What is a Diasporic Group and Why does the Answer Matter?

A diasporic group is neither a family nor a kinship-based tribe. It is a political community—political in the broad sense of engaging with public affairs.

As a political community a diaspora deliberates on questions of public representation (who represents it, where, and how), cultural policy, the ideological orientation of its institutions, the production of historical memory and identity, cultural transmission, its relations with other groups within its home society.

Ideally, this happens in the public sphere where these questions are raised, discussed, and debated. In the case of Greek America, we could think of a set of questions regarding (a) leadership (secular or ethnoreligious?); (b) school curricula (do they include diasporic history? Do they include the study of the Athens Polytechnic uprising?); (c) divergences (an ethnic or universal Orthodoxy in the diaspora?); (d) scope of relations with the historical homeland; (e) internal disputes (Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York); (f) issues of inclusion/exclusion in prevailing narratives as well as powerful institutions, among others.

The fact that for the most part these issues do not receive adequate public coverage does not mean that diasporic Greek America finds itself in a state of consensus. We know for a fact (from social circles, friends, commentaries, autobiographies, literature, research, editorials) that significant internal differences exist—even deep ideological and cultural fault lines.

Most of these divergences do not find their way into diasporic public discourse. The reasons vary and are not fully understood. Reticence—for several reasons—to voice critical perspectives might be at work. It may also be that those diaspora demographics which for one reason or another have disconnected from parishes and organizations do not find it worth their time and effort to engage. Or there is indifference. We know that a “sector” of diasporic people performs their cultural affinities privately or in relation to their social networks. Distancing themselves from institutional life some express their dissenting voices in social media.

But also, several “cultural workers” (educators, writers, artists, researchers, activists) explore their diasporic affiliations in “non-diasporic” venues (feminist and LGBTQ fora, academic and artistic communities, the broad publishing industry, “non-ethnic” networks). Notably, non-normative positions are most often sidelined by official narratives which render them threatening.

All this is to say that there is an unexplored diasporic terrain rich in perspectives, positions, and politics. The existence of this terrain troubles claims about diasporic unity that we often read in the media and official proclamations.

The fact that we do not witness the dramatic conflicts that tore apart communities in the past (say Venizelists vs. Royalists early in the 20th century, or American Greeks vs immigrant Greeks in the 1960s and 1970s) does not mean that there are no differences within the diasporic cultural field. It is just that individuals or even groups negotiate these issues under different conditions and in different terms. Some refrain from confrontational politics because they find an ideological home in “non-ethnic” social spaces; others mobilize around or even create alternative institutions adding to diasporic plurality.

What is important here to consider is that the claim about “diasporic unity” functions ideologically to render major issues invisible. Instead of calling for understanding diasporic complexity the claim of unity reverts (and regresses once again) into a politics of homogeneity. Wanting to believe that they perform a service in “keeping the community together” advocates of this politics are narrowing the meaning of what it means to be a diasporic Greek in the 21st century. And this is, I am sorry to say, a grave loss and disservice to the broader diasporic public whose voice we need to hear and understand.

April 11, 2024

Yiorgos Anagnostou is a Modern Greek studies Faculty at the Ohio State University.