Racist? Who Me?

BY TAMAR KEVONIAN

Could our ancestors, living in on the Anatolian Plains and other parts of Historic Armenia a hundred years ago, imagine the multicultural life of an Armenian today? Or what of those from our parents’ generation, who were born and raised in various parts of the Middle East, the Soviet Union or Iran? As cosmopolitan as life may have seemed back then, it doesn’t compare to the present day life lived by an average citizen in a city as banal as Glendale.

Everyday we come into contact with many cultures on a daily basis: the Filipinos customer service agent,  African-American cashier at the grocery stores,  the Armenians insurance agent, the Latinos doctor, the Chinese lawyer, the Thai restaurateur, just to name a few. Little Armenian exists next door to Thai Town, and in fact it’s difficult to distinguish where one ends and the other begins, that’s how intermingled are the stores and restaurants that are clustered in the tightly packed city blocks in Hollywood.

Given the scattered and nomadic nature of Armenian existence, now and throughout history, we can find Armenians, or traces of Armenians in almost every country of the world. The reality of everyday living in non-Armenian lands makes it necessary to adopt local customs, habits and people in our lives. Intermarriage becomes a common occurrence and today there are Japanese-Armenians, Armenian- Indians, Armenian-Africans, Chinese-Armenians, and so on.

Eliminating all but the ‘pure’ Armenian, the global population of Armenians will decline dramatically. In a discussion about what constitutes a pure Armenian, Armen ceded the point that Armenians have intermingled and adopted other cultures during the course of our history but was incredulous that anyone would consider dating  someone of another culture.

“But there are plenty of Armenians who are Asian or African-American,” countered Taline. Armen rolled his eyes in response. These were of no concern to him. “They are odar,” he said in a way that did not allow a discussion.

The word odar gets brandished about quite liberally. At a recent dinner party there were a number of non-Armenians present and one of them finally asked what it meant. A “foreigner” one dinner guest explained without the realizing the word’s racist and xenophobic implications. Although a perfectly legitimate word, it’s meaning – “foreigner”- implies a distinction.

Odar is used quite often by Armenians to describe someone not of our tightly knit ethnic group. We don’t think twice about using the word to label a person but my unease with the word would not alleviate during this dinner party or the exchange with Armen.

How do we really using it and in what context? “He (or she) is dating (or married to) an odar,” we hear said with disapproval. “Oh, they don’t understand, they’re an odar,” is often expressed to explain the people in our communities who we think don’t believe in our values. Although it is a legitimate word meaning “foreign/er” it is also a word used with a slight twinge of disdain and that makes it inherently racist and xenophobic.

There is a difference between the two words. Xenophobia is the fear or contempt of that which is foreign or unknown, while racism is the belief that members of some races are superior or inferior to members of other races. For example, an Armenian may be disliked because he is from a Middle Eastern country, making it xenophobia, while being disliked for being Armenian is racism. Our use of odar falls in both of these categories.

Throughout history cultures have had a need to create words to describe people not of themselves, usually motivated by fear or ignorance. Armenians were confused for Iranians during the Iran hostage situation in the early 1980’s and Iranians were grouped with Arabs following the harrowing days of 9/11. Ethnic minorities living in the larger culture of their host countries either use these words or have them used towards them to create a distinction between their groups: an “us vs. them” mentality.  They become the basis for a large scale form of separation because it reduces the perception of the “other” as less than equal and therefore not worthy of the same consideration.

We are surrounded by these words which reduce an entire race of people to a single derogatory expression: beaner, camel jockey, chink, cholo, coolie, cracker, dink, Charlie, gook, goy, goyim, greaseball, gypsy, half-breed, honky, kike, kraut, mick, polack, nigger, redskin, russkie, sand nigger, spade, spaghetti nigger, towel head, white nigger, wog, and wop. They describe people of Italian, Irish, Arab, Mexican, Chinese, German, Polish, Black, Native American, Asian and Russian origins. Although these are words from the general American language and may not seem to apply to us, let’s not forget that our ancestors were called gavour  by the Turks and we liberally brandish the word “mtveli” to describe Shiite Arabs or “lobbie” to describe those from Mexico and other Latin countries further south.

Racism is widely condemned throughout the world. It is of such concern that the United Nations adopted a treaty in 1965 to combat the phenomena. It is called the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination which 173 nation have signed as of November 2006. Unfortunately it is difficult to regulate and weed out racism especially when perfectly legitimate words like odar are used in a negative manner.  

In the life of a modern Armenian, the values and expectations held dear by our grandparents or even our parents, must adapt to survive. It’s time to closely examine our world view and the subtle ways in which we discriminate towards others – especially since they have now become a part of us. It is hypocritical to demand respect, equality and recognition when we cannot extend the same courtesy to other races. The reality of the far flung Armenian Diaspora is that we live in cultures different than the one we have tried to preserve throughout our journeys and often our friends, neighbors, coworkers and spouses are from the culture of our host countries. When we say odar in a derogatory way, we insult and alienate not just those closest to us but also ourselves because which one of us can really claim to be a ‘pure’ Armenian? Does such a thing even exist?

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17 Comments

  1. Ara said:

    At the risk of stepping into the frowned-upon term of generalization, it is no secret that Armenians as a whole harbor rather strong feelings of bigotry, racism and indignation at anyone perceived not to be sharing their own culture, race or religion. The label 'odar' is a great example of this. But what I encountered during my last visit to Armenia, was somewhat of an eye-opener for me. The locals in Yerevan, after concluding that I was not an indigenous Armenian, would use the rather pleasant-sounding 'aper' (brother) when addressing me. It took me a while to finally understand that the word is not used as an endearing term of cultural or national brotherhood, but rather to distinguish and separate me from what they perceive as a 'true' Armenian.

  2. Myrna said:

    Tamar, thank you for writing this article. It was very refreshing to read. I particularly liked your last two rhetorical questions, which really drive home your point.

  3. talinkeshishian said:

    Thank you for posting this. I especially liked the timeframe with which you submitted this article, right around the time when Armenians unite for a specific cause, the Genocide commemoration. Change has to start from within. We have to lose the labels that have worked to divide us. I personally take pride in being Lebanese-Armenian, but the truth is, I'm no less Armenian than one from Armenia, though I have been told otherwise on plenty of occasions. Once we lose the labels, we can unite among ourselves as a whole culture, not as fragments split up throughout the world.

    And in response to Ara's post below: Yes, I've heard the term 'aper' in Armenia myself. I was told it is a slang word for 'aghper' (trash in Armenian) that was used by the pure Armenians to refer to all other Armenians. When I hear this term within my social circle, or anywhere for that matter, I explain to the individual(s) saying it about what this really means. I will do the same for 'odar' and I agree, it does have negative, somewhat scornful implications that tend to generalize in a detrimental way.

    Once again, thank you for writing this piece.

    Talin Keshishian

  4. Armen_yan said:

    Talin,

    Aghper means brother and not trash! They say aper like we say here bro (brother). By the way trash means aghp.

  5. Pingback: [Web Wrap]: Racist? Who Me? « FARs Blog

  6. Araksya said:

    I want to let Ara and Talin know that Armen-yan is right! Aghper means a brother, and aper is the slang form of it. Trash is aghb!!

    Thanks for the article!

  7. Alina said:

    . For example, an Armenian may be disliked because he is from a Middle Eastern country,

    Since when Armenia is in Middle East?? If some Armenians escaped Genocide and ended up in ME it doesn’t make us all from Middle East. The same way if some Armenians are now in Africa it wouldn’t make us from Africa….Armenia is in South Caucasus/Eastern Europe and our historical Homeland is Armenian Hihgland which has nothing to do with ME. Stop wrongly labeling us!

  8. Alina said:

    Also, writing such articles you should distinguish which Armenians you are talking about.
    Being from Armenia I don’t have “odar” in my vocabulary, neither all “lobbie”, “mtveli” have anythig to do with Republic of Armenia.

    And Armenians are genetically indeed pure Armenians.

    http://armeniansworld.com/?p=17773

  9. Alina said:

    My Goodness!

    Ara, Armenian guys use “aper” (bro,brother) to EVERYONE in Armenia, it is NOT used only to Diapsora lol
    it is not a word to distingyush Diaspora from Hayastanci, they call each other like that al lthe time in Armenia.it is just instead of referring to each other with “ara” which is rude although it comes from ancient Armenian Sun God “Ar/Ara”…

  10. patricia said:

    I am a non-Armenian married to an Armenian man for 10 years. Recently at my father-in-laws 90th birthday, my father-in-law made a speech acknowledging me as the “odar that snuck into (his) family”. He wrapped this abhorrent insult into a backhanded compliment by conceding that I was somehow ok, because I had a religious conversion and could cook some Armenian dishes. I was beyond insulted and horrified. I couldn’t even be hurt because I was so embarrassed for him.
    I do not feel right about confronting a 90 year old about his blatant prejudicial scorn, given the real possibility that this much upset could prematurely what little there is left of his life.
    Still, I was the only non-Armenian in the room. By the way, I am English, not Turkish – in which case the vitriolic castigation might more understandable.
    In all fairness my brother in law made an honest attempt to interrupt his soliloquy by saying, “dad she’s not an ODAR, she has converted.” To which my father in law angrily proclaimed, “IT DOESN’T MATTER, SHE WILL NEVER BE ONE OF US!” WOW. I think my husband was under the table at this point.
    I never thought at 40 years of age, I would find myself in the company of such backwards thinking camouflaged by excessive pride in having achieved a degree of affluence and education.
    When I recover from this uncivilized experience, I will write the whole thing off as musings of dementia. After all, this word says more about the person saying it, than the individual to whom it is being applied.

    • Edgar Oliva said:

      I am from El Salvador, married a woman who is Armenian, have a beautiful child and live very happy!! I have gone through many obstacles about the race difference with her family, but at the end WE ARE VERY HAPPY NO MATTER WHAT AND THEY CAN SEE IT!!!! It takes a lot for human beings to understand what true love is all about!!! I have being called Odar many times, but since that word is not in my vocabulary, it means nothing to me!!! I am happy and some are not!!

    • Broken Heart said:

      Hi,
      I am an Asian/Canadian girl who was not approved by his Armenian Parents. We broke up and I feel very angry and hurt at the same time. I cannot believe this still exist and if he knew this is the case, why play with a girl’s heart? At least your husband still married you which shows he really loves you…

  11. Nora said:

    Thank you for writing this Tamar! Something that needed to be discussed and analyzed. I hope Armenians will think twice before using the word odar from now on.

  12. Susan said:

    Thank you, Talin, for your thoughtful writing. Today’s date is March 22 2014, and you are still informing readers and starting important dialogs about racism, etc. This morning while playing a game of Scrabble, I searched online for ‘odar’. Decades ago, my beloved Armenian great aunt used the word in her historical writings.

    • Susan said:

      I meant to say Tamar in the first sentence. But I liked reading replies from Talin & all others here.

  13. LUIZA said:

    TAIN IS IT YOU? BACK IN 2004 MOVED TO ARMENIAN FOR A BIT (I THINK OR MORE!?)!? ANYWAY IF SO WOW! GET IN CONNTACT WITH ME!

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