Several years ago during my corporate life, I had a boss who considered it a complete waste of time to assess blame or point fingers when confronted with challenging issues. He considered it an emotional distraction from improving the functioning of the operation. At that time, we were a remote business unit far away from the corporate headquarters and constantly on the short end of many company decisions. The instinctive and emotional reaction was to complain, unload and blame others for our reality. He would have none of it in our staff meetings. “Playing victim,” as he would call it, would be confined to informal social gatherings after work. Despite our discomfort with this approach, he insisted we look in the mirror and define the root cause of the problem and what WE needed to do differently to ensure a better outcome. The idea was to focus on our outcome—not to let the victim behavior control us. This was an incredibly valuable lesson that I have applied to family, community and career.
Our experience with the Armenian Genocide is comparable. The survivors carried a personal burden of loss and deprivation. Only their faith and personal strength allowed them to carry on and build a new future. For the succeeding generations born in the diaspora, our psyche has been damaged by the crime and the lack of justice. We became victims by inheritance. We were the classic victims. Blame the Turks. Blame the allies. Blame an ambivalent world. At face value, the assertions were not wrong; they simply did not encourage healing, and they certainly did not get us closer to justice. The problem with a victim mentality is that it prevents you from taking responsibility and thereby becomes a vicious cycle of frustration. The Genocide is a fact. It remains for us to take responsibility to strive for justice—not to hide behind a victim shield.
This mentality also encourages negative behavior such as hatred and ignorance of our identity. Many Armenians wake up from an advocacy nap once a year in April to say their piece. It is often without substance and certainly not a sustained behavior. We can only overcome this cloud with contributions to our community and a focus on the enablers of political change. That should not include blaming, hatred and wanton anger.
During the 1960s when many cultural norms were challenged, Armenians began to move away from the “blame/victim” mentality and began to take responsibility for their political objectives. The good fortune of education and wealth was deployed for defining that journey. In the coming years, the ANCA and Armenian Assembly would emerge, and the Armenian advocacy movement began to blossom. This represents the best of the anti-blame/take responsibility mentality. If we want international recognition of the Genocide and reparations for the crime, then we need to be willing to invest ourselves for its resolution.
Comprehending the enormity of taking responsibility also means we confront our global responsibilities on human rights. It is obvious that the damage to our thinking has not fully healed. As victims of genocide, we should have clear resolve in our support against all crimes against humanity. We proudly state that the Armenian Genocide was the FIRST genocide of the 20th century, yet are we the first to stand up when these crimes are committed? Where were we during Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur? This is part of “taking responsibility” and shedding the victim behavior. Is it because these were people of different races, ethnicity or religions? Or are we just so clannish that we have trouble recognizing others? It took us decades to officially recognize the Genocide of the Pontic Greeks and Assyrians, and those were committed by Turks. There has been progress in this regard with multi-ethnic and racially diverse speakers at Genocide remembrances, but there is much more work to do. This is our responsibility as human beings and is in our interests. It will contribute to a greater sense of responsibility of who we are. The collaboration on common interests is always a more powerful solution. We can be committed Armenians and committed global citizens.
Erasing the victim mentality is empowering. Once we begin reflecting inwardly on what we must do and not focus on blaming others, the progress is remarkable. Taking responsibility does not preclude alliances and partnerships. It simply puts them in perspective. We are responsible for our actions and for the causes we embrace. Oppressors rely on the oppressed to be trapped in the centrifuge of misery. This behavior can be applied to almost any ethnic or racial challenge before us. It is not popular because holding a mirror up first is more difficult than blaming others, but I believe it is more effective.
America has a long history in the evolution of equality. In the early years of the country, only white male landowners were allowed to vote. Imagine a country that wrote “all men are created equal” and then limited voting. Actually, the “created” is a reference to God. He clearly created us all equal, but “men” decided to alter that. We will be judged on that by Him. As a white male, I cannot begin to fully comprehend how a Black American feels in this society. I can empathize, listen and confront discrimination, but I cannot pretend to fully comprehend. As an Armenian, we know historically the pain of racism and hatred. Some Armenians in Turkey and Artsakh feel that pain today. My grandparents surely felt the pain of Turkish institutional discrimination in the Ottoman Empire simply because they were Christians or Armenians. Is that really any different than the sin of discriminating because of the color of your skin? Everyone has the ability to impact this problem. It is called intolerance. Tolerance is easy. Every white person can do that without much effort or risk. The challenge is to confront the intolerance that exists…institutionally, individually and communally. Racists are cowards, and their impact diminishes when we reject their thinking. We have a human responsibility.
The one thing that Armenians can do with the Black community is to share our experience on shedding the victim behavior. This is not popular in the current environment, but patronizing and pandering statements have never solved problems. We can help the Black community by extending a hand with encouragement that we give ourselves. The combination of the current environment and responsible self-reflection can be powerful for sustainable change. While others are digesting the impact of today’s events and hopefully investing in meaningful reform, the Black community should be encouraged to look for change in their own communities.
For example, I have long felt that the entitlement programs in this country, although having a benevolent intent, have become a form of addiction for many minority communities. Is it our societal vision that millions become trapped in a lifestyle that lacks dignity and hope? All Americans have the right to access bettering their lives. We should view entitlement programs in the context of improving the quality of life, not simply surviving. When families cannot break their dependency on public assistance, they learn new behaviors and values. Ironically, perhaps the unintended consequence of these programs are “racist” because they unfairly target minorities into a dependency that few escape.
We have made unacceptable progress in the last 50 years defeating the stain of racism and building a middle class that includes more Black Americans. This is not a “red” or “blue” issue. This problem has transcended many Presidents over many decades. We cannot expect better results with the same ideas. Making this another partisan football game belittles the importance of the matter.
I truly believe that Armenians started making real progress when we stopped blaming others and made changes that we can control. As Americans, we must embrace the same thinking. Rioting, looting and lawlessness do not and should not mask the core issue. The Black community has a strong tradition of faith. This is a building block which should be given more support. The combination of an inward
“taking responsibility” and an external reform movement could be an effective partnership to advance our society.
One final suggestion. In a recent interview, actor Morgan Freeman was asked how to improve racial harmony. He acknowledged the problem and stated, “I am going to stop calling you a White man, and you are going to stop calling me a Black man.” At first glance, it sounds like an oversimplification, but think about it. Our obsession with identifying everything as “White” or “Black” feeds the stereotypes of many. Why aren’t we just Americans or men or women? Naive? I think there is something behind it.
During my career, I worked in an inner city manufacturing facility with many Black professionals. It was my first substantial experience with the Black community. It was challenging at first, but I learned a great deal about their issues and backgrounds. I made many close friends. I became comfortable discussing race and listening to their ideas. It was an enlightening experience that has helped me as a human being. This is part of the problem also. We don’t know each other. We are too isolated and insulated. The emerging generation is better at this. Perhaps their contribution will be this breakthrough. On a much smaller level, it reminded me of adherents from the Prelacy and Diocese meeting the first time with perceived stereotypes only to discover how much they have in common. We should be focusing on what we have in common as Americans and always be empathetic to support the plight of others. Armenian, Christian and human—that’s who we are.