Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Greek America and the Global Cosmopolis

By Vicki James Yannias (originally published in Odyssey: The World of Greece, Spring 2010, pp. 14–15).

Yiorgos Anagnostou, professor of modern Greek and American ethnic studies at Ohio State University, and author of the just-published Contours of White Ethnicity: Popular Ethnography and the Making of Usable Pasts in Greek America (Ohio University Press, 2009) describes Greek America–and Diaspora Greeks in general–through a sobering metaphor of a city which could be allowed to decline if it is left unexamined and unexplored.

“Imagine a dazzling city, its wonders scattered throughout the urban texture. Its visitors, alas, gain only few glimpses of the city’s diversity. Lacking a comprehensive map, they are directed only to a shining main thoroughfare carefully manicured to meet their expectations, while the once vibrant peripheries of the city decline….with no maps charting the contours of the peripheries and no storytellers narrating their stories, it is as if they never existed. They eventually fade from memory, and this immensely valuable dimension of the polis is irretrievably lost.”

Like an under-explored city, says Anagnostou, multiple facets of Greek America remain largely unknown to the public. “Many dimensions of its history are not taught in community schools, many of its stories do not circulate among families, many of its cultural expressions are not explored through research, many of its accomplishments do not resonate deep enough across its social networks, and many of its heroes remain unsung.”

Contours of White Ethnicity, a product of seven years of research, explores the multiple ways in which Greek Americans create their identities. A key question that drives his work is how our identity is shaped by the past, which also helps us imagine who we want to become. “How can the immigrant experience of having been a despised stranger speak to third and fourth generation Diaspora Greeks who are greatly removed from the circumstances of immigration, for example? And how can these stories function as a compass to relate with other ethnicities? There is so much worth exploring in our museums, classrooms, editorials, media, documentaries, films, plays, arts, social sciences and the humanities.”

Seen against a historical backdrop of ethnic discrimination and disparagement, it is understandable why Greek America emphasizes the image of the Greek ethnic as a successful, innovative entrepreneur, says Anagnostou.

“For a people like the Greeks who profoundly value isotimia (to be held in equal esteem) being treated as second-class citizens was the utmost insult. Showcasing the values of the dominant society as their own provides an answer to those who doubted their capacity to meet these values,” Anagnostou observes. “In this respect Greek America has functioned like any other cultural minority, battling negative stereotypes and acting upon positive ones. This is a strategy offering protection and, occasionally, prestige.”

But positive stereotypes stifle Greek America, says Anagnostou. “They erase its complexity, caricature its people, and drown its creativity, producing a one-dimensional ethnicity. As a result, important cultural and political innovations are sidelined.” Anagnostou holds that if this neglect continues, “the Greek American polis will eventually decline into an insignificant backwater.”

Anagnostou points out that, due to multiculturalism, the time is ripe for institutions, artists, translators, and scholars to invest in charting the "vibrant fabric of the Greek American city" before it turns into "declining peripheries." "One can imagine a new Greek American identity, built on the template of competitive isotimia," he says, "not by imitating cultural models, parroting well-worn clichés, or reproducing what is embraced by the majority, but aiming to outperform rivals, challenge what is taken for granted, and break conventional boundaries."

In many ways, says Anagnostou, Contours of White Ethnicity is driven by this ethic. “The book operates within scholarly conventions to produce an account that challenges the way the academic establishment portrays American European ethics. In other words, it employs scholarship to go against the grain of dominant scholarship.”

Anagnostou underlines positive prospects for global distinction in the Greek Diaspora. “It is possible for Greek Diaspora photographers, filmmakers, documentary makers, artists, and researchers to operate along similar principles, challenging what the dominant society hold to be true and beautiful,” he suggests. “This is a new way for Greeks to earn distinction globally. The public will inevitably take notice, and it will be the Greek peripheries stealing the limelight in the global cosmopolis.”

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