This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
On Friday, Kim Kardashian West dropped her new coronavirus-inspired face mask collection, with masks for white, tan, brown, dark brown, and Black skin tones. While the tan and white face masks nicely reflect olive and peach flesh, the darkest mask for Black skin is just that: black.
“The nude shade for the Black model is inaccurate, offensive, and culturally out of touch,” one Twitter user said.
Kim used to help me make sense of my own racial identity, until she didn’t—largely because of the never-ending cascade of Kardashian racial faux pas, of which the face masks are just the latest.
I remember as a teenager, waiting for my mom one day to pay for groceries in the checkout line when I stumbled upon a gossip magazine, Kim’s undeniably beautiful face looking at me. I’m Polish and Armenian, so like Kim, I have mixed Armenian heritage (she’s Armenian and a white blend). Sure, she represented a curated and obscenely rich version of someone like me, but to see a woman with Armenian roots and Middle Eastern features displayed on magazines as an opulent sex symbol changed the way I view myself, for better or worse, even if it didn’t change the way friends and strangers view me.
The staredown between me and Kim’s glossy image came at a time when I felt particularly uncomfortable in my skin. With my tan skin, black hair, and dark eyes, I didn’t look as “Canadian” as my friends, making Catholic high school in Edmonton difficult. Questions about my race and ethnicity followed me like a shadow. When I was minding my own business in biology class a white guy turned around and said, “You’d be more attractive with green eyes, Lebanese-like”; in Grade 12 math, a girlfriend looked at me and declared me a “brown Polish person” out of the blue; people would toss racial slurs targeting brownness my way (although I didn’t suffer this nearly as often as friends who are darker than me or not mixed). I was—and continue to be—asked where I’m from too often. So seeing Kim on not one, but several front pages sparked something like an internal revolution, especially when there are only about 11 million Armenians globally.
“Kim is bringing awareness to important issues and I think it's well intentioned,” said Aram Mrjoian, an Armenian and Polish writer and editor. “But she can’t turn around and say, ‘Well I’m doing good things, but I’m not doing my homework about racism.”
I’d be remiss not to mention Kim’s recent criminal justice reform work. She has lobbied President Donald Trump successfully, helping several wrongfully convicted people or people serving harsh sentences gain clemency and pay legal bills. As of January, she had even completed a year of law school.
But it’s impossible—and unethical—to speak about Kim without mentioning the flagrant blindspot she has for race, particularly Blackness. Despite mothering four Black kids, she, along with her sisters Kylie Jenner and Khloe Kardashian, has built an empire by appropriating Black culture and Black beauty. To this day, Kim posts pictures with Black hairstyles, and often stains her already olive skin dark brown with whatever beauty product du jour she’s trying to sell. Comments flood her social media, calling her out for blackface.
But sometimes, people on social media also call her out for being white and, while that might be a fair assessment—she certainly benefits from white privilege—comments highlighting her Middle Eastern roots always follow. It’s this push and pull between whiteness and brownness in Kim’s comment section that has become a metaphor for Armenian racial identity.
When people ask me how I identify racially I tell them honestly: I don’t always know. I’m racialized, because my day-to-day life is marked with microaggressions and questions about my ethnicity. And because so much of my identity, at least when it comes to race, is defined by how others perceive me, “racialized” becomes a verb that succinctly describes that process. To call myself brown, though, often feels strong and unfair considering my olive skin is tan, but light, and as a mixed person, I have a Polish name and am part of a white culture.
Armenians all over, particularly millennials, are grappling with the same question about race. Karoun Chahinian is based in Etobicoke, just outside of Toronto. Now 24, Chahinian remembers sitting with her friends in high school when one girl said, “You’re like the brownest person in the group,” Chahinian said. “I was like, ‘Am I brown though? OK, I guess I’m brown,’ because it was the first time I learned how others view me.”
Mrjoian told me he initially identified as white. But he then added that his racial identity is “conditional.” “There are always going to be certain people who see me as white and there will always be people who see me as complicated,” Mrjoian said. He’s been called “less white,” “some complication of white,” and “spicy white,” he added.
Self-described Iranian-Armenian-American refugee alien and freelance writer Liana Aghajanian said she’s noticed how many Armenians identify as brown, many believe they’re white, and others don’t feel comfortable identifying one way or another. “I had one friend who once said something like, ‘To white people you’re too brown and to brown people you’re not brown enough.’” According to Aghajanian, her identity changes based on who she’s interacting with and depends on how people perceive her. “It’s a very complicated thing,” she said. “When I have to fill out forms (like a census) that ask for race, right now, no options represent who I am, so I choose to not self-identify.”
Aghajanian pointed to Armenian history as yet another complicating factor. Armenian diasporas exist in large part because of genocide. Millions of ethnic Armenians were executed or expelled from Turkey by the Ottoman Empire between 1914 and 1923. My family ended up in Poland, but a sizeable Armenian population found itself in the United States, particularly in Los Angeles, when the country still reserved naturalization for white people. A 1909 Supreme Court case ruled that Armenians are legally white, but in 1923, when an Armenian U.S. resident of 20 years, Tatos Cartozian, applied for citizenship, the courts said he had to go through “visual scrutiny”—a check to determine if Cartozian was, in fact, white enough.
When the attorney general’s office tried to revoke Cartozian’s right to naturalization, he took his case to a federal district court, where Armenians were again bestowed white legal status. By being viewed as white by the state, thousands of Armenians who became stateless during genocide were able to claim American citizenship.
Until 1952, only white immigrants were eligible for U.S. citizenship, said John Tehranian, a law professor at Southwestern University in Los Angeles. Right now, U.S. law considers people from the Middle East and North Africa white. “I’d say that’s out of step with public perception,” Tehranian said.
Tehranian is Armenian as well. “I don’t consider myself white because I’m not treated as such,” he said. “More to the point, I’m not white at the airport, and things got worse post-9-11 and the war on terrorism”—a reality that rings true for many, if not most, brown, Middle Eastern and South Asian people.
In the book Limits of Whiteness by University of Toronto sociology professor Neda Maghbouleh, she describes the way similar racial questions trouble Iranians. She chronicles how, despite their white legal status in the U.S., the way Iranians are treated—white, brown, or something in between—depends on a number of contexts. “Whiteness is fickle and volatile,” she writes.
Geography also adds a layer to Armenian racial identity. The country is wedged between Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran, and sits on the Caucasus Mountains, which straddle the border between Europe and Asia. Chahinian said she and her Armenian peers have debated over whether they’re European or Asian, with conversations always resulting in a pretty even split. “Personally, I don’t feel the need to label it,” she said.
This is where Kim Kardashian comes in. Her racial identity is malleable and label-free, allowing her to shift from white to brown and back to white, effectively building a palatable brand of off-white that’s easy to sell because we get to define her however we want. Writer and academic Lauren Michele Jackson dubbed Kim a one-woman metaphor for the race problem in the U.S.: “Kim’s particular fame derives from a cherished place in the American racial imagination that, combined with wealth, prevents contact with the deathly effects (and melancholic affects) of brownness in this country while reaping the exoticism of not-quite whiteness,” she writes.
The problem is that most Armenians don’t enjoy Kardashian-esque privilege. While Kim gets to play her ethnicity up or down depending on what sells best over social media, never actually saying publicly whether she identifies as white or brown, the rest of us are left trying to piece together complicated answers around race in ways that honour our experiences with racism without also trivializing the violent, systemic racism that harms people of colour and Indigenous peoples who are often darker and less racially ambiguous than us.
“Kim Kardashian being in the spotlight has not made these issues easier,” Aghajanian said. “They have just complicated them even more.”
The way Kim manipulates her racial ambiguity for commercial gain has the adverse effect of flattening Armenianness, and relegates fraught, complicated conversations about racial identity online, to comment sections, where there is little room for nuance. Here, it stops mattering how Armenians identify.
For Kim, that might be the point. For others like me, it’s like a mental quicksand, making it difficult to work through questions about race without first sifting through public interpretations of Armenian identity that exist because of Kim, intentionally or not.
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Correction, May 28, 2020: A previous version of this story said Tatos Cartozian took his case to the Supreme Court, when in fact, he took it to a federal district court in Oregon.