As details about the man behind yesterday’s deadly attack in Toronto begin to emerge, white supremacists and members of the extreme right are having a difficult time figuring out if they should praise or condemn the incident.
Much of that difficulty stems from the fact that the suspect, 25-year-old Alek Minassian, has what USA Today describes as a “traditional Armenian last name.” While details about Minassian’s background remain unclear — most especially, what motivated him to kill 10 and injure over a dozen more with his car — white supremacists and their fellow-travelers remain unsure about whether to classify Minassian as white, and whether to classify his attack as the latest in a string of those affiliated with the so-called “alt-right.”
Initially, many of the more prominent voices on the extreme right followed the familiar playbook, playing up rumors that the driver was of Middle Eastern descent.
9 dead in Toronto, authorities confirm it was a terrorist attack.
Terrorist described as "Middle Eastern".
"Motive unknown." 🤔
— Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) April 23, 2018
Funny sounding name for a Canadian. https://t.co/ksBoUxzxI8
— RAMZPAUL (@ramzpaul) April 23, 2018
However, after police identified the suspect, white supremacists on Twitter quickly clammed up or opted to simply point to Toronto’s broader diversity as the driving force behind the incident. On Gab, a notorious haven for white supremacists, some users pointed out that the driver didn’t actually appear to be of Middle Eastern descent — and that those of Armenian descent should be considered white.
Soon, other white supremacists were wondering if, instead of trying to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment, they should instead praise the Toronto event. One post on Occidental Dissent, a white supremacist site, asked, “Is Alek Minassian White enough to be made official leader of the Alt-Right? That right there is a tricky question, but I think with the current climate, he’d be able to be accommodated in some capacity.”
The inability of white supremacists to figure out whether or not the driver is white points to a long-standing debate within the extreme right, at least in the United States. For years, white supremacists have been unable to figure whether Armenians — and those from the Caucasus region more broadly — should be considered “white.”
That is to say: White supremacists in the United States have been unable to figure out whether people of Caucasian heritage are, in fact, Caucasian.
The disagreements have led to notable tensions over the past few years, seen most especially in rancor between Richard Spencer and Greg Johnson, a white supremacist based in Washington state. Spencer’s wife, Nina Kouprianova, is originally from the Soviet Union, and often discusses her part-Caucasian background. Johnson, however, has publicly condemned Spencer in the past for his marriage.
In one post on his website, Johnson said that he “look[s] at Armenians not as Europeans, but as friendly Near Eastern cousins like Georgians.” After debate on that post predictably devolved into epithets and mud-slinging, Johnson added that the “purpose of this post was not to invite [white supremacists] to play the Who is white?/Whiter than thou game … I probably should not have opened comments on this [thread] at all, and I am shutting them down now.”
That said, it’s not only white supremacists who can’t figure out whether to classify those with Caucasian heritage as white. For instance, a piece in The Root on Monday said that Armenians are those of “colonizing descent.” However, Americans with Caucasian heritage have faced noted discrimination in the past. Property deeds in the 1940s barred Armenians — alongside African-, Asian-, and Indian-Americans — from purchasing property. For decades, Armenians were barred from obtaining American citizenship. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that, as Aram Ghoogasian wrote, Armenians would “go from ‘Asiatics,’ at least in the eyes of the state, to legal white persons.”
It’s worth emphasizing, again, how little is known of the driver’s motivations and background. (According to NBC, “the leading theory appears to be mental illness and not terrorism[.]”) But it’s also, once more, worth highlighting just how much of a social, domestic construct race remains — such that white supremacists can’t even figure out who’s white, and who’s not.