Intersections: Waiting for the ethnic identifier

Please don't let them be Muslim. Please don't let them be Hispanic. Please don't let them be Armenian.

If your cultural background is a strong, prominent part of your identity, and you know all about the story of how your parents emigrated to America the same way you know the lyrics to your favorite songs, then chances are you have uttered that sentence, in one variation or another, whenever you've heard or read a news report about a horrific hit-and-run, or gang violence, or, of course, a disaster as terrible as the Boston Marathon bombings, in which three people died and hundreds more were injured.

You watch cautiously for that moment to come. When you get to the part in the story you're reading or when the news anchor announces the description of the suspect, the world goes silent, your heart drops, and you wait to hear about the background of this horrible person who committed an array of crimes.

Your options are limited. You either let out a sigh of relief and can now get on with your day, or because you share a specific ethnic lineage, you have been symbolically accused alongside them. It's almost as if you've committed the crime too.

What compels us to have this reaction, to harbor ethnic shame? It is a classic marker of being an immigrant in this country — the fear that you will be judged because of the actions of a few, thanks in large part to media portrayal and perception.

It's the reason we sometimes Anglicize our names, why we create "councils" attached to our ethnic backgrounds and religions to deal with the media and public in an effort for some balance, and why we make it a point to differentiate ourselves from "those" people when we are faced with addressing thinly veiled racist comments about what our little tribes do, or do not do.

But we do it to ourselves, too, because pride and family honor are important in the worlds we come from.

It is why when Ruslan Tsarni, uncle of Boston bombing suspects Dzokhar and Tamerlane Tsarnaev, spoke to the media about his nephews, he made the following contradiction.

"This has nothing to do with Chechnya," he said after prompting by reporters that the war-torn country was somehow responsible for the actions of the brothers, who were not even born there. "Chechens are different, Chechens are peaceful people."

Then in the same swoop, this:

"He put a shame on our family," Tsarni said. "He put a shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity."

It's also why when Tsarni mentioned the existence of a mysterious Armenian man named Misha, a recent convert to Islam who he claimed had influenced the brothers, prominent Armenian American lawyer Mark Geragos went on national television to proclaim this accusation was preposterous.

Of course, Misha, or Mikhail Allakhverdov, has now been identified as a half-Armenian, half-Ukranian man. Though he is a convert to Islam, he denies any involvement with the Tsarnaev brothers or what they're accused of doing.

As a side note, there's a lesson to be learned here for the Armenian American community, too — our Diaspora is not "one size fits all."

Traumatized by the way we've been treated, we carry this concept of shame with us — sometimes this manifests as completely detaching ourselves from our heritage — the "out-of-mind, out-of-sight" approach. Sometimes it comes out in another way, calling foul, declaring racism and using words like "smear campaign."

Neither approach seems to work particularly well. The shame and hurt are still there, bubbling under the surface, no matter which extreme choice you make.

In the spectrum of what it means to be human, there are incredible ups and very disturbing downs. It's hard sometimes to reconcile two clashing worlds.

For those on the outside looking in, and those on the inside waiting for their hearts to drop while watching the news, this is what's important: Regardless of background, people are good. People are also bad. There shouldn't be any shame in that.


LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at

Copyright © 2019, Glendale News-Press
EDITION: California | U.S. & World