Armenian Education in America Revisited: Implications of an Emerging Racial Identity

BY VIKEN YACOUBIAN, Ph.D.
Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School

Introduction

The Armenian American community has undergone significant changes in the past 40 years. These changes are undoubtedly reflected in the identities of the Armenian American youth. However, community institutions have not necessarily evolved to become agents of transformation, where such changes could find meaning, structure, and integrated expression. The dissonance that follows such disparity runs the risk of alienating the youth from institutions whose raison-d’etre is to serve them. In this respect, it has become imperative that schools take the lead in redefining their role as institutions where the Armenian American student can explore his or her cultural identity in the context of his or her Diasporan experience while receiving an education that qualitatively rivals the best in the nation. Ultimately, the goal should be the empowerment of the Armenian American student by way of the creation of a milieu where all aspects of his or her identity could be explored, understood, and brought into a functional, constructive whole.

The process of creating educational institutions where unique collective experiences can become forces of systematic and positive change requires substantial intellectual inquiry and practice that emanates from such an inquiry. This presentation represents a first step toward that end. Although theoretical, this presentation is driven by our belief that, as Bell (1997) has asserted, theory allows for a cognitive map of our intentions and ways of implementing our actions. Additionally, theoretical inquiries give us the possibility of challenging old ways of thinking, overcoming dogma, and developing new paradigms of interaction.

The specific focus of this presentation will be the psychological dynamics of racial identity development and the implications of this development on the education of the Armenian American youth in Armenian schools. In this respect, we will first define racial identity as used in this presentation and then discuss implications of this formulation in the context of the educational experience of our students.

Racial Identity

For the purposes of this presentation, it is important to first underscore the role that oppression has played in the racial identity development of Armenians in general and Armenian Americans specifically. It must be noted that Armenian Americans cannot be regarded as a homogeneous group because their individual characteristics depend on their immigration status (old versus new), origin of migration (former Soviet Union, Republic of Armenia, or Diaspora), intracultural background (Eastern versus Western Armenian), and degree of acculturation (Bakalian, 1993). Nevertheless, it would be safe to assume that the exposure to oppression, overt or covert, blatant or subtle, is a common theme that runs through the multitude of individual experiences. In this respect, it is important to call attention to the intricate, sophisticated, and organized cultural infrastructures built by Armenian American communities wherever they found themselves at the end of their migration. Aside from serving practical purposes necessary for survival, these infrastructures also served as a psychological barrier that protected Armenian Americans from discrimination and oppression. For many, these structures represented shelters from a dominant culture that could be hostile and unforgiving. William Saroyan (1936), a prominent Armenian American writer, conveyed in a somewhat poetic manner the Armenian drive to survive by building psychological shelters:

I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose history is ended, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, whose literature is unread, whose music is unheard, whose prayers are no longer uttered. Go ahead, destroy this race. Let us say that it is again 1915. There is war in the world. Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their houses and their churches. See if they will not live again. See if they will not laugh again. See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years after, and laugh, and speak in their tongue. Go ahead, see if you can do anything about it. See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world, you sons of bitches, a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them. (p. 181)

Saroyan’s (1936) Armenian is one who can survive the worse kind of adversities: prejudice, oppression, and discrimination. His words represent that part of the Armenian psyche that assumes the ubiquity of oppression and remains determined to resist it by way of external (i.e., cultural infrastructures) and internal (i.e., racial identity) structures. In fact, one study found that even in the face of a natural calamity (i.e., the Soviet- Armenian earthquake of 1988), a group of Armenian youth in Los Angeles interpreted the event within the larger context of the injustices against and the  persecution and oppression of the Armenian people (Yacoubian & Hacker, 1989). Therefore, it becomes increasingly important to both identify and understand just what factors contribute to the development of racial identity among Armenian Americans.

In this presentation, the experience of oppression is considered central to the formulation of a definition of the racial identity development of Armenian Americans. It must be noted, however, that in the existing literature, the concept of racial identity in general is not all that clear. Namely, racial identity is often used interchangeably with ethnic or cultural identity when in fact each may be referring to a different aspect of group identity (Canabal, 1995).  For instance, few studies have taken into account the confounded nature of the terminology, exploring cultural identity (i.e., Latinos/as) without specifying ethnicity (e.g., Cuban, Nicaraguan, etc.) or generalizing results to the entire group whereas in fact only ethnicity has been investigated (e.g., Garcia & Lega, 1982; Keefe & Padilla, 1987). Thus, for the purposes of this presentation it is important to delineate the terminology from the outset so that ambiguities in this regard are minimized. To achieve this goal, the sociopolitical evolution of the group under study must be taken into account.

As was asserted above, persecution and oppression have been common in the lives of Armenians. Having experienced genocide, the sense of victimization has been present in the collective identity of Armenians regardless of their individual relocation experiences (i.e., settling in countries outside of Armenia, such as France, Lebanon, United States, etc., the collective experience of which is known as the Diaspora). Furthermore, this sense has been transferred from one generation to the next by way of cultural narratives (Tololyan, 1988), a critical contributor to the Armenian’s perception of sharing a common racial heritage with other Armenians all over the world. Some researchers have demonstrated the significant differences in individuals’ reactions to the Armenian Genocide. However, they also have agreed on the existence of a common pattern, especially as it relates to the formation of an Armenian identity (Boyajian & Grigorian, 1986; Miller & Miller, 1986).

One way of conceptualizing genocide would be the attempted obliteration of group genotype. Thus, the experience of genocide, direct or through cultural narratives, can be considered the main ingredient of “…a common racial heritage with a particular racial group” (Helms, 1990, p. 3). Moreover, this racial experience is further expanded by value orientations as reflected in language structures and social institutions that transcend geographical boundaries. In essence, orientations
that define one’s “Armenianness” beyond nationality. Here too Saroyan’s (1936) lyrical imagery vividly describes this notion as he accidentally runs into an Armenian waiter in a beer parlor in Rostov, Russia, as he visits from Fresno, California:

And the Armenian gestures, meaning so much. The slapping of the knee and  roaring with laughter. The cursing. The subtle mockery of the world and its  big ideas. The word in Armenian, the glance, the gesture, the smile, and  through these things the swift rebirth of the race, timeless and again strong,  though years have passed, though cities have been destroyed, fathers and  brothers and sons killed, places forgotten, dreams violated, living hearts  blackened with hate. (p. 181)  
Additionally, for the purposes of this presentation, racial identity has been defined in terms of the individual’s perception of belonging to a particular group. As noted by Casas (1984), “…group classification of people who share a unique social and cultural heritage (customs, language, religion, etc.) passed from generation to generation” (p. 787). Some literature has referred to this kind of group identity as ethnic identity (e.g., Canabal, 1995); however, for the purposes of this presentation, the term racial identity should be understood as encompassing this type of identity as well. Although the merging of these terms might create language and construct ambiguities in the definition of ethnicity, in service of time and space constraints, we will leave this issue unaddressed here.

In conclusion, racial identity in this presentation will be conceptualized in terms of:  (a) the Armenian American’s perception of belonging to a group of people who share a unique cultural heritage that is passed from one generation to the next (Phinney’s model will be used for this purpose which is discussed later); and (b) a racial identity formation that occurs within the context of overt and covert societal racism and oppression.

Theoretical Framework

People of Color Racial Identity Attitude Theory

In describing racial identity theory and measurement, Helms (1996) notes: “Racial identity theory and, consequently, racial identity measurement deals with the psychological consequences of individuals being socialized in a society in which a person is either privileged (i.e., White identity) or disadvantaged (e.g., Black and other People of Color identity) because of her or his racial classification” (pp. 153-154). In defining the term people of color Helms (1995) states: “In the United States, the term people of color refers to those persons whose ostensible ancestry is at least in part African, Asian, Indigenous, and/or combinations of these groups and/or White or European ancestry” (p. 189). It is within this definition that these populations find shared socioeconomic and political experiences. From these shared experiences, Helms (1995) contends, shared racial identities have emerged.

However, this does not mean that these groups share world views. According to Carter (1995), “each level of racial identity is presumed to be associated with a distinct world view that corresponds to emotional, psychological, social, and interpersonal preferences consistent with that world view. Thus, one’s racial identity resolution is believed to be integrated into personality” (p. 139). Hence, it is presumed that the shared reality of minority status, in a dominant culture, is manifested in these populations’ racial identities, with unique world views remaining present in each.

In the United States, people of color have been exposed to sustained racial stereotypes (Arce, Murgia, & Frisbie, 1987; Chan, 1991; Selden, 1999). Often, exposure to such stereotypes has caused these individuals to develop internalized racism (Jones, 2000; Retish & Kavanaugh, 1992; Vasquez, 1982). Continuous exposure to the ubiquitous reality of racism in society, be it blatant or subtle, results in the internalization of that reality by none other than the victim himself or herself, not unlike the analytic process of identification-internalization, where sustained and systematic contact with a significant other would produce a strong identification with him or her ultimately leading to the internalization of the significant other’s emotional representation (Fairbairn, 1952; Freud, 1946; Kernberg, 1988). Thus, the development of racial identity begins with the recognition of internalized racism and ends with the psychological overcoming of that experience. According to Helms (1995),

Therefore, the central racial identity developmental theme of all people of color is to recognize and overcome the psychological manifestations of internalized racism. My model that explains the process by which this adaptation potentially occurs is a derivative of Cross’s (1971) Negro-to-Black conversion model and Atkinson, Morten, and Sue’s (1989) Minority Identity Development model. (p. 189).  

This recognition process occurs in a sequential manner and requires the individual’s active awareness and participation.

Helms’ racial identity development model proposes five sequential stages. The individual’s naïve devaluation of his or her racial group and idealized embracing of the dominant White culture characterize the first, Conformity. The second stage, Dissonance, is marked by a sense of confusion about one’s racial identity and realization, for the first time, that one’s cultural status separates him or her from the dominant White culture. Typically, Dissonance is experienced as a result of an emotionally jolting experience that brings about an awareness in the person of his or her minority status in society. The third stage, Immersion/Emersion, is a period of inward turning, where the individual is completely immersed in his or her ethnic culture and rejects all that is perceived to be part of the dominant culture. Conceptually, the second component of this stage signifies the coming out process from this deep immersion. However, Helms (1995) does not distinctly separate the two, noting “that Immersion and Emersion are described as a single status. I think that eventually it will be possible to distinguish them empirically as well as theoretically, although this is not the case at present” (p. 190). During Internalization, the fourth stage, the individual is able to achieve a positive racial identity with clearly defined racial attributes. The final stage, Integrative Awareness, is the further honing of the fourth stage, in which the individual values his or her ethnic culture, is empowered by it and, at the same time, understands and values the culture of others. At this stage, the racial identity struggle is synergistically resolved. At the fourth and fifth stages, the individual is also committed to the struggle against racism in society at all levels.

Although Helms’(1995) racial identity development model is very similar to that of Cross (1971) and Atkinson et al. (1989), Helms posits that her model reflects the common experience of all people of color of having been affected by racism. Thus, the unavoidable experience of racism in society is considered a universal dynamic among all people of color. According to Helms (1995),

Various historians contend that many of the same racial stereotypes were used to control each of the visible socioracial and ethnic groups. Therefore, abandonment of internalized racism involves similar processes for each of the groups of color, regardless of the specific group to which they have been relegated. (p. 189)  

Based on this understanding, Helms (1995) contends that her model could be used to define the racial identity development of people of color within the United States without being limited to one or another group.

Helms’ (1995) People of Color Racial Identity Attitude Theory resolves that the experiences of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos/as reflect those of a
ll people of color in the United States. This suggests that Helms’ theory is also applicable to Armenian Americans.

Research findings indicate that integration into White society is difficult and problematic for individuals who have lower levels of racial identity attitudes            (Ford-Harris, Schuerger, & Harris, 1991). Specifically, these individuals experience higher levels of psychosocial problems as they attempt to integrate into White society. Commonly, these problems emanate from the tension that is produced by the clash between the value systems of the two cultures. The tension between the two value systems and the subsequent clash has a detrimental effect on the psychosocial stability and development of people of color. In this respect, the value systems of Armenians and the White culture differ in significant ways, creating a disparity that can be a source of substantial psychosocial stress for the Armenian American who is attempting to integrate.

Phinney and Onwughalu (1996) have noted that one’s racial self-perception naturally affects the level of his or her self-esteem. In this context, Armenian

Americans differ significantly from their White counterparts in social interactions and relationships. Often, these differences have a stigmatizing effect which, in many cases, comes in the form of racism.

Whereas Armenian Americans share many similarities with Asian Americans, Latinos/as and other minority groups, they also have cultural features unique to their group. Accurate definition of racial identity development necessitates the thorough examination of similarities and differences between various groups (Garrett & Myers, 1996). In this respect, few studies have been conducted for the purpose of understanding the process of racial identity development in groups and the impact this process has on the lives of members of unique groups. In the case of Armenian Americans, no research conducted from such a perspective has been found. The current presentation aims to explore the possibility of understanding the racial identity development of Armenian Americans through the same lens used to understand the racial identity development of other groups of people of color in the United States.  

Phinney’s Model of Ethnic Identity

As noted earlier, racial identity in this presentation is being conceptualized in terms of Helms’ formulation (explained above) and Phinney’s (1992) model of ethnic identity.

Phinney’s (1992) conceptualization of ethnic identity can be understood in terms of a two-level construct:  One with a developmental and cognitive component, and the other with an affective one. Earlier, Phinney had included a third component of ethnic behavior and practices. However, this was subsequently omitted (Phinney, personal communication, April 14, 2003). Phinney considers ethnic identity as being part of one’s self-concept. Namely, ethnic identity is manifested in one’s self-concept by way of knowledge of group membership and an affirmation, sense of belonging, and commitment to that membership.

Phinney acknowledges the multitude of cultural differences between different ethnic groups; however, she bases her model on the commonalities that exist between ethnic groups. Her theoretical framework is based on an assumption of universality, very much like other dynamic models of development. Thus, based on this premise, it can be appreciated that Phinney’s model emanates from Erikson’s (1968) theory of ego identity as operationalized by Marcia (1980). From the perspective of these models, identity development follows a linear course during adolescence and, if successfully resolved, results in an achieved identity. Phinney’s model operates on the assumption that an achieved identity will remain relatively stable throughout one’s life. Therefore, although her research is primarily based on adolescents, her measure can also be used with adult populations. In her ethnic identity model Phinney discusses three stages: Diffuse/Foreclosed, Moratorium, and Achieved.

Phinney’s first stage, Diffuse/Foreclosed, is essentially a mixture of two identity states. Diffused adolescents lack an understanding of the concept of identity. They have never addressed their ethnicity or matters generally related to ethnicity. For this reason, their ethnic identity does not present any kind of relevance in their lives. On the other hand, adolescents who have an understanding of the concept of ethnicity but have not yet explored their own status vis-à-vis this concept are considered foreclosed. Typically, they acknowledge their ethnicity based on the degree of knowledge imparted to them by their families; however, they have not explored or found values and feelings attached to such knowledge. Consequently, their evaluation of their ethnicity, be it negative or positive, is based on their superficial understanding of what has been transferred to them by parents or other family members.

In Phinney’s second stage, Moratorium, the adolescent takes on a proactive role in searching for his or her ethnic group identity; he or she actively searches for a meaning of ethnicity engaging in a variety of activities such as discussions with friends, research, and so forth; he or she has an understanding of racial prejudice and discrimination. However, at this stage, the adolescent has not yet come to terms with his or her ethnicity; that is, he or she has not acquired or adopted a particular definition of his or her ethnic group membership. In the final stage, the adolescent ultimately resolves his or her search by finding a meaning for ethnic identity to which he or she subscribes with a sense of commitment. At this stage, called Achieved, the adolescent develops a deeper sense of belonging to an ethnic group and a clearer understanding of the meaning of ethnicity within the larger context of his or her life.

In addition to the developmental process of ethnic identity, Phinney (1992) has also presumed universality vis-à-vis ethnic identity. That is, notwithstanding cultural differences between various groups, she has asserted that there are aspects of ethnic identity that are shared by all ethnic groups. In this context, Phinney suggests that there are four components of ethnic identity that can be considered universal.

First, an important prerequisite of ethnic identity is one’s self-identification as a member of a particular ethnic group. That is, one cannot develop an evaluative position (i.e., attitude) about an ethnic group without first identifying himself or herself as part of that group. The second is a behavioral component that looks at the extent to which one is involved in activities and cultural traditions related to his or her ethnic group.

The third component is an affective one that relates to the individual’s feelings of belonging to and affirmation of his or her ethnic group. This component is directly related to one’s ethnic pride. In the fourth and final component, Phinney asserts that ethnic identity is a dynamically developing process; that is, ethnic identity achievement evolves over time following a process of gradual maturation.

Summary

For the purposes of this discussion, it must be borne in mind that the combined conceptualizations of racial identity development are being used to define Armenian Americans; namely, an identity that is developed within the context of prejudice, oppression, and racism, as well as one that emanates from a sense of belonging to a group with whom a cultural heritage is shared (often referred to as “ethnic”).

As was noted above, in the existing research, the experience of Armenian Americans has been viewed only from the perspective of acculturation theory.  This is substantially different from the racial identity perspective. The definition of an individual’s racial identity is not, as in the acculturation approach, solely based on his or h
er self-perceived cultural preferences and associations. Thus, considering racial identity development theories, specifically Helms’, it becomes obvious that an important aspect in the definition of Armenian Americans has been overlooked; namely, the role that prejudice, oppression, and racism have played in the development of the Armenian American’s racial identity.  

Generally speaking, oppression is nothing new to Armenians. From forced deportations to massacres to genocide, Armenians have endured oppression, in its various forms, throughout the last two centuries (Dadrian, 1975a; Dadrian, 1975b; Horowitz, 1986; Hovannisian, 1986). Furthermore, the experience of being uprooted and the necessity to adapt to new cultural milieus, where prejudice and discrimination have often been prevalent, have played a significant role in the racial identity development of Armenians in the Diaspora (Handlin, 1973). However, for the purposes of this presentation, only the experience of Armenians in the United States is considered, although the transpositional strength of the aforementioned historical context must be kept in mind.

As has been the case with other ethnic minorities, Armenians have also encountered oppression from the initial days of their immigration to America at the end of the 19th century. In the United States, Armenians were generally categorized alongside Greeks, Jews, and Japanese Americans, stereotyped as ambitious wheeler-dealers with a self-serving intelligence (Simpson & Yinger, 1985). In Fresno, California, where Armenians resided in large numbers since the beginning of the 20th century, discrimination and oppression were rampant. For example, in 1909, the State of California attempted to forbid Armenians from purchasing land because of their so-called Asiatic status. The attempt was stopped through the intervention of an appellate court which ruled that Armenians could be considered White (Ordjanian, 1991). For decades following that incident, Armenians in Fresno continued to face overt prejudice and discrimination, including being systematically excluded from professional associations, social clubs, and even local churches.

Armenians were called Turks, which was particularly offensive to them, as they had suffered genocide at the hands of the Turks.  Also, they regularly were mistreated by salespeople and merchants (LaPiere, 1930). It is in such a context that the racial identity of Armenians was formed in America.

Notwithstanding the fact that sentiments might be significantly different today, one cannot undermine the powerful effects of the initial experiences (e.g., Garry, 1977).   Unfortunately, all previous research relating to Armenian Americans has in effect done so. The focus has been the process of acculturation, thus relegating the dominant culture (White) to a passive, static status. A more accurate definition can be achieved if the dynamic interaction between majority-minority cultures is factored into the concept of racial identity development for this group of population. With this in mind, the application of racial identity development theory adds an important layer to the existing research on the racial identity development of Armenian Americans.

As to theories of social identity these approaches emphasize the role of one’s social group in his or her global self-concept. Social identity defines the social group in terms of its similarity or dissimilarity to the in-group (the dominant White culture). Here too the role of the minority culture is understood by its ability to adjust to and ultimately assimilate into the dominant culture.

In this respect, one might argue that Armenian Americans have long ago shed their visible cultural idiosyncrasies and therefore are immune to a devalued status in American society. However, such an observation would only be superficial, taking into account that with the cyclical waves of immigration to the United States, minority status for Armenians has been consistently renewed, recycled, and replenished; thus, the cultural norms of this group have often been viewed with peculiar suspicion by the        in-group, especially in large metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles (Bakalian, 1993). Not too long ago Soviet Armenians in Hollywood were characterized as “…cheating the welfare system, and …engaging in gang-related crimes” (Bakalian, 1993, p. 21), when in fact most were hardworking, honest citizens. Furthermore, as a vivid example of institutional racism (without naively undermining the supremacy of political pragmatism), arguably the most painful experience in the collective psyche of Armenians, the Genocide, continues to be denied recognition by the government of the United States. In such a context, expressions of the original culture of Armenian Americans, not unlike other minority groups, often times remain confined to close-knit circles (e.g., families) rather than becoming in some way integrated into the majority cultural values.

The relationship between group identity and self-esteem has been widely studied in the research literature. Although the social identity literature implies that in-group bias can have a negative effect on one’s self-esteem, racial identity approaches have suggested that the effects of racial identity on self-esteem may vary according to the particular racial identity development stage that the individual is in.

Theoretical work has posited that a positive relationship exists between higher stages of racial identity and self-esteem (Phinney, 1992); furthermore, empirical studies have confirmed this notion (e.g., Chavira & Phinney, 1991; Lorenzo-Hernandez & Ouellette, 1998; Martinez & Dukes, 1997; Phinney, 1992; Phinney, Chavira, & Tate, 1993). Phinney (1993) concluded that adolescents with positive ethnic identities employed more effective coping mechanisms in the face of prejudice and negative stereotypes while the absence of a positive ethnic identity resulted in the internalization of negative self-perceptions. Phinney further asserted that a positive ethnic identity contributed to positive psychological adjustment. Along the same lines, researchers have found that a positive racial identity significantly contributed to a sense of competence and well-being in individuals (Carter, 1991; Pyant & Yanico, 1991).

In the larger context of racial identity and psychological adjustment, several studies have examined possible relationships between racial identity and a variety of factors such as depression, stress, and school performance. In this respect, positive racial attitudes and identification have been associated with less stress, less delinquent involvement and higher self-esteem (McCreary, Slavin, & Berry, 1996; Spencer, Cunningham, & Swanson, 1995). It has been suggested that awareness of racism results in decreased personalization of failures and setbacks, thus reducing self-blame and consequent assaults on self-esteem (Crocker & Major, 1989).

More specific to this presentation, Parham and Helms (1985a) conducted a study with a group of African American college students based on Cross’ (1978) racial identity model; Helms’ People of Color Racial Identity Attitude Theory was derived from Cross’ model. They found that low self-esteem was associated with the lowest, first stage of racial identity (Pre-Encounter), whereas the Encounter stage, which precedes and precipitates the movement toward the Immersion stage, was found to be significantly correlated with high self-esteem. In a related study, Parham and Helms (1985b) found that the Pre-Encounter stage was related to feelings of anxiety and inferiority. These studies suggest that various stages of racial identity exploration may be associated with levels of self-esteem. In this respect, Munford (1994) found that racial identity attitudes were indeed related to self-esteem. Specifically, Munford found that Pre-Encounter attitudes were significantly negatively correlated with self-esteem. That is, high Pre-En
counter subscale scores were associated with lower   self-esteem scores.

On the other hand, the more advanced racial identity attitude, Internalization, was found to be positively correlated with self-esteem. Namely, high Internalization subscale scores were associated with higher self-esteem scores. Echoing a similar conclusion

Boushel (1996) noted that a review of the research on the experiences of multiracial families indicated that there was a general agreement among psychologists vis-à-vis the relationship between a positive racial identity and high self-esteem. It must be noted, however, that this conclusion was based on black and mixed-parentage children living in a racist society.

In conclusion, the research authoritatively establishes an important link between various aspects of social identity (i.e., racial, cultural, and ethnic) and self-esteem. Furthermore, some research have suggested that higher levels of racial identity (i.e., awareness of one’s ethnic status and positive commitment to it) produce higher levels of self-esteem. Thus, being able to adopt attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of one’s racial group in the face of racial prejudice and discrimination often translates into achieving a positive self-esteem (Robinson, 1995).

Implications

The main objective of this presentation was to propose a psychological framework for the racial identity development of Armenian American students and to highlight the importance of integrating knowledge in this area into the educational experience of our pupils. The assumption that guides this objective is the necessity to be inclusive of the unique Diasporan experience of the Armenian youth and the experience of Armenian American students in particular vis-à-vis Armenian education in North America. From this perspective, the school is regarded as an institution where not only the student acquires the requisite knowledge and skills to succeed in higher institutions of learning, but also as a milieu where the Armenian American student is given an opportunity to explore his or her complex and multi-layered racial identity with an eye toward integrating all aspects of such an identity into a synergistic whole. The paradigmatic shift lies in our ability to recognize this need and formally introduce it as a prevailing goal in the mission of Armenian educational institutions.

While there is a lack of studies that address the intersection between racial identity development and other psychological variables such as self-esteem when it comes to Armenian Americans, one can assume that, if studied, such correlations will be found in Armenian Americans similar to those found in other minority populations in America, such as Latino/Latinas, African Americans, Asian Americans and others (e.g., Chavira & Phinney, 1991; Gopaul-McNicol, 1985; Powell-Hopson & Hopson, 1988; Young & Bagley, 1982). In fact, the one study that has explored such correlations with Armenian Americans has indeed found results that are consistent with findings from other minority groups (Yacoubian, 2003). Specifically, the following conclusions were drawn in this study with Armenian American youth:

As individuals gain a better understanding of the context within which their racial identity develops their cognitive and affective connection to their culture seems to also become stronger;

Individuals with a strong sense of connection to their ethnic identity also scored high on a measure of self-esteem, as assessed by Rosenberg’s (1979, 1986)   Self-Esteem Scale (SES);
The Conformity and Dissonance scores of the POCRIAS were significantly negatively related to the scores on the self-esteem measure, indicating that individuals who were in the Conformity or Dissonance stage obtained lower scores on the self-esteem measure; conversely, the Internalization score was significantly positively associated with self-esteem.
Although caution should be exercised in making too much of these findings, especially in light of the weak nature of these relationships, they are at least theoretically consistent with Helms’ (1995) conceptualization. Namely, lower stages of the POCRIAS subscales are associated with lower self-esteem while higher racial identity development stages are correlated with higher self-esteem. Taking into account that the Conformity stage is marked by a naïve obliviousness of the cultural dynamics and that the Dissonance stage is characterized by a state of general confusion, it would be conceivable that individuals who score high on these subscales do not have a particularly high self-esteem. Conversely, those who are in the most advanced Internalization stage could be expected to have a high self-esteem as they have resolved the conflicts that emanate from the tension inherent in racial dynamics.

It is our hope that we successfully argued for the need of a fundamental change in our world view when it comes to the education of Armenian American students in the 21st century. This change is predicated on the premise that recognition of the emergence of a Diasporan identity that is equally non-Armenian as it is Armenian is not a step toward peril but one toward integration and empowerment. From this perspective, it becomes imperative to weave the non-Armenian experience into the students’ Armenian education so that a contextual relevance is created which facilitates the students’ sense of connectedness to their uniquely rich cultural experience. It is that sense which will ultimately empower the student to claim ownership of all aspects of his or her competing racial identities and thereby achieve harmonious and constructive integration of all aspects of his or her Self. In this respect, Armenian schools have the responsibility to shed light on this aspect of Armenian education and prepare the ground for the community to accept a paradigm shift in this regard.

The Armenian American community has a uniquely organized and expansive sociopolitical structure (Bakalian, 1993). Several factors contribute to this uniqueness. First and foremost is the experience of the Genocide. The Armenian Genocide is the root cause for the Armenian Diaspora after 1915. This fact has salient implications. Aside from the practical imperative of survival in foreign countries for the first generation, there has been a need in subsequent generations to process the trauma of survival, come to terms with its economic, social, and political effects, build infrastructures aimed at preserving the Armenian identity, and, for some, engage in political activism designed to secure the recognition of the Genocide and eventual repatriation to lands that historically belonged to the Armenian people (Bedoyan, 1979; Boudjikanian-Keuroghlian, 1982; Boyajian & Grigorian, 1986; Chalk & Jonassohn, 1990; Der-Karabetian, 1980). The fact that community infrastructures were built in the backdrop of such dynamics sets Armenians apart from other ethnic minorities. That is, the question of the permanence of the Diaspora, be it real or symbolic, has been a source of continuous debate among a significant number of Diasporan Armenians, including Armenian Americans. Many infrastructures (i.e., schools, churches, organizations, etc.) have been built on an ideological premise that assumes eventual repatriation. In this context, many who have been brought up in the social milieu of these infrastructures consider that part of their duty as Armenian Americans is to perpetuate the idea that the day will come when a Diaspora will no longer exist (Boyajian & Grigorian, 1986). Relevant to this observation is Miller and Miller’s (1986) conclusion that many second and third generation Armenian Americans were found to be more revengeful toward the perpetrators of the Genocide than the actual survivors.

Thus, one wonders if traditional community infrastructures do not play a role in halting the progress of the racial identity development of the young. That is, could it be that the community st
ructures are playing a role whereby their active members’ racial identity is continuously being recycled back to earlier stages of development? Armenian schools must assume the role of devising educational programs that facilitate their students’ move to higher stages of racial identity development which is characterized by a synergistic resolution of identity conflicts. It has been suggested that faced with an either/or dilemma (my culture or theirs), students often fail to develop a cultural identity which leads to a deficient personal identity and a decreased self-esteem (Barr, 1997). Studies that highlight the important relationship between a sense of connectedness to one’s culture and high self-esteem are ample. Thus, it becomes critically important to create a milieu in our schools where students do not need to choose between cultures and can instead become proactively immersed in the good parts of both thereby claiming ownership of their Diasporan experience in its entirety.
Practical Directions

The leap from theoretical to practical is long, complex, and difficult. As noted earlier, this presentation’s main objective was to propose a theoretical framework of racial identity. Practical aspects of the issues presented here will be discussed in subsequent panels. In service to a proper closure, however, a few practical recommendations are made in the final portion of this presentation.

It is incumbent upon administrators of Armenian schools to first recognize the biases in their own world views and belief systems and be open to different interpretations of “Armenianness” in America. Educating oneself about a new perspective is perhaps the most important first step toward effectuating positive change. Entertaining a new perspective can prove effective in overcoming the oppressive force of long-held beliefs.

Administrators must strive to create a culture within the schools where the students’ identity is reflected in its entirety and where students feel comfortable to explore and seek guidance. The goal is to create a school culture that does not alienate or marginalize those who do not espouse the traditional unidirectional cultural view and rhetoric.
Administrators must purposefully transform the campus space and programs so that they reflect a commitment vis-à-vis our multicultural world view. That is, the space and program must reflect an acceptance of the identity conflicts that Armenian American students face. In fact, these conflicts must be highlighted so that the student has an opportunity to positively and constructively resolve them. Exposure to the fundamental identity conflict “…will help create an inclusive environment and promote student learning by opening discussions that were not previously happening” (Torres, Howard-Hamilton, and Cooper, 2003, p. 86).

We recognize that a paradigm shift might be especially difficult for the faculty of Armenian studies, especially when they have been taught, overtly and covertly, that traditional methods of engaging students, ones that basically aim at undermining, ignoring, or even “erasing” the non-Armenian aspect of their students’ identity, is the best and only alternative. However, through in-service training, specialized guidance, one-on-one sessions, and other methods, such a shift in world view in the faculty can be achieved.
In conclusion, it must be noted that a top-down paradigm shift can create a tremendous amount of dissonance among faculty who have long embraced traditional world views of Armenian education. For this reason, faculty have to acquire a strong and comprehensive sense of their own racial, ethnic, and multicultural identity development so that they can comfortably guide students through their sense of confusion. Researchers have suggested that when faculty are unaware of their own power and privilege in the classroom, the hidden curriculum is unknowingly perpetuated (Jones and Young, 1997). This hidden curriculum covertly operates toward “power relationships, cultural hegemony, and political relationships” (p. 93). A classroom dynamic driven by such a hidden curriculum prevents the psychosocial and cognitive development of those who do not enjoy a status of equality in our society; namely, girls, women, and people of color. Similarly, such a classroom dynamic would perpetuate the hidden curriculum vis-à-vis Armenian education, which undermines and attempts to obliterate the multicultural experience of the Armenian American student. It is critically important for those in positions of power and privilege to unlearn their prejudicial behavior and create a classroom environment where the multicultural experience of the Armenian American student is genuinely reflected. Thus, it is imperative for the Board member, administrator, faculty member, and all in positions of power to unravel and deconstruct racial identity development.  

Promoting a new paradigm is not an activity with a checklist. It requires hard work and, above all, intentional behavior on the part of school officials, administrators, and faculty. In this context, opportunities must be created in the classroom for self-generated knowledge; knowledge that moves beyond the stereotypes and preconceived beliefs of traditional Armenian education. Strategies must be explored that are designed to empower Armenian American students as change agents and activists. This requires a direction beyond our current myopic view of Armenian education; a view that is perpetuated in a vacuum and is disconnected from the experience of the Armenian American student.

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4 Comments

    • Steven Wang said:

      Hi, I had the exact same questions about Armenian Education. I was wondering if you ever found resources or sites to learn more about this topic?

      Cheers

  1. gAYANE said:

    I found it very iinteresting to know about identity problems in the world> Will you send me some important material about this team? Thank you in advance. Tave a nice day. Gayane

  2. Pingback: Armenian Education in America Revisited: Implications of an Emerging Racial Identity | Q u e a r - m e n i a n

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