New York.- Vicki James Yiannias
The conference, Reimagining White Ethnicity: Expressivity, Identity and Race, held at the Calandra Institute in New York in April and featured in the May 14 issue of the Greek News with a discussion of The American Image in American Cinema, the new filmography of American fiction films presented there, revisited the topic of “European Americans” with the purpose of recognizing the complexity of groups such as Greek Americans and Italian Americans as well as Irish Americans and Polish Americans.
Yiorgos Anagnostou, Associate Professor of Modern Greek and American Ethnic Studies at Ohio State University, who publishes on diaspora, ethnicity, and immigration, particularly in relation to Greek America, delivered the Keynote speech, Ethnic Acts: On “European Ethnicity” Cultural Politics. The speech was organized around two major themes. First, Anagnostou surveyed contemporary discussions about race and ethnicity in the United States and then examined new ways to approach Americans of European origins.
Taking precious time off from a crushing end-of-semester schedule to take questions, Anagnostou told the GN, “If the goal is to re-imagine ethnicity it is necessary to understand how the nation debates these issues and then ask pertinent questions to expand or even redirect the conversation”.
GN: You began your Keynote with the assessment that what drove the conference
was “renewed academic interest in Americans of European origins”. What brought about this “renewed interest”?
YA: Researchers noted the psychological and social relevance of ethnicity in the lives of these individuals as “the need to belong” and to provide roots in order to combat alienation, but the depth and range of this identification were not adequately recognized, at least for some American ethnics. Neither was the role of communities in the formation of ethnic identities adequately recognized.
GN: What are some of the ways in which ethnicity is expressed?
YA: A dilemma for families these days is whether to catch an Italian or Greek
American festival for the weekend! Cultural expressions of ethnicity proliferate: a blockbuster film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, for example, makes ethnicity a desirable form of belonging. Artists explore heritage, and publishers find value in ethnic family and community history. Writers and poets turn to ethnic experience as a source of inspiration, and ethnic autobiography flourishes…nowadays even young people write memoirs about “growing up ethnic”. Diaspora has become a buzzword; even the U.S. government endorses it.
GN: How does this ethnicity compare to old models of ethnic identity?
YA: It does not replicate old models. It is something new, not always fully
understood. Though sometimes it expresses itself conventionally, it often registers in creative and unexpected ways.
Some time ago, in the late 1970s, scholars thought that the early expressions of this cultural revitalization were the last cultural gasp before succumbing to assimilation. But ethnicity persists, now in the context of a globalized world.
GN: How did academia respond to this?
YA: The response registers on multiple levels. Scholars with interest in “European Americans” have been asking: Does ethnicity matter to these suburbanized Americans, and if so how? Or, is ethnic affiliation superficial, having no meaning other than favoring a traditional ethnic dish, or observing a holiday?
The question regarding the similarities and differences among European Americans is also of interest. But if I were to identify an overarching theme in the conference, this would be a particular tension in the ways ethnicity is portrayed. The aim is to identify alternative expressions of ethnicity and move beyond “acceptable difference”. As the title of the conference put it, it is necessary to reimagine “white ethnicity,” and to reclaim its complexity.
GN: What defines “acceptable difference”?
YA: It is a term that academics use to name the tendency to represent ethnicity in a non-
threatening manner: ethnics love family, community, food, dance, church, and ancestors; they value hard work and succeed because of this. Obviously, this is a cliché narrative, quite predictable…a kind of cookie cutter ethnicity. These are American values too, after all. Still, this portrayal holds great cultural power, for obvious reasons. It instills ethnic pride in the young. Because it projects a positive ethnic image people keep reiterating it, one might say with relish. This is not to say that there is no truth to this story; these values must be recognized. But something fundamental is lost in this celebratory narrative; something is gravely compromised. Scholars feel the responsibility to point this out. Let me add that in doing so they risk alienating themselves, both from the ethnic community, but even from some of their students.
GN: How so?
YA: Critiquing the narrative of bootstrap mobility poses a challenge for those academics who wish to establish a dialogue with ethnic leaders and heritage students. On one hand, one could argue that European ethnics enjoy wide acceptance precisely because they portray “difference” in a non-threatening manner; they exclude stories that trouble the “American Dream”. Thus they have an investment in the narrative of bootstrap success since it resonates with dominant national values. Academics, on the other hand, thrive in exploring ethnicity’s complexity. They often set themselves the task to tell the historical truth, no matter how difficult this truth might be for a certain public to hear. How, then, do communities and academics enter into a meaningful dialogue? How do we convince the public that the celebratory bootstraps model of European American ethnic mobility distorts history?
GN: What is an example of how this model “distorts history”?
YA: The bootstraps model is fundamentally unfair to racial minorities. How society prevented some non-European groups to experience mobility has been forgotten. The public rarely hears how institutional discrimination in the immediate aftermath of WWII deterred the mobility of African Americans, while propelling European Americans to the suburbs and mobility. This historical amnesia has resulted in the erroneous view that all races and ethnicities went through similar experiences; therefore, those who have not succeeded have only themselves to blame. The historical record shows otherwise. Knowledge about these events is not to cultivate guilt. Far from it. It is part of what it means to be an educated and civic-minded American citizen. It is part of the education we so often celebrate.
GN: What was the outcome of the conference?
YA: The conference was intellectually invigorating. It brought together scholars who recognize the urgency to reassess the significance of ethnicity. A key issue I raised was precisely about the value of sustaining this community. There was interest in creating a dialogue between Italian American and Greek American studies.
One hopes this might generate comparative work as well as interest in Greek America among young scholars. The prospects are indeed exciting.
Yiorgos Anagnostou’s most recent book is a poetry collection (in Greek): http://apopeirates.blogspot.com/2012/04/blog-post_20.html