Whiteness is a privilege with which I was cursed upon entry into this country. I had never been taught to think about myself as belonging to a race, never been asked to check a box to indicate whether I preferred to disclose or withhold my race, or specify which one on a list of given choices defined me.
The first time I helped my mother complete a form for the INS, I was baffled by the option to select a box that claimed us as Caucasian. “Why would they have a box just for people from the Caucasus?” I said to my mother, not expecting a response, since she didn’t know anything about America that I didn’t know. I was simply sharing this discovery of yet another American oddity. I checked the box—not because I intended to submit our whiteness into government evidence, but because we were from the Caucasus. Little did I know.
So little did I know that when the first American man who asked me out on a date wanted to know if I had declined his invitation because he was black, I was startled, as if I spoke much less English than it would take to understand that I was wanted. I had said no—even though it had been love at first sight— because I was from the Caucasus, and women there never accept the first invitation on a date.
In Armenia, I had never learned about slavery, or about any racial injustices anywhere in the world. Having arrived in New York at sixteen, I was too busy surviving everything being a newly arrived immigrant entailed to pay attention to race. No one in my family ever mentioned the race of my cousin’s children or their mother. They only said she was so beautiful. It didn’t matter to anyone that she and the youngest children in our family weren’t white. Color didn’t matter at all. Until it began to matter so much that it was as if race was all there was.
The date did end up taking place when I realized I was too American to turn down a man I desired. We met at midnight at a playground in Riverside Park, where we sat atop a slide and drank two bottles of red wine. He gave me white roses and read poems he had written, mostly about my eyes. A few weeks into our courtship, outside an Upper West Side bar we had left after the last call dance to Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” he asked me to hail a taxi while he waited under the awning of the bar. I retaliated with a drunken rant about how wrong it was that a woman should hail a taxi while her man stood by. I wasn’t American enough not to expect men to open doors, pull out chairs, and light my cigarettes. He laughed, as he always did when my Armenian-ness came out in furrowed eyebrows, flailing arms, and a suddenly thickened accent.
“Alright,” he said. “Stand back. I’ll do it. You go under the awning and watch.”
Watch I did, as half a dozen taxis, all with the On Duty light on, drove past him, a couple almost brushing against him as if he weren’t there waving for them to stop. When he turned to me and asked if I’d like to try, it took a moment for me to convince my legs to move. My body didn’t know quite what to do after it had just received its first dose of racism. The first available taxi pulled over for me.
“So, you just accept that? You just let it go?” I asked, as he took my hand, and I felt his absolute calmness.
“What am I gonna do?” he asked. “Stand in the middle of the street, so they stop over my dead body?”
He thought that was funny. We never talked about taxis again. I always hailed them. They always stopped.
“You just got here, and you are already more welcome here than I am. And I was born here. My parents and grandparents were born here,” he used to tell me.
Nothing tastes quite like the rage that takes over the soul in the face of this kind of injustice. Nothing ever has. Although there’ve been much worse stories since those passing taxis, the taste is always the same. As it was one evening, when we were on our way for some of my grandmother’s dolma. The woman whom we followed into the elevator swiftly tucked herself into a corner and pressed her purse close to her chest. My boyfriend smiled and said, “Oh, don’t worry, ma’am. I never steal on Sundays.” Arsenic. That’s what the rage tastes like. Each time it touches the palate, you wonder if you’ll survive.
When he introduced me to a few friends at a party, one joked that he was surprised to see his friend with a white girl.
“She ain’t white,” my boyfriend said, not joking so much as defending my honor.
“It’s true,” I said. “I’m not white.”
“Black and white is colors,” the friend said. “It don’t got nothing to do with what you feeling in your heart or thinking in your mind. I’m black. You white. No one is nothing.”
Sometimes, I wish it had ever been a choice. I wish I had never checked off the Caucasian box. I wish choosing not to check a box could exempt me from race altogether. I wish there were something I could wear, like Canadian flags sewn onto the backpacks of American tourists in Muslim countries, to denounce my belonging to a perpetual wrong I never chose, never would have.
“I wish I were black,” I used to say, when we spent evenings drinking wine, listening to speeches by Dr. King and Malcolm X, reading Hansberry and Baldwin to each other, singing along to Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson. I’d be Angela Davis. It would be the sixties. I would wear my black skin and my black Afro, and I would take to the streets with a loudspeaker, hold it up like a loaded rifle, and fight for my right to be.
“Why would anyone choose to be black when being black means a lifetime of pain?”
As I raise my fist toward the skyscrapers in yet another New York City protest against police brutality and the murder of innocent black men, I feel uneasy. “Black lives matter!” I scream. “Justice! Now! Shut it down!” A black woman looks at me, and smiles. Maybe she thinks I’m a sister, a kindred soul. Maybe she is thinking who am I to braid my hair and raise a fist and scream that her life matters, like black people need my validation of their lives. Maybe she’s thinking I am the problem to begin with. I want to walk up to her and say, “I’m not white. I mean, I’m not from here. I have no connection to this country’s history. My people weren’t here when your people were being brutalized.”
But there is my white fist, awkwardly puncturing the air to open space for justice. I scream as loudly as I can. I am angry. I cry. Then, I scream again, this time at the cops pushing in the fence until there’s no room for us to move, and we are pressed against each other, Black, White, Latino, Asian, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, American, angry.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? Can’t you see there’s nowhere for us to go? Give us some fucking space to breathe!”
White privilege is being able to scream and rage without anyone calling me an angry black woman. So, I scream like that might rid my mouth of the taste of arsenic. I scream until I lose my voice. Like it matters. And then, I come home to my black husband and children, like I did something worthwhile, like I’ll ever know the pain they feel, the fears they carry. There is not a thing I can do to keep them safe. White privilege does nothing to help me protect my family. So, what good is it anyway?