In 2007, my grad school roommate, a huge System of a Down fan, took me to Times Square to see “Screamers,” a documentary in which SOAD’s frontman Serj Tankian is prominently featured and for which the band provided a moving score. It was my first (and, shamefully, only) exposure to Armenian history. Directed by former BBC World News anchor and award-winning filmmaker Carla Garapedian, “Screamers” explored the history of 20th century genocides, with particular focus on the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
In the film, Tankian sits down with his 97-year-old grandfather, an Armenian genocide survivor, to discuss his recollection of the Ottoman Empire’s ethnic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians in what is now the Republic of Turkey. “Screamers” also chronicled Tankian’s dedication to lobbying for a genocide bill that would formally acknowledge the massacres as genocide. (To date, over 20 countries and 43 U.S. states do so.)
I can’t pretend that “Screamers” spurred me toward heightened activism. But as an African American whose ancestral experience in this country has also been marked with ethnic exploitation, abuse, torture, and murder, and a long-term lack of formal acknowledgment of chattel slavery as the centuries-long human rights violation it was, I empathized with the Armenian American struggle to have their history accurately documented.
In a Forbes op-ed last month, writer Jano Boghossian noted that this year marks the 99th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and asserts that its psychic reverberations persist:
The unbridled chaos of 1915 marked and traumatized all subsequent generations of Armenians both in the small remaining homeland, and the far-reaching Diaspora. Victim groups have no need for a justification of memory, but they do need justice.
Boghossian’s is another perspective with which I can identify as an African American. On both sides of my family, I am 3-4 generations removed from slavery. But its impact, in the form of institutional racism, is still staggering.
It was curious for me, then, to read the short post Kim Kardashian wrote this Wednesday at her website, acknowledging that it has only been after the birth of her daughter North last year that she’s become aware that racism still exists:
To be honest, before I had North, I never really gave racism or discrimination a lot of thought. It is obviously a topic that Kanye is passionate about, but I guess it was easier for me to believe that it was someone else’s battle.
Along with the members of System of a Down, Kim Kardashian is, as her father Robert was before her, one the most prominent Armenian Americans in the country. Last year, BBC News Magazine published an article investigating how Armenians feel about Kardashian’s fame. Just yesterday, she attended the USC Shoah Foundation’s Ambassadors for Humanity Gala, from which she tweeted about meeting a 100-year-old Armenian Genocide survivor. At the same event, President Obama praised the foundation for “setting alight an eternal flame of testimony that can’t be extinguished.”
It’s that “eternal flame of testimony” that makes Kardashian’s blogged musings on racism so difficult for me to reconcile. Granted, her Armenian culture is only one part of her multi-ethnic heritage. And Kardashian is a fourth-generation Armenian American raised with the insulation of wealth. But histories marked by genocidal injustice tend to penetrate even the thickest of insulating experiences. How could racism and discrimination be someone else’s battle when many countries throughout the world — and a handful of states in this one — still won’t acknowledge what happened to her father’s ancestors as the mass ethnic extermination it was?
It’s interesting, also, that she mentions racism as a topic her fiance, Kanye West, is “obviously passionate about,” while admitting it would have been easier for her to go on believing racism was “someone else’s battle,” had it not been for mothering a biracial child with him.
Motherhood does have its illuminating properties. As the mother of a soon-to-be-four-year-old, I share Kardashian’s awe over the ways in which parenting can sharpen one’s lens of the world. Raising a child whose differences from you — in appearance or in physical or cognitive ability — are readily apparent can also be a revelatory experience.
But the birth of North West can’t be the first time discussion of race and racism have been broached in Kardashian’s life. As writer Latoya Peterson noted four years ago at the race and culture blog, Racialicious, in a piece about discriminatory push-back against Kardashian’s relationship with black NFL star Reggie Bush:
Our current limitations on the entire concept of “race” make it hard to come up with a term that would accurately describe the Kardashian sisters, but… the Kardashians’ relationship to race [may be] a little more complicated than people assume.
I’m inclined to believe that’s true — and Kim Kardashian’s blog post seems to confirm it. The real find in her writing isn’t that “racism is still alive” and that’s just becoming aware of it. It’s her (probably unwitting) admission that marginalized communities can be as susceptible to empathy gaps as anyone else. Kardashian also intimates that her privilege had thus far allowed her the luxury of distance from racism’s impact.
This Sunday will be Kim Kardashian’s first Mother’s Day. She deserves some credit for taking a public, protective stance on behalf of her daughter. It’s good that she’s willing to acknowledge that North’s life won’t be as insulated from racism as she claims hers has been. But I would hope that, as her daughter grows, she finds ways to drill down a bit on the profound connections to be made between her own Armenian ancestry and her North’s African American one. That would be one of the best gifts she could ever give herself as a mother.
(As an aside, Monday will mark Alyssa Rosenberg’s triumphal return to Act Four! I’m as eager as you are to hear all about her European holiday and to see her own words here again, but I just want to take a moment to thank her and you, her gracious readers, for allowing me to write in her stead this week.)