The Other Greek America—Editorial
[This piece bends the rules of a conventional editorial by utilizing two registers, one descriptive and the other analytical. Readers who wish to skip the reflexive analysis—marked in blocks in italics—may do so and still experience a cohesive essay.]
This writing finds inspiration and purpose from numerous conversations I have been having lately with several individuals on the topic of Greek America. Though all my conversational partners are college educated, the sample of the twenty or so interlocutors is relatively diverse; it includes young and old, Greece- and American-born, men and women, academics and non-academics. Some are friends; many are acquaintances with whom I maintain regular communication, while others are co-participants in an online discussion group. This is about fragments of dialogues taking place in a variety of disconnected social contexts.
Although the range of the conversations varies considerably, the discussion most commonly gravitates toward the current state of Greek America, its media, institutions, leadership, and cultural change. The question of identity—“what makes someone Greek”—stands out given the increasing variety of, or even “idiosyncratic,” in a person’s words, ways in which individuals make claims to Greek identity today. New complexities perplex conventional understandings of the group in terms of a shared ethnoreligious culture. The recognition of the “many ways of being Greek” in the 1980s is currently revisited as an urgent notion in view of unfolding heterogeneity.
Disagreement and debate are not absent in the dialogues; in fact, they animate interaction. Yet a shared mode of feeling meanders through the various perspectives: resentful critique about a pattern of exclusion. My interlocutors voice bitterness for “not seeing” themselves—their experiences and points of view—in collective representations of identity; for not “being seen” by those who create portrayals of the group and normalize it as a single story.
This structure of feeling arises from a variety of positions. For example, those who advocate a secular Greek America protest the regular equating of Hellenism with Orthodoxy, a discomfort also shared on principle by individuals who embrace Greek Orthodoxy. Young people who intertwine their identities with civic issues— women’s rights, the value of historical memory—take issue with their absence from community representations. Many object to the simplifications and idealizations in narratives of collective identity. Feminists and gay women and men—some identifying as Greek Orthodox—interrogate what they see as ideological narrowness in ethnoreligious and secular organizations. Taken together, the positions I share above voice the existence of an Other Greek America nearly invisible in community self-representations.
[In the various informal social networks I participate, partakers engage in “identity work”: they state their individual identities relationally, in counter-juxtaposition to collective community narratives, which they criticize for regulating identity narrowly. The participants’ positions create complexes of meanings that establish Greek America as a polyphonic cultural field.
Their expressed discontent is an act of dissent. It implicitly recognizes the power of institutional narratives to marginalize, even banish, perspectives not aligning with normative renderings of Greek America as an ethnoreligious, heteronormative group that idealizes heritage. In this respect, the limited public circulation of my interlocutors’ identity versions marginalizes them as the Other Greek America.
The conflict of hypervisibility of normativity and the marginalization of alternatives serves this reminder if we need one: claims of identity take place within a contested cultural field of power relations vying for dominance.
Listening to Greek America’s others makes me long for an ethnography that explores their identities and life stories in depth. How do they negotiate their views in community settings? What are their civic commitments? What matters to them and why?
At a broader scale, the structure of feeling among my interlocutors raises the question of change: what strategies could contribute toward a greater public share of visibility for non-dominant identities?]
This mode of feeling is not confined to small social circles. Critiques of exclusion have been increasingly circulating in various public venues—books, articles, memoirs, novels—as individuals take it upon themselves to author their non-normative subjectivities for recognition. Long kept out by dominant representations, dissenting voices, mainly from the point of view of women, feminists, artists, intellectuals, illegally adopted children from Greece, gay and lesbian persons, decry community-endorsed regulations of identity which veil their existence. Self-affirmation, in these cases, combines the articulation of critique with the narration of meaningful diasporic attachments in their lives.
[Scholarship also participates in this cultural critique, often in connection to—even synergy with—popular and literary protests. Its call for democratic inclusion connects with the recognition that the silencing of non-normative identities leaves intact powerful cultural hierarchies, harming real lives. Gender and sexuality hierarchies, for example, inflict devastating emotional pain as well as social and economic damages—exile from the family, alienation, and disinheritance.
An essential component of this approach involves the understanding of how these structures have been reproduced throughout history in institutional as well as informal settings—education, workplace, community practices, popular culture—by whom, and for what purpose. Of parallel importance is the naming of the strategies that individuals and collectives have been employing to oppose the power of dominating and exclusionary cultural forces.
The social impact of critical scholarship—at least those threads which are disconnected from grass-roots movements—is difficult to assess. This scholarship has certainly been leaving a mark on a new generation of scholars and writers, though for various reasons, it is passed over by several researchers. In the broader culture, beyond the university, its circulation for over 25 years does not appear to have registered in community cultural production.]
Significantly, an alternative involvement with silenced truths springs from artists, activists, and writers who create new Greek American knowledge not in the name of critiquing the community but in aiming to engage a broader public around national issues—social justice, historical knowledge, transcultural community-making, and transgender subjectivities.
Often seen as American, these cultural producers expand the range of seeing, thinking, and imagining American and diasporic lives, often receiving acclaim from prestigious U.S. institutions. In this respect, its practitioners are positioned to move and inspire readers, even shape subjectivities. Their recognition in post-ethnic cultural spheres strikingly contrasts the muting of their perspectives by community narratives.
[Though constitutive of Greek American subjectivities—see the power of the philotimo narrative, for example—the cultural dominance of community discourses is never complete.
Hence the significance of the public affirmation of non-hegemonic individual and collective identities as potentially transforming interventions. Their texts are generative, expanding the range of what is possible and imaginable in Greek America, opening venues for new identifications, inspirations, and aspirations in the making of social lives. They produce new knowledge as a resource for readers to engage reflexively with identity and negotiate their own subjectivities; for having diasporic desires.]
For those scholars who similarly work to enhance the visibility of Greek America’s silenced and marginalized voices—including the working class and the poor not discussed in this editorial—the question is how to further this project. Producing knowledge about non-normative subjectivities in archives, ethnographic research, interviews, essays, and elsewhere presents itself, I believe, as a sound strategy toward this politics of inclusion. Analysis amplifying appreciation of literary narratives from the Other Greek America could further serve this project.
[Foregrounding the work of novelists, poets, artists, and essayists sharing these politics is yet another route for empowering non-normative Greek America. Compelling literary work represents a potent force in engaging readers, hosting multiple perspectives of social reality, and producing yearnings and identifications. Scholarly work on Greek American fiction, poetry, and essay expands the interpretive range of these works, further drawing readers into new ways of imagining and desiring diasporic identities.
One could imagine the benefits of expanding the scope of this project to include transnational scholarly exchanges and synergies. It will be productive to bring into conversation post-ethnic or cosmopolitan diasporic cultural producers from a variety of national contexts—say Christos Tsiolkas (Australia) and Jeffrey Eugenides (United States)—and, in doing so, contribute to broader imaginaries of Greek diasporic identities.]
I composed this piece with echoes of my interlocutors’ voices reverberating in my writing self, their earnestness adding a motivating companion. The Other Greek America is not, of course, a group but a cultural field in which various interconnections and disconnections, fault lines, and sites of prospective alliances and collective action demand close attention and further theorization. Conscious of the stakes involved, this editorial is meant both as a gesture of recognition and a call to intensify efforts for its expansive representation. It aspires to spark interest in reflection about how this Other could contribute to shaping the ways of speaking and thinking about diasporic lives and expressions; how to modify the form of the “community” as we know it.
March 9, 2023
Cover image: Aubrey Edwards, “Ludlow Labor Massacre. Ludlow, CO. 1914.” In the project, “Tracing an Atrocity.”