On Feeling like the Token Other

When I told my friend Vicki, who at the time was in her first year of Master’s at MU, that I got accepted into the PhD program she was incredibly happy that I’d be joining her. We got our B.As together from CSUN and were (are) good friends. Once the shouting and planning ended she said to me, “Just so you know though, you’re going to stand out here. I’m the exotic one because I’ve lived abroad.” Vicki had done two years of the Peace Corps in the Philippines. I heeded her warning, but it didn’t bother me too much. After all, in my MA program at Duquense, I was one of the four “brown” girls, really the only diversity in the graduate program. But after being back in Los Angeles and adjuncting for two years, something had changed. I got used to a diverse culture again. I didn’t stand out for my dark complexion and people knew from my last name that I was Armenian (Thanks, Kardashians. I think…).

In August 2012 I got the first email from my DGS addressing all newcomers. One could have easily played the game of “One of these is not like the others” with the list of incoming students. Bridget, Emily, Brian, Sarah, Heather, Andrew, Sareene…

I was a little weary, but still thought “It’ll be ok.” Except, it wasn’t. Nothing racist has ever been said against me (at least from what I know), but there have been moments in which I felt uncomfortable and when I feel uncomfortable I have this awful habit of bringing attention to that through what can be deemed as inappropriate humor.

In my Romantic and Gothic literature course, the late Dr. Diane Hoeveler was discussing Orientalism and showing painting of whitewashed and hypersexualized “Middle Eastern” women. Then she asked, “How are these images different from how the West views the East now?” Queue awkward silence and downward glances. [Necessary sidenote: I am Armenian, but I come from the Armenian diaspora so my dad is from Syria (though all throughout high school I claimed him as Lebanese, a story for another day) and my mom is from Egypt. And because of genetics, I guess, I’m also of a darker complexion than many Armenians.] After a few seconds, I straightened up in my chair and said, “Well, as the only brown person in this room, I feel comfortable saying that those images of the ‘East’ were never realistic, but neither are the only-burqa-wearing images of women we see now.” Two people giggled; Vicki, cause she knows what I felt like, and Andrew, who found it hilarious that I would make others uncomfortable. Dr. Hoeveler picked up on that thread and went along discussing the racism behind Orientalism. See? Not a big deal. I can move on.

Except… I needed a haircut. I had been living in Milwaukee for three months and I couldn’t wait anymore. But being a non-White-but-really-I’m-Caucasian-but-I’m-also-ethnic woman means I can’t just walk in to a random salon. I needed a recommendation from someone who also had thick, curly hair. This shouldn’t have been a problem. And it was. I found one. That’s right, one woman in a graduate program of roughly 35 students who had curly hair. Many people might not think that this instance is even worth mentioning, but there are people who do not have straight hair who can understand my struggle here. Thankfully, I met the hairstylist who I’ve religiously gone to for four years now. This could have been something I discovered eventually on Yelp, so again, maybe not a big deal.

AND THEN, Miss America 2014, Nina Davuluri came into my life. Well, sorta. it must have been a day or two after the pageant when I walked in to say hi to our department secretary, an amazing woman who always has tissues ready for the graduate students and a sympathy crier to not make you feel alone. She’s awesome, seriously. But, she was the one who, inadvertently, exposed just how little people knew about the only dark-skinned person in the graduate body. I walked in and she smiled at me and said, “Congratulations!”
Me: For what?
Her: The Miss USA winner! She’s the first Indian-American woman to win!
**awkward pause**
Me: Um, I’m not Indian-American. I’m Armenian.
Her: Really? Oh, my son’s best friend is Armenian.
If I could have done it, this is where I would have face palmed myself. If someone actually knows an Armenian, wouldn’t the -ian from my name have been at least a clue of my ethnicity? I was a little peeved, but determined to find the humor in the situation. I get it: I have a long name, long (at least then) and dark curly hair, and an overall dark complexion. I shrugged it off as an easy mistake to make in a place where there are probably 100 Armenians. Ok, move on. Go to class. My PhD literary theory class. I was telling Andrew the story of what had just happened, because I knew he would laugh and shake his head, acknowledging that the situation was sadly comical. Well, I’m loud, so as I was saying this story everyone started to listen in, even the professor, the professor who is an African-American literature scholar but as white as they come. She laughed at the story and said “Of course you’re not Indian! You’re Iranian!” “I am?” I asked. “You’re not?” “No, but you’re at least closer in terms of location. I’m Armenian.” “Oh! I didn’t know that.” Clearly. But I love this professor. She’s one of the two professors at MU who I loved learning from. She was also our DGS and was always blunt yet comforting when I needed help. And I expected better from her. Shouldn’t someone who studies racial discord in America be more sensitive about making assumptions on someone’s race or ethnicity? And now, the humor was gone. I wasn’t angry. I’m still not angry. I’m sad.

I’m sad that since August 2012, the only other person-of-color in the graduate program is an Indian Jesuit. It’s been 4 years and we can still play the same “One of these is not like the other” game with the list of student names. Sure, no one has been overtly racist and, besides that moment in theory class, I’ve never actually felt uncomfortable. But it’s not really comfortable either; I’m somewhere in between. I know it is not a conscious decision among the faculty to accept only white students. I know several faculty members, including the one who assumed I was Iranian, mourn the lack of diversity in the graduate student body. But, we are at a small, Catholic school in the most segregated city in the U.S. It’s not exactly the most welcoming fact when POCs look for prospective universities. I applied here because Vicki told me about it and I thought that since it sounded really similar to Duquesne I had a decent chance of getting accepted.

But I’m the token other. Sure, no one else says it and they laugh when I jokingly point it out (jokingly because what else am I supposed to do? yell?). But I’ve seen most of the names of the students coming here in Fall. Looks like I’ll keep being the token other until I graduate.

 

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