Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Immigrant Adaptations: Reflections

The adaptation of members of an immigrant group––defined as adjustments in conformity with the prevailing norms of a society––often elicits praise. The newcomers are exalted for recognizing new realities and modifying their ideas and cultural practices accordingly.

Adaptation is seen as an apt strategy of embracing dominant values, bringing benefits to those who consent to it. Aligning with a particular power regime shields the group from being subjected to that power.

In this version, adaptation stands for cultural entrepreneurialism: possessing the acumen to identify power relations for the purpose of furthering one’s interests.

This admiration of adaptation, however, is shortsighted; ideologically suspect. It is blind to the fact that a minority’s alignment with dominant values harms people who are still peripheral and oppressed by the majority.

In the early 20th century and beyond, for example, immigrant adaptations to whiteness––conformity to the hierarchical racial status quo––brought immense privileges to those who embraced it. Subjected to the pressures of the aggressive 100% Americanization movement––an ideology also embraced by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s––a sector of immigrants learned this lesson quickly. Conformity to the dictates of whiteness was rewarded while dissent, instead, was severely punished.

Some justify this adaptation as a necessary and inevitable strategy for the economic survival of the emerging class of immigrant small business owners. The move to safeguard their interests––their adaptation politics––paid significant economic and social dividends. Cities in the American South honored in public those immigrants adapting––consenting––to segregationist Jim Crow.

But [mainstream] historians encourage critical reflection about adaptation. Seeing adaptation as a practice in connection to power, they invite us to consider its effects not only on those consenting to it but also on those subjected to it.

Andrew Manis, a historian of Greek Americans in the Jim Crow American South, rightly names adaptation as a mechanism of social control, which cancels out immigrant agency. He writes, “Greeks were trusted as also Americans who would remain silent on Protestant dominance, white supremacy, and brute force” (2021, 64). They were indeed among those who resisted most vociferously the pro-civil rights stance of Archbishop Iakovos.

Adaptation to whiteness led some immigrants to keep reproducing the country’s racial hierarchies, inflicting the same harm to others that the majority originally inflicted upon them. 

Steven Gerontakis (2012) puts this process starkly:

“In the 1920s, Greeks were excluded from ‘white men’s towns’ and ‘white men’s jobs’ in Arizona, Idaho, and Colorado, yet by 1940 had reached the point of ‘othering’ Mexicans out of Greek-owned ‘White Only’ establishments” (23).

Historians then decisively bring this point home: Let us examine adaptation as a historical process and recognize its multifaceted effects on society, instead of glorifying it as immigrant “success.”

Yiorgos Anagnostou

Works Cited

Gerontakis, Steven. 2012. AHEPA vs. the KKK: Greek-Americans on the Path to Whiteness. Senior Thesis. University of North Carolina at Asheville, North Carolina, 2012 [http://toto.lib.unca.edu/sr_papers/history_sr/srhistory_2012/gerontakis_steven.pdf]

Manis, Andrew M. 2021. “Religion, Belonging, and Social Mobility in Civil Rights Era Birmingham, Alabama.” Ex-centric Narratives: Journal of Anglophone Literature, Culture and Media 5. [https://ejournals.lib.auth.gr/ExCentric/article/view/8493]

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