The Incident

tkevonian (Medium)The incident happened so long ago that I’d almost forgotten about it. Almost. But not quite. It took place many years ago, and the memory of it still stings as sharply today as it back then.

The occurrence took place seven years ago in a small town in North Carolina. The town’s sparse population is fortified for two weeks twice a year by 30,000 visitors from around the United States. People, from Maine to California and all points in between, converge on the sleepy little town for ten days of concentrated industry trading.

After a busy day of seeing clients, vendors and colleagues, many people come together at parties large and small to unwind and catch up with friends they see a few times a year or make new ones. It was at such one party when the incident occurred.

The room was already thick with people wearing name tags, sipping beer, drinking cocktails and snacking on hors oeuvres when I finally walked in: young and old, male and female, hipsters and old timers.

“I want you to meet someone,” said Bob, a colleague from Texas, who pulled me by the arm and walked me across the room to make the introduction.

As we walked up to the man, he struggled out of the comfortable chair in which he was ensconced and adjusted his shirt that had twisted across his large belly in the process. With his wide open smil, he seemed like a nice enough man. He switched his sweating beer bottle from his right had to his left and extended the now free hand for me to shake.

“Oh, Tamar. That’s a Jewish name,” he said.

“No, mine is actually Armenian.”

“You’re Armenian?”

“Yes.”

“Then I should keep my hand on my wallet,” he said with a chuckle.

My mind went blank.

My body froze.

My blood pounded in my ears and all coherent thought flew out of my head.

I wasn’t quite sure I had heard correctly. The split second in which he had made his statement felt like an eternity.

Awareness of my physical being returned in fragments. I became aware of his mop of wiry grey hair. Then his large protruding belly. Then noticed his large, pudgy hand still holding on to my own which extended from my very rigid arm attached to my now very stiff body.

Still in his grip, my trapped hand feeling like a dead fish, I leaned slightly to my right to better read his name scrawled onto the sticker on his shirt and read the distinctive “ein” at the end of his name. I straightened up, keeping the icy smile on my face, and looked him straight in the eye.

“Funny,” I said “that’s what I’d always heard about Jews.”

The words flew out of me before I realized that I had formulated the thought, let alone spoken them.

I extracted my hand from his, turned and walked away. Crossing the distance from one side of the room to the other in what seemed like two paces, the impact of his statement and my response did not dawn on me until I’d reached the other end of the room and was stopped by the solid wall. I could go no further. Instead I paced. Willing my heart to stop its galloping speed while a multitude of thoughts and questions raced through my mind simultaneously: Was he saying that Armenians were thieves? Who the heck was this guy? Was he calling Armenians cheap? When in history have Armenians been known as cheap? This coming from a Jew!

I have no recollection of how I made it across the room or any other detail from those few minutes following the exchange, but the impact of the brief introduction itself and the sting of the words have stayed with me since.

Stereotyping and racism exist in all of us, no matter how politically correct we try to be or how open minded we think we are. It is during unguarded moments that the deeply ingrained biases rear their ugly heads.

Thinking back on the few moments that are now indelibly etched into my psyche, I am not proud of my knee jerk reaction to stoop to the level of perpetuating negative stereotypes. They come from the deepest, darkest corners of our mind, placed there by forces beyond our awareness ranging from influences in our childhood to “funny” jokes to media portrayals.

We are just as guilty as the man in North Carolina of having particular negative impressions of other ethnic groups. But awareness bring about the ability to change and we can change how we think and control how we are perceived. Through steady vigilance, constant pressure and creating new role models, we can shift our image of ourselves and others into something more positive. It’s not easy and it won’t be overnight but it can happen.

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6 Comments

  1. Pingback: Trading room - Obama in Southeast Asia: Mending Fences in a Key Region - Time

  2. Kiazer Souze said:

    Are you sure he wasn’t a Turkish stooge? Turkey and Israel have a long, loving and lasting relationship (Attaturk style, just like old times).

  3. Robert said:

    You bring up an interesting and valid point! We are all ingratiated at some early point in our lives to be discriminatory about others. As we grow into adulthood, many will recognize this fact and try to curtail it as they move on with their lives.

    Granted, what this man said, even in jest, was inappropriate. Your response was realatively acceptable for the given situation. However, I must point out that you made it a point to describe this man’s physical being (his obesity), at least three times, long before he even opened his mouth! You exhibited a stereotypical reaction and a sub-conscience prejudicial reaction to obese people, without even knowing anything about the person. In other words, you indirectly pre-judged him. In this regard, you too are at fault.

  4. Sylva Natalie Manoogian said:

    Powerful article, Tamar. It brings to mind a life-changing moment for me, when I realized that the moniker “sal-etranger”, used to define us in France (where I lived until age 9), didn’t just mean “foreigner”, but “dirty-foreigner”. No one should be made to feel like “the other”, “the oddity”, “the alien”. When I was appointed to head the Foreign Languages Department at Los Angeles Central Library in 1979, I waged a 14-year battle for a name change to International Languages Department, which became the gateway for discovering the Library’s resources. It didn’t happen overnight–there was a lot of resistance and criticism at all levels of administration. But it was worth it.

  5. Carol said:

    Actually, I think we’re way too sensitive about such things. Stereotypes exist, but who’s to say his experience, for example, of being asked for a donation (which is very prevalent in our community, and is the way many of our organizations stay afloat, for better or for worse) didn’t spur that comment? We read into things too much and sometimes we need to step outside ourselves and try to understand another’s point of view (or poor attempt at humor), whether we like to or not. Getting angry and hurt means we are not growing and evolving. Your article sounded just as judgmental as this person may have sounded.

  6. Dr. Giggles said:

    Carol’s response is astounding.  .  . . who knew, when somebody degrades your culture as a whole with a slanderous remark, you should chalk it up to “stereotypes” unless you want to be further labeled as “too sensitive”. After all, the poor little slanderer may have had a bad experience in the past, so it’s okay for him to make such comments. With pacifistic, naive, and “rational” individuals like her, Armenians don’t need enemies!
    Given that the rest of us live here on Earth, the author’s response to the incident was very appropriate. Somewhere along the way, it seems Jews have convinced themselves, and others like Carol, that it’s okay for THEM to make slanderous comments toward other cultures, but when Jews are at the receiving end then all of a sudden it becomes morally imperative to label the perpetrator as “anti-semitic” and a “bigot”. Well I don’t see this incident any different, whoever this person was that made the comment toward Tamar was obviously a bigot and anti-Armenian; if he was Jewish, then he is like all Jews that behave this way, also a hypocrite. All individuals like this person should in fact be labeled “anti-Armenian” and hounded by Armenian organizations just like when the ADL jumps the gun whenever some random Jewish person somewhere gets a slanderous comment made against them.
    Though this type of double standard is not surprising coming from someone that is Jewish, considering their track record of shameless political opposition against attempts made to bring the Armenian Genocide into official recognition. For example, the ADL and Abraham Foxman proved to be one giant joke in 2007 when their actions against the Armenian efforts for proper Genocide recognition was revealed; it became obvious that when push comes to shove, the ADL is really only interested in Holocaust recognition propagation, people of other cultures don’t matter as much as Jews do.
    Though sad, pathetic, and vile, the irony behind it all is that many Jews themselves claim to have learned much from the Holocaust regarding human rights, yet the lessons given at Auschwitz by all those people killed is now being politicized and twisted to prevent the truth regarding the Genocide of Armenians from becoming official doctrine here in the US by the very same group of Jews touting their own supposed superior understanding of human suffering.
    However, given the way Jewish response is to Armenian Genocide recognition, it seems that Jews still have a long way to go before claiming to understand human suffering and the value of human rights.

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