The Hye-Phen

made with love ⟩⟩ for a better digital / queer / armenian / future ֍

On Refusing to be a Border

by | Nov 1, 2014 | Archives

bavakan is an angry feminist queer poet living in armenia.

In 2013 I ended up in Sweden to study on a generous scholarship. Some people have attempted to convince me that I am somehow special for being worthy of such a prize, but I am fully aware that there is nothing particularly special about me, other than the fact that my access to a number of things, including education and enough financial security to be mobile between my native country (Armenia) and my host country (the United States) has made it possible for me to make certain connections and gain a certain amount of experience in my field for certain doors to open for me. With that said, I also know that there are yet a million doors not open for me and my kind, doors that we should have the ability to walk through, tables we should have the ability to sit around to participate in the decision-making that affects our lives.

In another rendition of this story I will tell you that I was sent by some higher power to Sweden to understand what it is to be a “minority”. I probably could have also gone to Russia for that, but at least in Sweden I can avoid (for the most part) the constant fear of being beaten up in the metro or the street. (Sweden prides itself in being a peaceful country.) Of course, being an immigrant and Armenian and woman and (not always visibly) lesbian can/has rendered me a minority in the United States, where I spent most of my growing-up years. At the same time however, I lived in an immigrant working class neighborhood for the entire time of being in the United States, which meant that we were all in the same boat in terms of “minority” status. The question of differences of experience based on where we had immigrated from and how we were perceived by our host country is another story. My point is that I was never directly and on an everyday basis faced with the dominant “majority” to realize that I was/could be a “minority”.

Coming to Sweden, I recognize that part of having a door open to me as an immigrant, Armenian, woman and (not always visibly) lesbian is that there is always almost certainly a wealthier, most likely white(r), most likely male hand opening that door. For the first time in my life I find myself in a whiter, wealthier room, invited and welcomed, although most often having to play the role of a docile object, especially if I want to maintain the privilege of being/staying in the room. What this usually means is that I smile and nod my head when I am told how interesting and exotic I am, or I stay silent when “people who know better by virtue of economic, social and political privilege” AKA “uninterrupted, obvious whiteness” promote or comply with systems of oppression they are the direct beneficiaries of.

At the same time the very fact that I can make such a statement as “I came to Sweden to understand what it is to be a minority” already implies that I have a choice.


My race-reality has always varied depending on the spaces I occupied. (Or the spaces that occupied me.)

In general I have always been (or become as an object of perception) too exotic to be white and too light-skinned to be brown. I do not see myself as victim to any of these four categorizations. I derive power from the ability (to the extent that I am able to in relation with other subjects) to play with these categories and to challenge people’s assumptions about their own perceptions of themselves (and of me in relation to them) with me serving (never by my own choosing) as their mirror.

When I am exotic

I become a delicacy to be consumed.
When I am white I am the border
where one finds approval for his own whiteness
or is reassured of her brownness.
When I am light-skinned I am a confusing

in-between, appropriating a history not my own.


She tells me she has been looking up Armenia online to learn more about the place I come from.

It’s the second time we meet and she hesitatingly asks about the genocide. It happened in 1915, right? Yes. I smile. Of course I smile. It’s an uncomfortable smile. It’s the kind of smile that hides a lifetime of being asked the same damn question. It’s a smile that wants to smash open my mouth from the inside out and scream out MY IDENTITY IS NOT EQUAL TO GENOCIDE! I AM NOT GENOCIDE! BEING ARMENIAN DOESN’T MEAN I AM GENOCIDE! I AM EVERYTHING ELSE BUT GENOCIDE but still I feel the dying of my people everyday, because our self-elected government is signing off agreements to sell our country and bending to the will of russia’s greedy will for an entire country to serve as its military base, and gas prices are going up, and soldiers being murdered by their own comrades in the army are being sent to their graves under the pretense of suicide, and priests are driving BMWs, while heavy gold chains hang from their chests, confusing themselves for almighty kings, building church after church as if to atone for their sins, and everyday we hear of how many more people have left the country and who wouldn’t want to leave a country that imports crocodiles only oligarchs could buy as a delicacy to show off with for New Year’s eve?


Let this be internalized:

I am not being eliminated

or erased
because I resist
the eradication of my self
upon contact with others
who do not re-

cognize me.


In Sweden, under the gaze of whiteness, I have turned un-white. In the lecture hall I sit in the back and notice in my field of vision a hall full of fair and blond heads. The professor is saying something about how we assume that all actors are rational. I look down at the backs of my hands, my wrists, my forearms. And suddenly I become wheat-colored. I never noticed this shade of my skin before. A kind of wheat-yellow. West Asian.

(Sometimes I think about how Armenians are a chameleon people: Our colors change depending on the environment. Whenever I am traveling to Armenia, waiting to board the plane to Yerevan in Sheremetevo airport, and I see all the haggard looking grey men with dusty boxes and old shoes, smelling of sweat, on their way back home from months or years of working in Russia, and I look at their dark bushy eyebrows and I notice the worry in their dark eyes, I feel I am white compared to them. Almost as if the United States bleached me of the difficulty of living in the Soviet boss’s belly to be pushed around like an undesired, backward people.

“Sometimes I think about how
Armenians are a chameleon people:
Our colors change depending on the environment.”

So whenever I’m in the United States I feel how my experience is void of being the color grey and all blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes, and chain-smoking-until-death symptoms associated with living a daily racialized struggle. On the contrary, I benefit from the daily racialized struggle of those who didn’t make the cut in the United States. As an Armenian, it is a question where you end up, and being on the border of whiteness, you will be best ending up in a developed Western country, against the backdrop of a history of colonialism, genocide and slavery that did not happen to your own people, where your un-recognizability, although an erasure of your difference, can bring with it the security of whiteness.)


It is the gaze of whiteness that turns one yellow-red-black-brown other. Always in contrast. It is the color upon which other colors can be painted. It wants to remain pristine, pure, clear, solid. It protects itself by defining the other. By being the definer.

!Let us not be defined!

What is my need to be white: being white means I won’t be humiliated. Being white means I pass past difficulty, violence, dehumanization. I get an A plus.

Yet I am impure white, not totally white, not clean white, an off-white, dirty snow-white, a wanna-be white. So close that it should hurt when I’m not allowed to be white.

I am grey, I should have told the man outside the restaurant I worked in, who had come up to me to ask me what race I am.


I do not identify as a person of color, because I am not a person of color. It is not part of my experience as an Armenian. I do not claim it. And if others would identify me as such it is because the English language has failed to include me within its bounds of racial categorizations (not that I want it to, I’d rather the English language tear trying to include me within its bounds).

The term “person of color” does not translate in Armenian. My parents have never used this term. My family in Armenia has never heard this term. Instead, there are a number of Armenian words to describe one’s shade in Armenia: dark, tan, olive, wheat-colored, deep white, etc. My family in Russia does not use the term people of color. In Russia, Armenians are called “chorniye”, the Russian word for black. And if you tell anyone in Russia to stop using the term “negroe” to refer to people of African descent, they will first justify their use of the term by stating that in Russia there is no such thing as racism, and then proceed to say that they already mean Armenian when they say “black”. But “chorniye”, even if I were to claim it, is not the same as “of color”. There is no parallel struggle of “minorities” among former Soviet Union peoples to make the term “chorniye” a powerful avenue for unification. Plus, the fact that we live in an anti-Black world, which loads the word “black” negatively and is used as an insult within post-Soviet reality, adds another layer to why post-Soviet peoples who are not Black would be against claiming a term such as “chorniye” as a positive and unifying identity to struggle around.

But I also do not identify as white. I am seen as white in the United States against a backdrop of a history of genocide and slavery. I benefit from this history as a settler, white-looking Other. But to be called white is always received by me as an attempt to erase the difference I represent in the spectrum of race-realities lived across the globe and to make identity fit into a limited U.S. centric understanding of race. It would be a lie to sit back and allow someone to ascribe the colonizer-oppressor’s identity to myself as a descendant-survivor of a people that have been conquered, raped and killed off for centuries.

My experience is not central to or dichotomous within a U.S. black and white reality.
It shouldn’t be the case that if I am not a person of color, then I must be white, and if I am not white, then I must be of color.

I refuse to be defined by the book that dichotomy split up, nor to fit in anywhere to make anyone feel more comfortable in their own skin. I want you to feel uncomfortable in your whiteness when I refuse to agree with your assumption of being the norm everyone else should be defined in relation to. I want you to feel uncomfortable in your blackness when I question your need to see a white mirror in me to compare yourself to.


Once, driving close to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in the east of Armenia on the way to Tbilisi, I felt the memory of ducking from sniper shots. (No, it’s not a memory that belongs to me, but an image-impulse occurred in my mind upon seeing the broken down blockhouses up in the mountain in the distance: The memory of my friend’s mother being kidnapped off the highway in the early 1990’s; The terror of another friend running into hiding underground in Kapan during bombardments when she was younger; My father holding Vartan, dead at the front-line, wondering what he will tell his mother.)
Borders are violently made.

To the West a border is made where East pushed back.

To the East a border is made where the enemy was massacred in revenge.

The elites have conspired behind closed doors (another kind of border) and closed borders on both sides.

The windows to my home are locked. No cars, no planes, no trains can pass through. No exchange of possibilities to identify with the Other-half of the whole. We are not whole when we are split into parts, yet we exist in pieces.

See me as the missing parts of the mosaic. I am scattered among you everywhere: you in Buenos Aires, you in Moscow, you in Addis Ababa, you in Calcutta, you in Tbilisi, you in Cyrpus, you in Marseille, you in Tabriz, you in Beirut, you in Aleppo, you in Baghdad, you in Singapore, you in Samarkand, you in Kiev, you in Cairo, you in Berlin, you in Los Angeles, you in Amed.

Let me be the border with both arms outstretched. Let me tell you who I am first, before you tell me who I should be according to who you are.


Upon entering the United States become defined/cut/split into white and black (a curse for stepping forgetfully on sacred land):

Why do you ask that question? Where are you from. I mean, where are you really from? Where are your ancestors from?

I split myself in half. I am Armenian living in the United States.

(Sometimes it’s good to be invisible, especially if it means escaping from the grips of violence.)

I put myself back together and go back to the homeland.
(Because there is no home, I go like a bird without the goal of landing, without the dream of tomorrow, or a will to reach the end of this endless beginning I did not choose.)

Now dissolve.

(The streets of my memory take me to an erased edge, an earthquake opened ground, a trauma beyond which I turn blind and imagine only the color of forgetfulness.)

Learn not to want to own land.


This narrative begins every time I pull another dream out of my magic hat upon having the previous dream stolen. This is the space of endless possibility, of colors that never existed before being thought up, of language born out of the ground right beneath my two feet, crossed along a border of dichotomous identity. I reject either/or. I am more whole than the oppressions dividing me into groups of comprehension. I am incomprehensible within the limited bounds of identity I am sold or expected to consume.

Read me like the 3000 year old book that I am. Indigenous, mixed, ancient, mythical. I who no longer exists, now speaking through the powerful mouths before me.


bavakan is an angry feminist queer poet living in armenia.