Friday, January 14, 2011

"What Keeps Greek Identity Through Time"

By Angelike Contis (01/06/2011), The National Herald (

"The melting pot theory, or the idea that with each generation individuals are less and less "ethnic," never worked for psychologist James Koutrelakos. He also believed that the category of 'White' didn't capture the ethnic experiences of groups like Greek Americans. So three years ago, the retired Hunter College psychologist decided to challenge both concepts in an extensive study of over 700 New York high school and college students. The results of that study confirmed his suspicion: Ethnic identity can continue, strong, across generations, if the right factors are in place.


Koutrelakos, 83, a first generation American who grew up in "the Greek village" of Dover, New Hampshire, is passionate about his subject matter. When we met at his art- and book-lined apartment near NYU, one psychological term and historical reference led to another in discussing his new study Ethnic Identity: Group Differences Based on Heritage Education, Language and Religion. The study, currently being reviewed for publication, is his third since retiring in 2004; the International Journal of Psychology published his study on Greek American acculturation that same year.

'The acculturation of immigrants is often viewed as a linear process,' he says, which 'begins in Ellis Island and ends wherever the immigrant ends up.' The assumption, he says, is that one is 'more and more American...and less and less ethnic - in our case, less Greek.' He points to scholars including CUNY Professor Richard D. Alba, who argue that ethnic identity erodes with each generation.

But he wondered, in the case of Greek immigrants, how a group that retained its sense of self for 400 years of Ottoman occupation would act in the New World. "You'd give up your ethnic identity in one generation?" he asked. It seemed wrong.

A new study by psychologist James Koutrelakos, pictured at a Manhattan GABSI event with art therapist Sylvia Mouzourou, reveals what's most important in keeping ethnic identity alive.


A lot of legwork was involved as Koutrelakos distributed his 20-minute survey in schools throughout New York City. Over 700 second, third (and plus) generation students, including 257 Greek Americans, filled out the survey, examining how age, sex, generation, heritage education, language and self-esteem were linked to a sense of ethnic identity; the survey was given to minority, mixed ancestry and white students. The 'white' category was divided into 'non specific white' and 'specific white.' The latter group included Greek, Jewish and Armenian American students and made up 45% of the total study. Koutrelakos explains that while race involves how those in power see others, ethnicity is all about how a group sees itself. Race can't be ignored, he feels, due to its role in American history, but ethnic identity cannot be lumped into one non-minority group called "White". He says he focused on Jewish, Greek and Armenian students due to their cultural and historical similarities.

The study used the 12-item Multiethnic Identity Measure (MEIM) to assess student's ethic identity. Included here, were statements like "I have a lot of pride in my ethnic group," with reply choices ranging from 1=Strongly Disagree to 4=Strongly Agree. Students were quizzed too on self esteem, heritage education classwork, linguistic skills and religious service attendance.


The main finding of his study is that heritage education (or courses designed to teach the culture and language of a specific ethnic group), language and religion play decisive roles in keeping ethnic identity alive. Overall, they are associated with a strong sense of ethnic identity. Koutrelakos underlines that when students have some kind of heritage education, 'ethnic identity does not significantly differ (i.e. does not decline ) from second to third generation.'

Furthermore, Greek, Jewish and Armenian Americans scored higher than minorities when it came to sense of ethnic identity. A whopping 86% of this specific white group said their ethnic identity was 'very important,' compared to only 44% of the general white category or 70% of the minority respondents.

'These results point to the important role of education and religion in preserving ethnic identity,' writes Koutrelakos in his report.


In the Greek American group, 80% of respondents called themselves 'Greek American,' almost one-fifth, 'Greek,' and less than 1% called themselves 'White, Caucasian, or Orthodox.' Whether in Queens, Brooklyn or Manhattan, the most important factors reinforcing ethnic identity were knowledge of the Greek language and religious participation.

'These are smart kids,' says Koutrelakos, reading a few of the following responses: 'I love this country as well as Greece;' 'I’ve attended Greek school, but I’ve learned more from my mother;” “I am more Greek at home and more American with my school friends.' A few surveys pointed to an even more complex ethnic identity, such as the one that noted: 'I love being from Greece and Peru.' A few expressed confusion, such as: 'I’m very conflicted about my ethnic heritage.'

As a psychologist, Koutrelakos lauded the Greek American respondents' 'cognitive flexibility' and 'identity fluidity' as healthy, noting: 'One has a strong sense that students are comfortable in their own skins.' The survey revealed bicultural adaptation and as scholar Alexander Kitroeff put it 'being ethnic became chic' after the cultural revolution of the 1960s. By contrast, he says, the earlier call for assimilation 'is associated with mental health problems,' with its demand that one identity be replaced by a new American one.

Feeling a part of a group and its institutions is psychologically helpful, he explains: 'When learning Modern Greek, it’s not just an intellectual task. It also involves being associated with a group and asserting Greek identity. Attending church services, while providing a spiritual experience, also gives you a place for socializing with people of your group.... We cannot live alone and be humans.' Koutrelakos distinguishes between healthy ideas of ethnic identity such as pride and curiosity in one's group and unhealthy ones such as fanaticism, a swollen sense of one's group's importance and excessive social rigidity.


In discussing his new study, Koutrelakos often returns to life in the textile mill town of Dover, New Hampshire. That's the place where his immigrant parents ended up, with its vibrant Greek 'village' that sprouted up on a less desirable stretch of river and had a church, school, stores and two coffee houses (for men only). There, everyone referred to him as 'Demetri, yio tou Anastasi' (Demetri, son of Anastasi)." He adds: 'They identified me, told me who I was and where I belonged. There was none of the American business of leaving home to find yourself. You already knew who you were.'

The honor student's first lesson in ethnic intolerance came - ironically enough - through the very local newspaper he delivered while in junior high school in the 1940s. There he read that the city council of nearby Hampton Beach voted that 'no more Greeks or other 'darker Europeans' were to own businesses or buy property' in their town. He also recalls that around that time, 'Some Irish kids called us grease balls.' He winces at the memory, 'That hurt.'

Now he knows his childhood experiences were part of the backlash following the influx of Southern Mediterranean immigrants in the early 1900s, with an accompanying 'fear of Balkanization.'

The backlash didn't hold him back, however, or interfere with his American success story. When 18, Koutrelakos served at General Douglas MacArthur’s Tokyo, Japan headquarters in 1946 and returned to pursue studies, including work at Columbia University in the 1950s. He interned with and was a clinical psychologist at Veteran’s Administration, and later worked as a psychologist at colleges including Julliard and, most extensively, Hunter College. Now he spends much of his time in his Fifth Avenue apartment working on his studies, but also finds time for things like being on the committee of the New York City Greek Film Festival.


The study could lead to further research, with its interesting results, including the association between high academic achievement as well as self esteem with ethnic identity. 'Also noteworthy is the finding that females scored higher than males in ethnic identity on one part of the survey,' suggesting, Koutrelakos says, 'gender differences based on cultural practices.' Though excited about his results, Koutrelakos is quick to point out that they can only be taken so far. For one, the study was limited to New York. Greek Americans who don't have access to heritage education may have different experiences. It was difficult, he adds, to probe the ethnic identity of people of Greek heritage who do not take part in Greek institutions. 'It's hard to get Greeks not in Greek school...or those who don't go to church,' he explained.

But what's clear about his study is that these institutions have a continuing, critical role as ethnic social glue, not to mention offering psychological relief. Koutrelakos adds: 'My study shows that Greeks in the diaspora recreate their traditional educational and religious institutions to preserve heritage and identity.'"

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