Greek America’s Diversity, After the Fact: What Comes Next?
The dialogue [about Hellenism] is Hellenism.
Greek America’s internal diversity is now a well-established fact. The most recent analysis of its demographics, in 2014, announced the end of an era. The earlier version of the group as a largely homogeneous, church-based, ethnoreligious community no longer holds. “Of the more than 1.2 million Americans who claim Greek ancestry,” sociologists report, “fewer than half are adherents of the church, and less than 10 percent are regular attendees.” The time of “the church as the defining element of the Greek American community,” the authors conclude, “may have ended.”2 The evidence is telling. Following greater demographic shifts in U.S. society, Greek America is moving toward more secularization and heterogeneity too.
Evidently, as some leaders note,3 this changing cultural landscape posits profound implications for the future of U.S. Hellenism. Young Greek Americans already incorporate, as we will see, the question of diversity and cultural change in the ways they speak about and imagine their identities. New thinking, therefore, about Greek America and the question of who represents its diversity and how is of urgent priority.4
One would expect that secular community institutions would swiftly acknowledge this cultural shift, making it central to open discussions and, eventually, redesign policy. Yet, leadership is slow in addressing the unfolding heterogeneity. In webinars, talks, and interviews, one still hears representatives of secular institutions continuing to exclusively equate Hellenism with Orthodoxy, intertwining the two. They even view their institutional mission as one motivating children to take up the faith and join the church. Notably, the point is made of addressing the “non-Greek” people who marry within the parishes—rightly embracing this demographic—but evade open recognition of the diaspora’s diversities beyond the ethnoreligious boundary.
This takes places within a history of portraying Greek America as a model ethnic group of shared culture: family-centered, church going, successful. Providing positive reputation to the collective, this normative idealization intensified during the Greek economic crisis in the 2010s, when the Greek name was maligned by the western media. Greek American organizations counteracted the negative stereotypes via a systematic branding operation exalting the cultural worth of Greek—and consequently—Greek American identity. The consolidation of Greek America as an (admirable) homogeneous whole reached new heights.
This is not to say that there is a lack of institutional initiatives directing attention to non-normative aspects of the group. There is recognition, for example, of Greek American authors who offer insights, both personal and literary, from an LGBTQ perspective, or probe difficult pasts, challenging cultural idealizations.5 Various Greek Orthodox and secular platforms promote interracial understanding, contributing to knowledge beyond diaspora normative beliefs about equal opportunity and socioeconomic mobility.6 Greek organizations in Philadelphia, New York City, Toronto, and other cities spearhead the community’s adulation of Giannis Antentokoumbo, a charismatic NBA player who was born in Athens, Greece, to immigrants from Nigeria. Celebrating Giannis as a symbol of Greek success in the diaspora and subsequently a source of pride, Greek Americans expand the notion of Greek identity beyond ethnic ancestry.7
Though relatively small in scale, these developments carry immense value. The move toward greater inclusion sends a welcoming signal to a wide range of Greek American audiences. Lovers of literature, the LGBTQ community, black Greek Americans, and citizens committed to social justice, among others, are made to feel that they are finally seen; that they count as part of the Greek American story. This recognition reinforces the Greek facets of their identities, empowering Greek America.
This brings me to the crux of the matter. It is common to see diversity as a threat to social cohesion and, therefore, a liability in need of reversal. Historically, however, the multiple meanings that people and institutions attach to Hellenism are the reason for its expansion and durability. To repeat a cliché, strength can be found in diversity, given that political will and creative social imagination work in tandem to mobilize its potential. Diversity does not mean the dissolution of the diaspora collective, as I will explain.
It might also be the case that someone rationalizes the endorsement of ethnoreligious identity for the group as a necessary strategy for continuing Greek America’s historical advocacy for Greek Orthodox institutions and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. At the political level, the secular Greek American reason for this advocacy is understandable. But this activism can carry on without turning institutions which are national in scope into ethnoreligious entities.
It will be a gravely misplaced strategy then to defensively retreat to exclusively equating Hellenism with Orthodoxy. This ideology excludes considerable demographics of people who think of and live their Greek identities differently, including U.S. Greek Protestants or Catholics as well as secular citizens. At a time when the meanings of Hellenism are proliferating, narrowing the meaning of U.S. Greek identity to an ethnoreligious entity inevitably compromises the cultural vitality of the community, shrinking it and risking its demise.
Greek America’s diversity is a reality. Rather than alarming the community as a threat, triggering cancellation, the presence of diversity requires an innovative and bold rethinking of strategies to embrace the rainbow of voices and visions, some of which have been calling openly for recognition.8
There is no lack of critical self-reflexivity, or ideas, to negotiate the new landscape.9 My own contribution stems from my position as a teacher and researcher in the field of Greek American studies. It involves a call to closely pay attention to the collective whose attention and interest we are seeking to attract, the next generation.
A major part missing in the conversation about the future of U.S. Hellenism is this: we emphasize the importance of the next generation, but we only have a limited understanding of its complexity. We mostly cast second, third, and fourth-generation Greek Americans in terms of cultural decline. We measure their cultural distance from the immigrant generation, quantify the degree to which they adhere to quantifiable Greek ethnic attributes and sentiments—which we find diminishing—and alert the community about the pending decline.
Though useful in identifying macro demographic patterns, the thinking of ethnicity as a waning cluster of ethnic traits and dispositions is inadequate to be tackling the question of identity-making in the multicultural and global 21st century. Contemporary identities involve complex processes of multiple and selective identifications. Powerful identification with one particular cultural resource—say Greek soccer—might be performing more profound identity work for an individual rather than the adherence to a cluster of traits. This question requires in-depth, sophisticated ethnographic work exploring diaspora subjectivities.
I get to witness some of these subjectivities in the courses I teach at Ohio State University. This is where I encounter the ideological diversity and cultural dynamic of the next generation. I witness students interested in environmental issues—both from secular and Greek Orthodox perspectives. Students bring to the classroom commitments to feminism and social justice while others display opposition or indifference to these issues. To some, the question of how diaspora heritage might play a role in the making of engaged citizenship in the United States presents a compelling subject. On the other hand, I have not seen any interest in today’s Greek American working class, a subject we know very little about. In contrast, I often receive questions from students connected by birth with multiple heritages about comparative scholarship; how, for example, their cultures have engaged respectively with similar issues (interracial marriage, immigrant trauma, etc.). They find very little about these resources within the immediate environment of their families and communities.
All this takes place in the context of a broader turn among Greek Americans towards majoring in the Arts, the Humanities, and the Social Sciences. This represents a departure from previous generations where the primary concentration was the medical profession, law, business, and engineering. A look at scholarship applications at the national level registers an increasing interest in majoring in Literature, Film, Photography, Journalism, Public Policy, Sociology, and Psychology—though the scale of this interest has not been quantified. Significantly (and pragmatically), the aspiration is not to specialize in diaspora topics—say Greek American journalism—due to limited professional prospects. The challenge for the leadership is to find ways to compel this collective to incorporate diaspora material in their broader professional pursuits, harnessing their potential as a future cultural force.
My experience in the classroom additionally registers a different kind of diversity, this time in connection to personal identity. This is often unspoken in broader public conversations: individual students identifying with additional cultural heritages beyond those of their ancestral ethnicity—or ethnicities in case of multiple heritages—and American culture. It is not uncommon, for example, to have a middle-class Greek American student spending her summer taking haute cuisine classes in France, being passionate about Irish ballads, moving to tears from the songs of Laura Marling while delightfully joining a kalamatiano. The next generation is crafting multifaceted and, one might perhaps say, cosmopolitan selves in reference to international contexts.
Greek American students then do not merely represent a heterogeneous demographic; cultural plurality also operates within their individual identities. Young people likely traverse a multilayered cultural universe, acting upon available cultural resources and forging multifaceted selves. They integrate into their cultural repertoires what speaks to them while remaining indifferent to or tossing out (not without struggle sometimes) what proves irrelevant to their changing lives.
This is to say that Greek identifications are finding themselves in agonistic competition with a variety of alternative cultural resources.
The observations above dovetail with the personal perspectives that some young Greek Americans share in public. In a recent volume featuring their voices,10 students recognize their internal diversity in cultural competences, ideologies, and background, pointing to the importance of learning modern Greek culture as a unifying force. They see themselves as active shapers of the meaning of Greek identity according to their interests and personal situations. Viewing diversity as a positive prospect rather than a threat, they cherish learning and reflection, indeed defining Hellenism itself as a dialogue—as the statement in the preface illustrates. In their accounts one hears fluid openness in the ways they chart the place of Greek in their cultural worlds:
Through my own personal odyssey of defining my identity I learned that the Greek American community is diverse and dynamic. … it is through taking active steps to engage with the identity through education and activism which holds the group together.11
So thinking about Hellenism, it seems like my generation is going to redefine Hellenism for themselves and come up with a definition that is functional and useful for them, adapted for the current age and for the current evolution of the Greek American community.12
[The] strength [of the “new Greek American identity”] will come from embracing that diversity of backgrounds and realize that the Greek part, the Greek American part needs to find its own definition, but we cannot be afraid of that diversity, of backgrounds.13
The students’ self-representations acknowledge eclecticism in the making of their identities while they underline the necessity to reconceptualize Greek America. Moving away from previous monolithic definitions of Hellenism, young people emphasize the dynamic making and remaking of their Greek identities in connection to personal relevance and the circumstances defining their generation. They value interacting with each other not for the purpose of belonging to a community of sameness, but for participating in a meaningful community defined by Greek learning.
If we aspire then to attract the interest of the next generation, we must make available to them—in a Greek agonistic fashion—highly compelling, high-quality cultural products that pique their interests and speak to their circumstances. Offer young people engaging material after the exhilarating Greek dance ends, the Greek meal finishes, and the trip to Greece concludes.
What makes this cultural activism imperative is the fact of a decline in the numbers of third/third plus generation Greek Americans “who would like to become more involved in the Greek American community.”14 The cultural life they know has not been successful in pulling the young into its orbit. Some do not find any relevance to it.
Given that the interests of the next generation vary—from literature to dance, history to photography, film to cuisine, music to journalism, history to architecture, theater to the plastics arts, there is no other option but offer an exciting range of Greek American cultural products in each and every one of these areas.
This brings me full circle to the need to invest in supreme quality culture makers—authors, poets, photographers, storytellers, musicians, filmmakers, essayists, playwrights, and scholars—as well as academic institutions to produce Greek American stories that move the next generation as they inspire and propel the next wave of culture makers.
We all know the gripping power of storytelling—visual, audio, written, embodied (theater, pantomime)—to move and motivate, shape identifications, and even change lives. Literature, film, documentary, scholarship have the power to feature the polyphony—the multiplicity of voices and perspectives—we so urgently need.
We also know the power of compelling storytelling to bring a diverse community together. Not unlike the students’ vision, storytelling creates belonging around reflection about a community’s ruptures, differences, and sources of contention.15 Diversity does not necessarily mean the collapse of the collective and an inevitable turn towards privatized identities.
I have provided additional examples elsewhere, in the American Journal of Contemporary Hellenic Issues, attesting to the value of the approach I am advocating.16 There I have noted the next generation’s call for a new, expansive cultural policy. The elders are asked to set in motion an ambitious and innovative cultural project as an investment for the future of U.S. Hellenism: to carve spacious, inclusive spaces for the cultivation of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences in Greek America.
Some small-scale projects towards this direction could include the following:
Create a variety of fora to feature the voices of the next generation. Make sure to acknowledge cultural, ethnic, and ideological diversity. Encourage them to speak freely and openly; enable productive dialogue.
Create platforms and support fora featuring the perspectives of highly accomplished authors and artists. How did the community or their families empower their intellectual and artistic pursuits? Let us listen to their views. In retrospect, what was it that they wished the community had offered when they were growing up? How do they propose the empowerment of engaging storytelling within our community?
Promote paideia about Greek American history and culture. Introduce relevant courses in all-day schools. Create websites featuring Greek American artists and their work. About eminent cultural pioneers such as historian Helen Papanikolas. We not only need learning about modern Greek culture and the available projects involving journeys to Greece; we also need to cultivate knowledge which expands and enriches our understanding of our Greek American worlds.
Along these lines, I would like to join the advocacy for a larger project, the endowment of Chairs in modern Greek and Greek American studies in partnership with eminent U.S. institutions.17 Greek America’s wealth makes this a doable, in fact inexpensive, endeavor.
Greek America is not a family, a tribe, or a group of cultural sameness. Instead, it configures a diverse civil society whose multiple voices and visions have for a long time been neglected, sidelined, or worse stifled. But it is time to embrace polyphony both in leadership and the collective. The project I am advocating here aligns with our values, ideals, and aspirations regarding paideia, cultural democracy, open dialogue, diaspora distinction through accomplishment, and contributions to the American society. We value, after all, the bold courage to say όχι to injustices and unfair exclusions.
We can be known and admired in the United States not only for the quality of our festivals, food, mighty dances, and the achievements of our professionals and scientists, but also for the cultural and educational institutions we build, the remarkable arts and culture we bring to the U.S. public, including to the social imagination of our young people. Crafting routes toward expanding Hellenism means opening routes to enrich the American society.
After the fact of diversity, let us coordinate to engage with the pressing question “what comes next,” and provide answers that measure up to our ideals.
Yiorgos Anagnostou teaches at the Ohio State University.
1. Karambelas (2021 , 353).
2. Moskos and Moskos (2014, 104-105).
3. Coufoudakis (2021).
4. Billinis (2021).
5. See, The National Hellenic Museum (2020) and Panhellenic Scholarship Foundation (2021) respectively.
6. Demacopoulos and Papanikolaou (2020); Pappas (2020).
7. Anagnostou (2019).
8. Eleftheriou (2019); Anagnostou (2020).
9. Coufoudakis (2021); Dimitriou (2021).
10. See “Greek American Identity: Perspectives from Young Greek Americans,” in Coufoudakis (2021b, 343–58).
11. Ioannidis (2021 , 351).
12. Karambelas (2021 , 352).
13. Aktipis (2021 , 355).
14. Balodimas-Bartolomei (2021 , 312).
15. See Leontis (2008).
16. Anagnostou (2020); see also, Anagnostou (2021)
17. Georgakas (2021 ); Klironomos (2021 ); Lambropoulos (2021 ); Moskos (2021 ).
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Anagnostou, Yiorgos. 2021. “A Paradigm Award, A Paradigm for Greek/American Cultural Policy.” Erγon: Greek/American Arts and Letters (August 3).
––––––––––. 2020. “Greek American Youth: Multiplying Routes to Hellenism as Cultural Policy.” AHIF: American Journal of Contemporary Hellenic Issues 11 (Spring).
––––––––––. 2019. “Spectacular Incorporations: American Sports, Ethnic Heritage Night, and Greek America.” Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters (April 22).
Balodimas-Bartolomei, Angelyn. 2021 . “Greek American Identities in the 21st Century: A Generational Approach.” In The Future of Hellenism in America: Selected Conference Papers, edited by Van Coufoudakis. Washington, D.C.: American Hellenic Institute Foundation, Inc., 298–317.
Billinis, Alexander. 2021. “Who Speaks for the Diaspora Greeks?” Neo Magazine (July 3).
Coufoudakis, Van. 2021a . “Keeping Hellenism Alive in the 21st Century America.” In The Future of Hellenism in America: Selected Conference Papers, edited by Van Coufoudakis. Washington, D.C.: American Hellenic Institute Foundation, Inc., 212–20.
Coufoudakis, Van, editor. 2021b. The Future of Hellenism in America: Selected Conference Papers. Washington, D.C.: American Hellenic Institute Foundation, Inc.
Demacopoulos George and Aristotle Papanikolaou. 2020. “Orthodox Christianity, Systemic Racism, and the Wrong Side of History.” Public Orthodoxy (June 4).
Dimitriou, James F. 2021 . “AHEPA in the Twenty-First Century: Beacon of Light or Footnote to the Past.” In The Future of Hellenism in America: Selected Conference Papers, edited by Van Coufoudakis. Washington, D.C.: American Hellenic Institute Foundation, Inc., 134–41.
Eleftheriou, Johanna. 2019. “Black Stone.” Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters (August 25).
Georgakas, Dan. 2021 . “Greek America in the Twenty-First Century.” In The Future of Hellenism in America: Selected Conference Papers, edited by Van Coufoudakis. Washington, D.C.: American Hellenic Institute Foundation, Inc., 282—97.
Ioannidis, Vasili. 2021 . “Greek American Identity: Perspectives from Young Greek Americans.” In The Future of Hellenism in America: Selected Conference Papers, edited by Van Coufoudakis. Washington, D.C.: American Hellenic Institute Foundation, Inc., 349–51.
Karambelas, Alexandra. 2021 . “Greek American Identity: Perspectives from Young Greek Americans.” In The Future of Hellenism in America: Selected Conference Papers, edited by Van Coufoudakis. Washington, D.C.: American Hellenic Institute Foundation, Inc., 352–53.
Klironomos, Martha. 2021 . “The Importance of Increasing Modern Greek Studies Programs and Curricula.” In The Future of Hellenism in America: Selected Conference Papers, edited by Van Coufoudakis. Washington, D.C.: American Hellenic Institute Foundation, Inc., 187–94.
Lambropoulos, Vassilis. 2021 . “The Importance of Increasing Modern Greek Studies Programs and Curricula.” In The Future of Hellenism in America: Selected Conference Papers, edited by Van Coufoudakis. Washington, D.C.: American Hellenic Institute Foundation, Inc., 176–79.
Leontis, Artemis. 2008. “‘What Will We Have to Remember?’ Helen Papanikolas’s Art of Telling.” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 29 (2): 15–26.
Moskos, Charles. 2021 . “The Changing Face of Greek Americans.” In The Future of Hellenism in America: Selected Conference Papers, edited by Van Coufoudakis. Washington, D.C.: American Hellenic Institute Foundation, Inc., 318–26.
Moskos and Charles C. Moskos. 2014. Greek Americans: Struggle and Success. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.
Panhellenic Scholarship Foundation. 2021. “George Pelecanos [Paradigm Award].”
Pappas, Gregory. 2020. “My Immigrant Father Taught Me About White Privilege Without Even Knowing It.” The Pappas Post (June 10).
The National Hellenic Museum. 2020. “Let Me Explain You–A Conversation with Author Annie Liontas.” (August 19).