Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Unpublished Interview about "Contours of White Ethnicity"

On the occasion of the publication of my book, "Contours of White Ethnicity: Popular Ethnography and the Making of Usable Pasts in Greek America" (Ohio University Press, 2009), I was asked to draft an interview, which was never published. It is not too late, I think, to share it here:

Q: What motivated you to tackle the topic of "white ethnicity" for your first book?

A: I spent the last ten years trying to understand Greek American identity, how it was expressed in the past, and how it is portrayed today. My early interest was in culture. I wanted to explore the importance of cultural activities and values–such as dance and the importance of community for instance–to define Greek America. But I soon realized that it was necessary to expand my perspective. I needed to take account the notion of “white ethnicity.” This was because, as we know, American society tends to classify specific ethnicities into larger panethnic categories. Vietnamese Americans, for example, are also classified as Asian Americans; Nicaraguan Americans as Latinos or Hispanics; and since the 1960s, groups such as Greek Americans, Italian Americans, or Polish Americans are often referred to as white ethnics. Scholars now commonly write about “white ethnicity” or the “whiteness” of European ethnicities, including Jewish Americans. Clearly, one cannot seriously practice ethnic studies scholarship and pretend that this conversation is not happening. I felt intellectually compelled to participate in this critically important discussion, which adds yet another layer to the complexity of the Greek American experience.

Q: What do we learn about Greek America once we see it in relation to white ethnicity?

A: For some time now the so-called “white ethnic revival” has fascinated the nation. Think of the popularity of ethnic festivals or the ubiquity of “things Irish;” films like “Grease,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Rocky,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Moonstruck,” and “Angela’s Ashes”; and novels by Jeffrey Eugenides and Mario Puzo. White ethnics take center stage in these cultural products. But there is more to it. White ethnics are depicted as the desirable norm, a cultural model to be embraced by WASPs. A perfect example of this kind of assimilation into ethnicity is portrayed in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” when Ian and his family embrace Greek culture; they join the Greek dance so to speak, literally and metaphorically. In this revival, however, it is the Irish, the Italians, the Scotts, and other European ethnicities that lead “the dance of American diversity,” not racial minorities such as, say, Asian Americans. This development requires explanation. But I will just say this here: Because of this favorable national trend toward white ethnics a historic opportunity has emerged for Greek America to invest in institution-building and the cultivation of letters and the arts. At the same time it is a time of tremendous responsibility. How do Greek Americans, who now find themselves in a position of privilege, speak about racial minorities and the disenfranchised? How do they envision Greek America’s direction? The book grapples with this kind of questions.

Q: Your book places great emphasis on the importance of the past, and particularly “usable pasts.” Why?

A: There is a public thirst today to connect with a past. Even a casual look at the cultural scene of Greek America cannot miss this preoccupation. Individuals write memoirs, collect family oral histories, and search for roots. Preservation societies proliferate, and the drive to establish museums is gaining momentum. I wanted to understand this process from a particular angle: What aspects of the past do Greek Americans wish to retain, modify, or reject, and why? In other words, what pasts do they consider valuable (that is usable) and what useless? And who decides? This is an immensely important issue because the kinds of pasts we value reveal a great deal about who we are today, and who we wish to become in the future.

Q: One might say that the past is everywhere in Greek America: In liturgy, folk dances, autobiographies, novels, church architecture, museum exhibits, and in a whole range of customs and traditions. Where does one start to investigate this phenomenon?

A: Indeed, the past is so vastly present in the present! One cannot possibly cover everything without sacrificing in-depth analysis. What aspects of the past to include, and what to exclude? I asked myself this question over and over again in the early phases of the book, and spent a great deal of time thinking how to tackle it. A number of considerations helped me in the process. First I wanted to understand this topic from the point of view of Greek Americans. My concern was to examine what specific authors say about the significance of the past in their personal lives, their family and communities. Second, I wanted to include diverse perspectives. We often forget the fascinating heterogeneity of Greek America. Third, my aim was to bring forth perspectives about the past that are often marginalized. I wanted to include points of view that raised challenging issues for Greek America. And fourth, I was looking for examples that problematized the ways social scientists speak about “white ethnicities.”

Q: Do you draw those examples from “popular ethnography”?

A: That’s right. During the course of my research I discovered that numerous Greek American authors base their work on ethnographic interviewing and fieldwork. Although they are not professional anthropologists, these authors adopt ethnographic methods and often draw from the anthropology of Greece to document and analyze the past. This is quite fascinating. It shows, among other things, that there is osmosis between scholars and writers who work outside the academy.

Q: What is a thought with which you would like to close this interview?

A: Some of the “popular ethnographers” I discuss exhibit a deep concern not only about the cultural direction of Greek America, but also our relationship with other ethnicities and minorities. Authors like Helen Papanikolas and Harry Mark Petrakis offer us a way to see ourselves as an ethnicity open to internal as well as external differences, as knowledgeable about history, as attentive to the plight of Others. This is a powerful ethical and political vision for our future, particularly for the next generation that will live and create in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world.

Yiorgos Anagnostou

December 29, 2009

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