters out of the polling booth. I learned the origin of the term “grandfather clause”: this vast array of artificial obstacles did not apply if your grandfather had voted, which was deemed to be far enough back to still exclude African-Americans while sparing most white voters. I hadn’t realized that this level of unfairness had existed in my parents’ lifetime. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act’s accountability mechanism. One dissenting judge characterized it as “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Immediately, some states began instituting new overly-restrictive voter ID laws, re-aligning district boundaries and closing some voting locations. Not by coincidence, the changes made it harder for African-Americans to cast a ballot.
Before we knew it, graduation season was approaching. The student who had accused me of white privilege early on in the year was particularly excited. She was Black. That’s not the most descriptive word. In Toronto, I’m used to thinking of my friends as “Jamaican” or “Guyanese” or “Somalian,” but, in America, it’s not too ambiguous who is Black and who is not, no matter where they or their parents were born. How did the cut-off point for this label become so intuitive?
I found out she was a “first-generation college grad.” I had never thought of that concept before. Both my parents had attended university. Come to think of it, three of my grandparents had received a tertiary education. My paternal great-grandfather had graduated from American-run Euphrates College in Kharpert in 1908. My maternal great-grandfather had studied engineering in Chicago in the 1910s. I guess I was a fourth-generation college grad. Is this something people keep track of?
By this time, I had accepted that I personally was privileged. My idea of adversity was a tight deadline for a paper keeping me from joining my friends at the bar, or that time the 2014 oil bust decimated my Canadian-dollar-heavy stock portfolio. It was “middle-class” privilege or it was “my family has mostly been treated as human beings – and in the few instances they weren’t, someone had their back” privilege.
My arguments were in retreat but the surrender came in the days after April 23, 2018. That was the date that, while I was celebrating the resignation of Serzh Sargsyan on Artsakh Street in Watertown, Massachusetts, I learned that the perpetrator of the van attack in Toronto that day was Armenian. His mental health issues had led him to take the lives of ten people and injure many more. I went home and watched the video of his arrest over and over. He had intended to finish his heinous crime with “suicide by cop,” pretending that his smartphone was a gun, but the police officer arresting him never fired his weapon. I would like to think that that officer would have shown the same professionalism no matter what the attacker’s skin color was. After the initial confusion had subsided, news coverage of the incident never mentioned that the attacker was Armenian. His long-standing mental health issues were affirmed by old acquaintances. Even after purposely descending into inhumanity, he would be given a fair shake in court. I watched the video of the arrest some more:
Attacker: “I have a gun in my pocket!”
Officer: “I don’t care! Get down!”
I’m still awe-struck. He did everything he could to get shot.
No one looks at me and thinks “Toronto van attacker.” My entrance into a job interview room has never made the interviewer uncomfortable. No one thinks about having too many Armenian neighbors when deciding where to live. If I need directions, I wouldn’t hesitate to approach a parked patrol car.
I was so privileged that I had never reflected on my privilege before. I was right about one thing: She could not relate to my lived experience.
And I could not relate to hers. And that was an issue I could no longer remain blind to.