Racialization and the Rewriting of Greek America

by Yiorgos Anagnostou

To Nikos P. Petropoulos,
a pioneer in Greek American whiteness studies

Paper presented at the webinar “Between Race and Ethnicity: Greek America in the Times of Black Lives Matter” (March 22, 2021).

“Between Race and Ethnicity: Greek America in the Times of Black Lives Matter.” This webinar is asking us to reflect about Greek America in relations to two categories of difference—ethnicity and race—and in connection to a racial justice movement at a particular historical moment.

There are at least two components in this inquiry. The first is about how Greek America positions itself in relation to Black Lives Matter. The second is about us, scholars, how do we make sense of these positions. What kinds of questions does this issue raise for those of us who work in transnational modern Greek studies.

To understand Greek America in the times of Black Lives Matter scholars need to understand Greek American immigration and ethnicity historically, in the context of U.S. discourses about race and, inevitably, racial hierarchies.

This talk is a move in this direction.

I start by returning to a question that historians and anthropologists started asking more than twenty years ago. I am taking my cue from the following statement by my co-panelist, Mathew Frye Jacobson, who wrote, in 1998, “My intent here is to … [move] race to the foreground of historiography on European immigration and assimilation” (12).

The recognition of the importance of race in European American historiography—which is now a thriving paradigm within whiteness studies—brings this question for reflection: how does this reorientation contribute to our understanding of Greek America? What will it magnify, what will it bring into focus?

There is a relative scarcity of scholarship that moves race into the foreground of the historiography and cultural analysis of Greek America. It provides me the occasion, therefore, to reflect on the insights that this mode of analysis might bring to our thinking and writing about Greek American history and society.

To begin, this mode of analysis will certainly illuminate the power of racial hierarchies to profoundly shape immigrant experiences. Take for example a tripartite encounter between white Anglo Saxons, Greek immigrants, and Black Americans in the context of early twentieth century racism. The following passage is from George Leber’s 1972 history of AHEPA:

Young Greek men in the South were taken along with young black men from their jobs by the KKK to lynching “parties” in the woods as a means of intimidation where Greeks were roughed-up and were told to leave town. The black men were not so fortunate and were lynched.

White nationalism—particularly powerful at the time—possesses the power to destroy but also spare human lives, selectively, depending on racial rankings and corresponding strategies of social regulation. The Klan’s varying scale of deadly violence in my example raises several questions: what were the reasons for the simultaneous devaluation and relative privilege of the Greeks? In this historical encounter we recognize the strategy of white supremacy to intimidate immigrants from forging solidarities with Black Americans. Immigrants from southeastern Europe may have been admitted to the republic as “free white persons” under the reigning naturalization law, but their association with nonwhite groups was yet another occasion that would render them outside the social boundaries of whiteness. This regulatory mechanism shaped the newcomer’s positioning vis-à-vis the race question in the country at the time but also throughout the twentieth century.

This incident brings this point home: one cannot examine immigration independently from racial hierarchies that have been fundamental in structuring the U.S. polity throughout its history. Race matters immensely. It is necessary then that our work takes into account these inequalities and the ways in which they have affected human lives (the persecution, for example, of individuals and families connected with racial and labor justice; the way they have shaped institutions (the making of AHEPA); the ways they have provided access to the “white” suburbs in the 1960s; or mobilized institutional Greek Orthodox and Greek American secular activism in solidarity with Black Americans both in the 1960s civil rights and Black Lives Matter today.

The analysis of immigration and ethnicity in connection to systemic racial hierarchies has been the project of whiteness studies. Since at least the 1990s this project has been demonstrating the impossibility of divorcing processes that we conventionally render as adaptation, acculturation, and assimilation from the question of race and the power relations that structure it.

Whiteness is a much-misunderstood concept. I work with this concept to refer to a social system sustaining racial hierarchies in a myriad of explicit and implicit practices, official and unofficial: immigration policies, narratives of ethnic identity, political rituals of belonging, everyday talk, ordinary sociability, cultural self-presentations. “Race talk” is the name that author Toni Morrison gave to this host of practices.

The analytical value of whiteness studies lies in naming, and thus rendering visible, those practices that reproduce inequalities along the axis of race but also connected with class, sexuality and gender. Its political import lies in its social critique that aims to undermine hierarchies in the interest of forge interracial solidarities.

There is ample evidence to demonstrate the power of whiteness in the shaping of the Greek American social imagination. This applies at the level of individual subjectivity—what an individual desires, believes, values, and aspires; as well as at the level of collective self-representation—how a group narrates and performs collective identity for public consumption.

Two images come readily to mind for demonstrating instances of contemporary racialized subjectivity in Greek America. The first comes from popular culture, the blockbuster film My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002). Consider the following recollection of the main female character, Toula, when the camera flashes back to her elementary school experience:

When I was growing up, [Toula’s voice over narrates], I knew I was different. The other girls were blond and delicate, and I was a swarthy six-year-old with sideburns. I so badly wanted to be like the popular [blond] girls . . . all sitting together, talking . . . eating their Wonder Bread sandwiches.

Words and images here dramatize self-devaluation, as the ethnic female body is racialized as swarthy, outside the norms of white femininity, which is internalized as the object of desire.

The physicality of the body, not necessarily color, have historically been deployed to place southeastern Europeans outside normative whiteness. Actress Olympia Dukakis reports that she resorted to plastic surgery to “smoothen” the “ethnic” elements in her physiognomy, which excluded her from normative acting roles of American femininity.

The second image derives from an ethnographic portrait of Greek immigrant women in Astoria, New York City, captured by Anna Karpathakis and Victor Roudometof (2004). The “fear of the ‘non-white’ label,” they write,

is more apparent in women’s attempts to “look white,” i.e. “become white,” through the use of cosmetics. For example, one woman who takes great care to lighten her hair and in many ways “look white” was in near tears when she was told that she is not a natural blonde but rather a melachrini (i.e. olive complexion with black hair and dark eyes) (285).

In both examples above, whiteness is about a valorized aesthetic ideal and the social practices it sets in motion, urging subjects to distance themselves from Brown or Black bodies. The subjection of the ethnic body to normative whiteness does not merely exercise aesthetic power; it is intimately connected with the body politic. It is reshaped to protect from discrimination. It makes a claim to enhanced social status. It is desired as a passport to racialized belonging. It offers empowering routes to privilege.

A counterexample is in order. I am thinking of musician and civil rights activist Jonny Otis, born Ioannis Veliotis (1921-2012). Growing up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Berkeley, California, Otis witnessed Black bodies being subjected to devaluation. Instead of dissociating from Black friends, he sided with them in solidarity. He wrote, “As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black” (12). He exited the Greek American environment to immerse himself into Black politics and culture. He married a Black American.

It will be instructive to think of these examples in connection to the notion of assimilation. What they unequivocally convey is that assimilation is not racially neutral; it is about consenting to locations within whiteness—embracing or resisting it. It is from this location that the Self displays itself to itself and others; it is about a position from which it speaks and acts.

Whiteness studies asks, where does one assimilate specifically within an ethnoracial order and under what circumstances?

I register this insight: assimilation requires historicization. Assimilation is not transparent; the dominant center into which one assimilates shifts. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, we recall, it is the acculturated Greek white ethnic that the Millers in the film desire to align themselves with—and the audience is beckoned to follow suit. Its scriptwriter builds on the pervasive trope of ethnicity, since the 1970s, as an antidote to modern alienation, asserting ethnicity’s value. In this respect, the film represents a triumphant moment of what Jacobson calls “Ellis Island whiteness;” the rendering of southeastern Europeans as paradigmatic cultural exemplars in the “nation of immigrants.”

To turn to the question of collective identity in relation to whiteness: I draw my example from the most iconic Greek American resistance to racial inequality, the solidarity that Archbishop Iakovos extended to the Civil Rights movement; his marching along Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. This most visible act of resistance to institutionalized whiteness was vehemently opposed, as we know, within sectors of the Greek Orthodox community, particularly in Jim Crow American South. When the Archbishop flew from Selma to Charleston, South Carolina, to visit the local Greek Orthodox community for the first time, he experienced an outright affront to his authority and unequivocal rejection of his politics.

To his surprise and dismay, not a single person from the community came to the airport to formally receive and welcome him. Later that evening, alone in his hotel room, Iakovos received numerous threatening phone calls throughout the night, expressing their anger and opposition to his presence in Selma earlier that day (Varlamos 2018, 185).

This historical discord directs our thinking about Greek America in the following direction: the fact that whiteness may be consented to or resisted probes us to think of Greek America as a contested terrain; one crisscrossed with tensions, conflicts, and alliances around the politically loaded question of race.

Countless examples make the notion of ethnicity-as-contested-social field in connection to whiteness evident and necessary. The recent polarization of Greek America in the context of Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020 is a case in point. On the one hand, Greek Orthodox intellectuals insist on the existence of structural racism. In tandem, the Greek Orthodox church casts its public support to the movement in the most unequivocal manner. As early as 2013 there was a formal declaration of civic bonds between Greek Americans and Black Americans in Baltimore, Maryland.

On the other hand, sectors of Greek America denounce Black Lives Matter as a violent organization and decry, even ridicule, the Church’s support of it. In addition, prominent Greek American organizations issue announcements condemning the killing of George Floyd, refraining, however, from making explicit references to Black Lives Matter.

Greek American positionings toward racial hierarchies are not simply a function of political affiliation. One comes across narratives that reproduce—albeit obliquely—these hierarchies across the Democratic / Republican spectrum. I refer here to the bootstrap ideology of socioeconomic mobility; the paradigm of struggle and success. This paradigm reproduces whiteness while refraining from mentioning race directly. By extolling hard work and perseverance as the sole explanation of mobility it blames poor people of color as the cause of their poverty. The bootstraps narrative was central in the politics of white ethnicity and white backlash in the 1970s and beyond against government programs seeking to redress historical injustices against Black Americans. It was embraced as the identity narrative of “white ethnics” by both progressive leaders (value ethnicity but also work towards generalized welfare for the poor; building interracial coalitions; and by conservative politicians (as a tool to oppose welfare and racial polarization).

One additional point about the insidious racial politics of struggle and success: the narrative is prone to be appropriated for ethnocentric and racist claims. As Caesar Mavratsas (1993) shows, it is not rare, for Greek immigrant entrepreneurs, to posit their economic success as a sign of ethnic superiority, and evidence of “the inferior ‘moral’ or ‘ontological’ worth of others” (453). Or as Anna Karpathakis and Victor Roudometof note: “Among the college educated American born, family stories of immigrant mobility “against incredible odds become part of the folklore and ideologies which are turned on their heads and used to blame minority groups’ oppression in the U.S. on the minorities themselves” (281).

The view of Greek America as a contested terrain around whiteness raises several questions: how were Greeks in the United States racialized at any specific historical moment? In other words, what identities have they been assigned by American racial discourses? And, in turn, what kind of self-ascriptions did they deploy in their negotiations? To what extent did they consent to or resist their particular ethnoracial assignments? We know that they employed African American workers on equal pay in Jim Crow Tarpon Springs. We know that in northern cities they were often coerced to exclude Black Americans from their businesses.

The notion of racialization is key in this approach. Unlike the concept of race, racialization sees racial classifications as subject to change and contestation; it calls analysis for the social construction of racialized identities, rejecting the notion of a natural or fixed identity. Analyzing Greek America through the lens of racialization makes the question of whether Greeks are, or are not, white a misplaced question. Racialization is asking why and how immigrant groups are seen or see themselves inside or outside whiteness, under what circumstances, and to what effect.

Racialization takes place transnationally. In their encounters with American racial categories, Greek Americans have mobilized their own categories of Greek identity, which they brought upon arrival and which draw heavily from Greek nationalism. The ideology of the Greeks as a distinct race has been deployed with equal force in the cultural politics of early twentieth century nativism as well as contemporary U.S. multiculturalism. In the 1920s, the “American Hellenic” identity synthesized American and Greek racial nationalisms. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Macedonian issue and the controversy around Black Athena produced the notion of a Greek racial identity under siege. Cultural nationalism is also at work in the recent branding of Greek identity as philotimo, a narrative that globalizes racialized Greek identity as moral citizenship.

The insights we can draw from these observations are institutional and epistemological: it concerns modern Greek studies. The transnational racial politics of Greek America erodes the boundaries between modern Greek and Greek American studies. One cannot write about Greek American racialization without taking into account the politics of transnational Hellenism. One cannot write about Black Lives Matter and Greek Orthodoxy in Greece without raising the example of U.S. Greek Orthodox civil rights activism. Greek America stands for transnational Greek America.

Transnational Greek America and its racialized intersections invite geneaological analysis. To examine identity formation, that is, in specific historical moments and in connection to discourses about race, nation, culture and relations of power. Specific historical moments include the early twentieth century, the second World War and the GI Bill, the Civil Rights era, ethnic revival and post-civil rights discourses, and the rise of ethnic nationalism in the late twentieth century and today.

The Greek American racialized landscape in each historical moment is extremely complex and, in fact, a messy one. It is certainly crisscrossed with clearly delineated racialized narratives. But also with contradictions, ambivalences, and internal heterogeneity. An organization may have supported the civil rights movement but at the same time embraced narratives implicitly asserting racial hierarchies. Regional specificities as well as class and gender differences add to its complexity. The analysis of Greek American racialization requires attention to the micro-contexts of family, locality, neighborhood, city, and region as well as national discourses.

Messiness of course should not distract us from the structural benefits connected with the steady—though uneven—historical trajectory of Greek American incorporation—sometimes grudgingly—into the white suburbs, their acceptance in rural and small-town communities in the American midwest (confectionaries), integration into city and national governance (Spyro Anagnostopoulos/Agnew), national television (Kojak), popular culture (Andrews sisters), national political rituals of belonging (Statue of Liberty Centennial, 1986). Although the language of ethnicity and race varies in the ways Greek Americans place themselves vis-à-vis whiteness, one could trace an enduring thread through time of how consent to whiteness endowed safety, social status and privileges at the expense of solidarities across race.

A geneaological analysis will identify Greek American cultural performative practices of assimilation into (racialized) cultural ideals such as self-discipline and order, cleanliness (against the racialized slur “greasy Greek”), and the narrative of hard work and family cohesion (against “undeserved” welfare recipients with cultural pathologies).

Such a reading will also recognize the pain of those who paid a high price for resisting the racial status quo. Recall, for example, the devastation racism inflicted on interracial unions, involving a Greek female immigrant, in the 1950s; the “heritage of fear”—documented by Marianthe Karanikas—shadowing families connected with early twentieth century activism for racial justice. Or other non-recognized stories, at the margins of the archive, or with no archival traces.

These are social dramas that the narrative of struggle and success does not—in fact cannot—name. This silence is but one of its multiple failures. The failure to advocate inclusive social history. The failure to recognize alternative kinds of success. The failure to understand racial inequalities in historical terms. The failure, in other words, to cultivate responsible citizenship.

Since its inception thirty years ago, whiteness studies has reshaped the ways in which scholars examine immigration and ethnicity connected with Southeastern Europe. Still, transnational Greek American whiteness studies finds itself underdeveloped. We may wish to ask ourselves why this is the case. Why is it that we did not question with greater conviction, with greater political resolve, ethnic narratives that grant ethnic pride but compromise historical consciousness and harm others.

We can no longer be skirting around whiteness if we wish to substantively participate in the national reckoning about structural racism and the work toward an American multiracial democracy. With whom will Greek Americans side in the not unimaginable racialized contentions when the United States turns “minority white”? (in 2045, projected by the U.S. census.)

Placing racialization at the forefront of Greek American historiography and cultural analysis is not only a necessary epistemological reorientation but also a political project illuminating the contours of Greek American citizenship.

The American university is rethinking ethnic studies in connection to issues of racial justice. New curricula and new academic configurations are redrawn along this axis. What is our place in this conversation?

The university, and, in our case, modern Greek programs in particular, is one of the few public spaces that still practice critical reflection. Because we lack a critical mass of scholars we need to think creatively and strategically about empowering U.S. transnational modern Greek studies via collaborations, personal and institutional, both within and beyond modern Greek studies. In this manner, one hopes, we will be making our work more visible in the uneasy conversation about the place of Greek America in twenty-first century America.

Yiorgos Anagnostou teaches in the Modern Greek Program at the Ohio State University. His work on European American whiteness includes Contours of White Ethnicity: Popular Ethnography and the Making of Usable Pasts in Greek America (Ohio University Press, 2021 [translated in Greek by Nisos, 2021]) and “White Ethnicity: A Reappraisal,” Italian American Review, 3 (2): 99–128 (Summer 2013).

Listen to the talk here (30:35-56:25).

Editor’s Note: Read the presentations of the co-panelists, Matthew Frye Jacobson’s “Thinking about an Anti-confederate Whiteness in the 21st Century,” and Despina Lalaki’s “American Liberalism and Greek America in the Times of Black Lives Matter.”