Learning to Blend in, in Harlem

I grew up in a small upper, upper-middle class town of mostly white, Jewish and Catholics. Being anything other than of Eastern European descent was weird, and the fact that a second strange language was spoken in my house, was absolutely unheard of.

Map of Armenia

Ar-mehn-ian? Ar-MAIN-ian? Ar-meeeeeenian? What’s that?

And I’d answer, “Yes, I’m Armenian. Armenians descend from a country called Armenia, in the Middle East, it’s right next to Turkey, who massacred us and stole all of our land.”

So you speak another language?

No, dipsh!t, everybody in the world speaks English. Yes, I speak another language besides English in my house (occasionally). I also speak conversational Spanish, French, German, Greek and I’m going to learn Arabic. You don’t think those are too weird do you?

In addition to being Armenian, I am also Assyrian (Syriac people originate somewhere near the Fertile Crescent), French (from Canada) Irish, Polish AND Pequot Indian (I’ll try to stake some claim in Foxwoods Casino someday!) Oh, and in addition to be an Armenian-Christian, my mother is half Jewish, so I am a quarter Jewish.
So basically, if I were dog, I’d be one ridiculous mutt.

Despite my middle-eastern descent and Pequot Indian roots, the French, Irish and Polish decided to make an

My gorgeous cousins and me

appearance in my skin color and I appear stark white, while my beautiful cousins who are either 100%  Armenian or half Armenian, half Italian have gorgeous olive-toned skin and always seem to be tan, even in the dead of winter.

I would’ve kept my hair dark too, but when I discovered Sun-In (sometime in middle school), I also discovered I looked scarily witch-like with my almost black hair and preferred it to be lighter. I then began a hair-coloring rampage, which has left my hair all shades of black, brown, chocolate, orange, yellow, red, and blue and now, its current state, which I call “platinumish dirty blonde”, which I will keep until I can no longer find a colorist who does it the way I like, I run out of money, or my hair falls out. Whichever comes first.

Anyways, now that you have my entire ethnic background, you should also know that I don’t identify as “Caucasian” when I fill our censuses or surveys or have to take an official exam like the SAT. Instead, I put “Other,” and on work applications I check off that I consider myself a “diversity candidate.” I’m pretty freaking diverse, don’t you think?

When I moved to New York City, I knew it was a place that anyone could fit in. To quote Kelly Cutrone (I know, again) the first time I came here, “I’d never seen a place where people from all over the world spoke different languages, where gay people walked down the street holding hands, and where acceptance was king.” (Cutrone, If You Have to Cry, Go Outside, pg 4, 2010)

So when I moved to Harlem, I assumed the same was true. If a guy can skip through Times Square in a pink speedo carrying pink balloons (It was for the Breast Cancer walk in October) without being gaped at or have people yelling, ‘What the hell is wrong with that guy?’ I should be able to walk down the street no problem, right?


I was taught never to talk to strangers on the street and the town I grew up in, everyone knew (almost) everyone so it was okay to talk to people then and if you didn’t know the person, they were too uppity and you shouldn’t bother talking to them anyways. My first day in Harlem, I went out to explore. This day, my impeccable sense of direction failed me and instead of walking 3 blocks to 127th to enter 125th St station, I accidentally walked all the way to 145th! There were people everywhere on the streets (not unusual for NYC) but instead of walking or looking important like they had somewhere to go (like everyone in midtown) they were all just hanging around and I was new to their turf.

I had also never been a true “minority” where I lived, since my skin appeared white and people usually assumed I was Jewish if they didn’t already know otherwise, but in Harlem, I am definitely the minority. Coming here, I was told that the Harlem crime rates had dramatically decreased and that upper middle-class families were moving into this new “up and coming” neighborhood. Had I known that my skin color was a big deal to the people who lived here because it was  not the predominant one in the neighborhood, I would’ve tried to stand out less my first day wandering around in my bright yellow pea-coat and high heels.

I am not in any way racist, so please, don’t mistake this for racism. How could I be? I am comprised of so many different races that I could never believe one was superior to another. I did, however, go to college with someone who once told me that until she attended Penn State she had never “seen a black person before.” I looked at her like she had three heads. She was a racist. Her parents were racist. She felt that her race was superior to other races. I felt bad for her but, what the hell rock do you live under? Open your eyes and see the world. There are people with all different skin colors, babe, you just have one of them.

Anyways, in my yellow pea-coat and high heels, I had no clue the discomfort I was about to suffer on 145th St. “Good morning Miss”s, whispers, entire groups silencing and staring at me, and “I like your yellow coat, Miss” were ever-frequent. I had never wanted to crawl under a rock and hide in my whole life as much as I did at that moment. Now, I think I’m fairly pretty and I dress well, but that was not the reason I was getting so much attention, when I lifted my head from under my gigantic sunglasses, I discovered I was the only person on the entire street who didn’t have skin with color. There were “Asians” and “Middle-Easterns” and “African-Americans” and “Hispanics” however you want to distinguish these groups, all going about their business of hanging out. And then there was me. The focus of their attention.

After going home and hysterically crying, my first decision was never to walk on 145th st again. I never wanted to feel like I needed to hide ever again. This is my city too. I may be new to this neighborhood, but I deserve the right to walk down the street as much as anyone else without being bothered. My second decision was to stop wearing my yellow coat for a few days and to throw on a boot pair of flat boots. The next time I went out, I wore my brown puffy North Face and a pair of Uggs. Don’t you know that no one bothered me? Hmmph.

I’ve since returned to wearing my yellow coat when I feel like it and I do occasionally have to field comments in the morning, “Good morning, beautiful woman!” when I wear it, but I’m over it. I wear big sunglasses, I don’t make eye contact and I mind my business instead of looking like a lost puppy who just got dropped on a street corner in Harlem.

Another aspect of blending in, in Harlem is learning to disregard what’s going on around you. There are many drug dealers who hang around my street corner and I walk past them daily. Now, I know what they’re doing and I’m fairly certain they know, that I know what they’re doing, so as long as we all pretend nothing is happening, no one gets hurt. (As much as I’d like to report them to the police, they aren’t bothering me, so I mind my business.) I saw some guy I see on the subway every morning get arrested on Friday while I was walking to the subway to go home for the weekend. I didn’t hear what he was being arrested for but I no longer see him on the subway and I’m not going to ask about it. He did something wrong, he’s off the street…minding my business. A few weeks ago, I heard a gunshot and just kept walking. In addition, there has been an NYPD surveillance van parked on my street for a week. I saw two beat-cops questioning a woman in St. Nicholas Park and obviously, they’re waiting for something to happen, or else they wouldn’t be here. Again, none of my business. Let the cops do their jobs.

It’s sketchy. I won’t lie to you. Sketchy things happen around here. Sketchy things happen everywhere though. Thank goodness my building is safe and secure and I don’t worry about walking to and from the subway every morning. I adore my roommates and since they’ve been here awhile longer than me, they try to steer me in the right direction. There are so many types of people who live in Harlem with different ethnicities and skin colors and sexual orientations, just like everywhere else in New York City. Part of my security though, has been learning to blend in. If you look like you belong here, then no one bothers you.

I belong here.

xo, E

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2 Responses to Learning to Blend in, in Harlem

  1. Paklek Upik says:

    I really enjoyed this post, especially the examples in this post portion which made it really easy for me to SEE what you were talking about without even having to leave the article. Thanks

  2. Erika says:

    Glad you enjoyed it!!!

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