Tuesday, May 2, 2017

European Americans: How they Matter

Abstract: It is not uncommon for scholarship to dismiss the cultural relevance of European Americans, or even to interrogate their identity narratives as counter-productive to interracial understanding. This talk draws from Greek American studies scholarship to explore the complexities of the category "European Americans" and to discuss why and how their study matters.

Context: What follows is the inaugural talk I gave at The Ohio State University (OSU) on March 22, 2017. Each year, the Arts and Humanities asks faculty who have recently been promoted to the rank of professor to present a public lecture on his or her body of research and current projects. A particular challenge of the inaugural is to explain one’s scholarly work to both faculty from various disciplines and the non-academic public.

Let me begin with a poem, a one line poem. It is written by George Economou and its title is “All-American.”

He writes:

“The Unexamined Ethnic Life / Is Not Worth Living.”

Once we juxtapose the title with the content, the paradox is obvious: The poem draws an equivalence between a national, in fact an archetypal hyper-national affiliation, indicated by the title, “All-American,” with ethnic life (1).

The poem aptly appropriates Socrates’ dictum–“the unexamined life is not worth living”–to make a poignant statement about our era. Since the advent of multiculturalism, we no longer find a contradiction in connecting national with ethnic identities. We search for meaning in ancestral roots, in preserving ethnic traditions, in connecting both with the nation and somewhere else. We have indeed become “the hyphen nation,” to borrow Matthew Jacobson’s phrase. Labels like African American, Asian American, and Irish American organize the ways we speak about our similarities and differences. The social sciences and the humanities register this fundamental shift. Belonging is no longer merely national. Many American people cultivate ties with more than a single homeland; they carry multiple cultural attachments. What does all this mean for individuals, for groups, for the nation? What does it mean to live an ethnic life in the United States?

Poetry, we often claim, is the art of economy in language. It says the most with the least. Economou’s poem is no exception; one line aptly condenses a host of ideas, and one idea the poem foregrounds is that it is not enough for someone to merely claim an ethnic identity. An ethnic affiliation, the poem asserts, requires reflection and calls for serious thought regarding the place of ethnicity in one’s life. If ethnicity entails some kind of difference, the idea of an examined ethnic life probes this question: How does difference matter? To what end?

The question of how to live an ethnic life has preoccupied me—not only as an intellectual question but as a personal one—since the mid-1980s when I immigrated to this country. And though I ask the question of myself in relation to my Greek and American selves, my scholarship asks this question in relation to collective identities. What is at stake when one ethnic group defines itself in a particular manner and not another? In particular, my focus has been Greek America. This is a relatively small demographic; in the most recent census, about 1.2 million Americans identify themselves as having a Greek ancestry.

Who are the Greek Americans? Many seem to offer an answer readily. Greek Americans conjure up images of an assimilated, socially and economically successful collective. A strong tradition of philanthropy defines them. The ethnic life that Greek Americans bring to the United States is enjoyable: the folk dances and the cuisine. This difference is widely accepted. Like all European Americans, Greek Americans enjoy ethnic lives that are free from social stigma. Like all European Americans, their difference is mostly fixed in the public imagination in relation to its desirable cuisine and folk dancing. Polka for the Polish and Kalamatianos for the Greeks. Gyros for the Greeks and Sauerkraut for the Germans. Scholars speak of European Americans as cookie cutter ethnicity and the banality of difference, which means their difference is predictable and repeatable. A scripted ethnicity.

Is this all? Some might ask. Several scholars answer in the affirmative. There is strong conviction that European Americans have largely lost their ethnic moorings; their lives are devoid of any complex cultural layering. Sociologists make strong claims about the irrelevance of ethnicity in the daily lives of European Americans.

A dominant perspective in scholarship asserts that Europeans have reached their cultural exhaustion, and there is nothing more to say or examine. Their story appears already known. European Americans experienced acute poverty, extreme hardship, and prejudice in their beginnings, but they eventually overcame it and worked their way into acceptance. They are fully integrated; they have moved to the suburbs; they intermarry in high numbers and have their festivals and ethnic pride parades. For a number of scholars, what interests them most in European Americans is the accrual of privileges as a result of their assimilation into whiteness. White ethnicity, as sometimes scholars refer to European Americans, is thick in racial privilege and thin in culture.

The notion of European Americanness as one of cultural loss and therefore academic irrelevance carries several implications. At stake, certainly, is the place of European Americans as a subject of academic learning. If European Americans are already understood, what is the point for a university to invest resources on this subject? What is to know beyond what has already been investigated and observed?

But, as the poet George Economou urges us, it is fine time we re-examine these questions. European America, and Greek America for that matter, is not static. I have devoted my professional life to thinking about the category European Americans—particularly Greek America, which is under-researched in the academy—and examining the way in which both scholarship and popular culture construct this category. Does the category matter, and if so, in what manner?

As we know, scholars cannot devote attention to neglected subjects unless they enjoy institutional support. This is the time to extend my deep appreciation to Ohio State, which in the best tradition of inclusive public institutions, has enabled my research. Ohio State is the only university in the world outside Greece that supports a faculty working full time on Greek America and the Greek diaspora. For this I am grateful. It goes without saying that my position comes with vast responsibility.

Working on a subject matter that many think is exhausted raises the question of perspective: How to make visible what for many does not exist? Working across several disciplines has provided me with vantage points to explore a cultural terrain that appears uniform while in fact it is not.

My training in critical Modern Greek studies has been a key in providing me with the tools to see what some cannot. Several scholars in Modern Greek Studies do their work from a particular vantage point. The aim is to question assumptions of dominant disciplines and produce knowledge that brings a whole new perspective on a topic. I was trained to pose new questions about taken-for-granted assumptions and to redirect the flow of academic ideas.

This oblique angle demanded I ask questions about the ways in which scholars portrayed European Americans. Were European Americans a monolithic – undifferentiated – cultural entity, as one sociological thread was insisting? European Americans identities have been described as privatized and voluntary, often easily discardable and superficial. But ethnic studies–namely Italian American and Greek American studies–have been looking more deeply and expansively into this question. Scholars in these disciplines carefully examine social structures and cultural lives. They carefully document a range of collective identities, transnational and diaspora connections, and the persistence of institutions to shape identities.

Instead of being analytically inconsequential, certain European American identities raise fascinating questions about (1) multifaceted belonging, (2) the relevance of the immigrant past into the present, (3) the dynamic between choice in affiliation and commitment to a collective, (4) the interplay among ethnicity, post-ethnicity, and cosmopolitanism, and (5) the political and moral responsibilities of European Americans toward vulnerable collectives in contemporary United States.

When in the 1970s Greek Americans in Columbus mobilized collectively to support this Modern Greek Program they did so because they saw their culture and heritage as an integral component of their ethnic lives. They are mobilizing now, as we speak, once again to renew their commitment to the Program through fundraising. Their collective mobilization contradicts scholarship that sees European American ethnicity as a personal matter, one expressed in the privacy of home or travel. European American identities are seen as privatized, not requiring a community for their expression. Given Greek America’s investment in community-making, how can I possibly not question the dominant paradigm of privatized European American identities?

One question about ethnic life haunts me. How the self-definition of the ethnic self affects Others? Ethnic lives are not independent, isolated entities; they are interwoven with other people’s lives. Thus whatever one ethnic group might say about its identity can have profound effects–explicitly or implicitly–about the identities of Others. Given this fact–a fact we often forget–we must consider what the responsibility is of ethnic lives towards Others in the nation?

We know that ethnic groups are vigilant about the ways in which they are portrayed. They are conscious that there is a vulnerability in claiming an ethnic life, particularly at times of domestic or international crises. During those times the nation may render certain ethnic lives dangerous to the nation. Japanese Americans, for instance, were labeled as enemy aliens at the advent of WWII even though they themselves felt fiercely loyal to America. Their ancestry was seen as a threat while their professed devotion to America was sidestepped. This, as we know, carried devastating material and psychological consequences. In times of international crisis or national turmoil, ethnic lives are vulnerable lives.

Assimilated European Americans are also alert when it comes to public representation. Greek Americans are no exception. The recent MTV show Growing up Greek for instance offended many Greek Americans. MTV presented Greeks as undereducated and disorderly, a gross caricature that Greek American critics did not recognize as a reflection of the members of their community, taking MTV to task for misrepresentation. They sought to correct this image, one they did not recognize as their own, by demanding the show rewritten or canceled. Their vocal campaign paralleled the Italian American opposition to MTV’s Jersey Shore. Both groups seek to protect themselves from crude stereotypes.

The question is, do European Americans display equal care to also protect the interests of Others? Not always. Often, it is their own celebratory identity narratives that implicitly harm other ethnic groups. Take for example the bootstrap narrative of success, the notion that European Americans experienced socioeconomic mobility on the virtue of their work ethic alone. This narrative is at the core of all European American histories, to which European Americans take immense pride. Though this story does not explicitly mention other groups it gravely damages vulnerable collectives such as poor people of color.

The life of a scholar who writes about ethnic lives comes with a set of responsibilities; we are committed to telling difficult truths to individuals and communities, even to people with whom we interact daily. In my work, I join several scholars to remind European Americans of the dangerous implications of their bootstrap narrative. If we explain success on the virtue of hard work alone we inevitably blame the poor for their poverty. In addition to hard work, there have been structural reasons that have contributed to the mobility of European Americans. For instance, unlike Asian Americans who lacked the right to vote in the first half of the twentieth century, Polish and Italian Americans enjoyed early on the political power of the vote. European Americans experienced nothing like the Jim Crow segregation laws that contributed to racial-based poverty well into the civil rights movement and beyond. They also escaped the institutionalized racism immediately after WWII, when second generation Italians and Greeks and Polish were propelled into the middle class while African Americans were blocked entry into middle class neighborhoods.

European Americans matter today because of their immense political power. As both the United States and Europe face urgent questions regarding refugees, immigration, and rising xenophobia, European Americans have been reflecting on their position from the vantage point of their immigration histories. They too, in the past, have been excluded and stigmatized as undesirables. What is their responsibility toward groups that are experiencing those vulnerabilities that European Americans experienced a century ago? I have been following how Irish Americans, Italian Americans, and Greek Americans remember their pasts to take political positions in the present. Some of these discussions emanate from their ancestral homelands, an illustration of the transnational dimensions of European Americans. Irish newspapers for instance urge Irish American spokesmen to make a case not merely for the undocumented Irish in the United States, but to stand up for Others. Greek historians tell the hidden story of illegal Greek immigrants in the United States. AHEPA, the most visible Greek American national association, has issued a statement assessing the recent executive order on immigration as “inconsistent with American values.” Similarly, Italian Americans narrate their plight in the past to generate empathy for vulnerable populations today. But the discussion on these issues is ongoing. There is no consensus. Research on these questions carries not only educational but also political relevance.

Let us revisit Economou’s poem: “The Unexamined Ethnic Life/Is Not Worth Living.” An examined ethnic life, then, requires the recognition of an ethnic group’s responsibility toward Others. Ethnicity, therefore, entails an ethical vision of respecting differences. It follows that a scholar of ethnicity has an obligation to contribute to that vision. My own work seeks to examine Greek American writings that define success in terms other than socioeconomic mobility. Related to this question is how the immigrant past shapes Greek America’s views about Others today. I utilized a corpus of autobiography and ethnography that posits an ethic of care for vulnerable populations as a vital component of Greek American identity.

The writer Harry Mark Petrakis, in his story “A Tale of Color,” tells the story of his Greek Orthodox mother in the 1950s. She embraced an interracial couple–a Greek American and an African American–in the midst of hostility. There are writings such as David Mason’s Ludlow about the life and political activism of Louis Tikas, a Cretan immigrant who participated in the American labor movement in the early 1910s. For Tikas, an American life and an ethnic life conjoined in political activism against exploitation in the workplace. In yet another example, historian Helen Papanikolas drew from her own ethnic experience as a daughter of immigrants in the 1920s when she was relegated as not fully American. In public speeches she sought to empower the children of Native Americans and Mexican immigrants to both embrace heritage and participate in national life. An eminent line of Greek American writing advocates the interests of marginalized people. The immigrant past for European Americans informs their contemporary writing. Research illuminates this phenomenon and makes visible models of success that are centered not on class mobility but commitment to the public good.

I have devoted my professional life to promote Greek American studies. As a faculty working in this underexamined field, I see it as my responsibility to advance it. One particular approach has worked well: placing Greek American material–films, documentaries, popular histories, and autobiographies–in relation to academic discussions about diversity, diaspora, and multiculturalism. In other words, I discuss how this Greek American material contributes to our understanding of these issues that extend beyond Greek America. I have opted for the academic article as the optimal publication venue to enhance visibility.

I could not resist writing, for example, about the blockbuster film My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It was not a small challenge. In all accounts this is an utterly predictable film, as it slavishly follows the conventions of romantic comedy; boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, they face obstacles, they overcome them through the power of love. The happy ending offers the exclamation point of Hollywood’s sanctioning marriage as the culmination of love. Yet once one looks at the film carefully one could reap rich insights. The film make a powerful argument for the value of ethnic community as a place of belonging. It reverses the power relations between the dominant society and an ethnic group, you may recall the male relatives of the bride playing pranks on WASPy outsider Ian Miller. These scenes place viewers who are not Greek in the position of a cultural minority, particularly when the jokes and lines are delivered in Greek before the subtitles appear on the screen. The film contributes to mutual understanding across difference.

The film harnesses stereotypes for a number of narrative purposes that I have explained elsewhere. But the film is also making a point in telling us – in the character of aunt Toula – that we must go beyond stereotypes and exchange stories so others will learn from us and us we will learn from Others. What an essential reminder that we need multilayered narratives to portray the complexity of ethnic lives. And what a power this idea carries for the value of European American literature and ethnography!

My Life in Ruins, an utterly banal film, presented another challenge. How to analyze the film both in relation to American cinema and Greek identity. For some time now American studies analyzes the United States not in national terms but in connection to other places and global developments. American history moves from national analysis to a transnational one. Writing about the film gave me the opportunity to demonstrate how to practice this kind of transnational approach. And this allows me to help expand the scope of Modern Greek studies from area studies to a transnational cultural field.

Finally, the Greek economic crisis and the avalanche of stereotypes that it unleashed about the Greeks also probed my interest. I wrote about the way Greek Americans and the American Embassy in Greece mobilized solidarity on behalf of the historical homeland. My work linked this diasporic affiliation with a larger project–supported both by the United States and other global financial institutions–in promoting the idea of diaspora as an agent for economic development and social stability. Diaspora identities now are connected with the idea of national and global citizenship.

There is a powerful narrative in contemporary culture that promotes citizenship as what scholars Giroux and Giroux term “competitive, self-interested individualism.” The ideal of the citizen is one who espouses self-reliance, individualism, mobility, innovation, and flexibility. But the question of how to live an ethnic life, that it is not given but nurtured, calls for considering an alternative model of citizenship, one that privileges civic engagement as an obligation for the public good. This is not of course a new idea. But its urgency is.

For the last five years, what has also preoccupied me is the place of scholarly work in the lives of individuals and communities outside the academy. As scholars, what is our obligation to also engage with the broader, nonacademic public? This question has generated great interest in universities across the nation. There is a renewed interest for engaged scholarship; this entails scholars writing in non-academic venues. It also entails collaborations with communities, partnerships with artists, and exchanges with institutions.

At its best, public scholarship illuminates issues, places texts in contexts, and renders political debates meaningful. Doing so in an accessible manner boosts its case for readability. A number of themes stand out amidst this redrawing of knowledge-making. Commitment to the broader public emerges as a key concern. Rethinking the scope of research and the mode of presenting it is another.

In this spirit, I am venturing into two new projects. One is about the initiative to create a museum of immigration and diaspora in Thessaloniki, Greece. The challenge in this project is in line with the heart of Economou’s poem. The museum project requires reflection as to how to present ethnic lives in the past and why this representation matters to the public. What is it that ethnic lives may tell us about history, about commitment, about the experience of people who emigrated to make meaning for their lives elsewhere?

My second project also aims to bring scholarship closer to non-academic publics, but this time the venue is an online cultural journal. The goal of the journal is to promote responsible popularization of scholarship and to present research and ideas in compelling prose.

As I reflect on immigration, ethnicity, the nation, and ethnic lives, I think of the value of the community. This Ohio State University community that nurtures and supports my research. The national and international community of scholars that animates my work. The national public that my work aspires to reach. The Greek American community here in Columbus, and elsewhere. Without these communities, the scope of my own life would have been much narrower. Who would I be without these communities? My scholarly and personal life has been shaped in relation to them. Writing with, for, and about these communities has certainly contributed to living my own reflective ethnic life. 

1. An unpublished essay by Vassilis Lambropoulos first drew me to this association.

Yiorgos Anagnostou

The Ohio State University