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2008-02-15

THE GREEK-AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

PERCEPTION OF GREEKS IN THE UNITED STATES

Historically, Greeks in the United States have been viewed with mixed feelings of admiration, ridicule, puzzlement, or hate. Greeks are admired for their contributions to western civilization. Witness the seemingly standard eulogy to the contributions of the ancient Greeks in the introductory essays of numerous textbooks written in English, in almost every field of inquiry. Greeks are also seen as strange, as witnessed from the commonly used phrase "It's all Greek to me" to refer to things, events, or words that are totally incomprehensible. Although Greeks are becoming less "strange," as the American public becomes consciously multicultural, and Greeks themselves establish high-profile careers in American politics, the phrase itself was never dropped. It became, instead, well-entrenched within the English language.

As an expression, the phrase "It's all Greek to me" has become indelibly ingrained within the American subconscious. Greekness as "strangeness" serves as a reminder of the stages that Greeks had to go through before they were fully accepted as rightfully "American." Although almost a relic by now of past attitudes, and therefore seemingly of interest only to the historian and linguistic archaeologist, the phrase remains a living conveyor of ideas about the American meaning of "strangeness," and, therefore, of the original strangeness of Greeks(2).

Greeks were not only admired, envied, or misunderstood, but also discriminated against, especially during the nativist period in the early part of the twentieth century(3). This is witnessed by such historical events as discrimination against Greek laborers, the destruction of Greek businesses, and even the burning-down and expulsion of Greek communities(4). In certain parts of the country, Greeks were relegated to non-white status, more to humiliate or exclude, than to represent anything truly non-white about skin color(5).

As a result of the new immigration law of 1924, Greek immigrants were restricted to the lowest immigration quota than any other European group(6). If past immigration quotas can be used as a "discrimination index," it may be argued that since Greeks were allowed the lowest immigration quota, they were "officially" discriminated against the most. It seems reasonable to surmise that in a culture, or at a time in that culture when the dominant values are non-pluralistic, or even racist, those groups that don't fall within the favored categories of racial, ethnic, or political prototypes are likely to be treated as "second class," if not suffer direct blows in their social and political lives.

Social norms or values set the standards not only for outward behavior, but also for what counts as personally desirable. As a result, they may cause non-mainstream peoples to feel personally inadequate, misplaced, or blameworthy. The most extreme example of this is self-hate (hating the self that society denigrates or rejects). Alternatively, those who are perceived as mainstream are more likely to enjoy more social opportunities. Their social circumstances may allow for healthier, more positive perceptions of themselves, or even downright self-admiration. Likewise with the Greeks in America. When the wider culture rejected their ethnicity, so did some Greek immigrants(7). Others compensated by organizing societies with very important-sounding names, possibly more to protect their fragile egos, than because of anything truly grandiose about such societies. They appointed themselves to offices with equally aristocratic-sounding titles, often preceded with superlative epithets as if to "guarantee" their public importance (such as, "supreme" president of such and so, as opposed to merely "president"). This may show how creatively humans can overcome a culturally hostile environment by withdrawing within their own self-managed "social shells of importance," the more so, the more convinced they are that their own sense of self-worth is by far very different from how people around them perceive them. More out of desperation, feeling of isolation, or need to "belong," than verifiable historical circumstances, some Greek immigrants even attempted to trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower.(9) As American culture changed toward greater acceptance of non-Anglo cultures, partly as a result of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Greek immigrants became less likely to feel alienated in a non-Greek world.

Following the civil rights movement, Greek immigrants began changing their perception of themselves, or, more correctly, of their original Greekness For example, where before, many Greek Americans would anglicize their names usually to find employment (8), in recent years they feel less pressure to change their names to "pass" as "true" American, or get a job, or, for that matter, run for political office. Even at the political level, where Greek Americans cannot possibly rely on their strength of numbers to elect their own (since they are relatively so few); but on the wider popular appeal of their ideas or personalities, many Greek-descended American politicians have managed to succeed in recent years even in spite of the fact that they kept their original Greek names. Witness, for instance, the successful political careers of Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, and George Stephanopoulos. Ironically, the fact that two of these, Dukakis and Tsongas, were unsuccessful in their bids for the presidency may signal that although American culture is more accepting today of non-Anglo politicians, it may not yet be as fully accepting, as those with more blatantly anglo names, or anglo-related images. In any event, contrast the success such Greek Americans have recently had, including state governorships and senate seats, to a time when having a Greek name was a handicap for getting even blue collar jobs. Many American-born Greeks today take pride in public in being Greek, as opposed to trying to "cover it up," as was often done by their forefathers.


ON THE BUSH-DUKAKIS CAMPAIGN


It has been argued that in the presidential campaign between Geroge Bush and Michael Dukakis, the Bush camp manipulated the public's distruct of "foreigners" to paint Dukakis as being not as patriotic, or "true" American, as Bush (10). Witness, for example, the conspicuous display of the American flag during the Bush campaign, connoting that Dukakis may not be a "real" American. If such analysis is true, then the Bush camp may have taken advantage of a possible Greco-phobia among an indeterminate number of Americans that still consider Greeks as essentially outsiders. In any event, the fact that such tactics may have even been attempted by the Bush campaign, is proof that at least in the minds of those who ran his campaign, the American public was not ready for a Greek American President, yet.

Whether such distrust for a Greek American president actually exists, or exists on a wide enough scale to make a difference in presidential politics, cannot be easily ascertained. There are many factors involved in making electoral decisions, only one of which is the ethnic background of the candidate. Nevertheless, the fact that the Bush camp may have capitalized on Dukakis' Greekness, however indirectly it may have done so, may provide some evidence that within the political arena, American culture hasn't changed enough to render such appeals to American nativist feelings totally futile.


THE SOCIAL-PSYCHOLOGY OF ANGLO-CONFORMISM


Many immigrants came to this country when it was overwhelmingly Anglo, socially, culturally, and politically, as in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As indicated earlier, to succeed (get a job, find friends, advance socially), one felt tremendous pressure to adopt the ethnic Anglo culture. This may explain why it may have been much easier for whites to succeed, than it was for non-whites whose outlook was the least Anglo-like.

Public education was built around the "melting pot" concept(19). Translated, this meant that all cultures felt strong social pressure to "melt" inside a single "cultural pot," which happened to be largely Anglo-derived. The emphasis was on cultural homogeneity, than on cultural or linguistic pluralism. This is also seen from Noah Webster's attempts to "americanize" even the English language(20). As a result, some immigrants may have "expunged" their ethnic culture from their sense of self; others kept it barely alive through their private schools or churches, where depending on the quality of education they received, they maintained at least a semblance of their original ethnic culture.

D
uring this process of "cultural exchange," some immigrants succeeded in becoming more "Anglo-Saxon" in a predominantly Anglo world, than the Anglos themselves were. If they were second-class citizens in the old country, because poor or oppressed, they were now determined to become Anglo to survive and succeed in an Anglo-dominated society. For example, some Greek-Americans at the time anglicized their names, avoided teaching their children Greek, or belittled the manners of the "new" immigrants(21). If immigrant experiences of Greeks and other peoples in this country prove anything, it is that some people, especially if previously oppressed, will not hesitate to sacrifice their cultural heritage to social and economic advancement.


ANGLOGREEKS


In spite of the complete cultural and ethnic "facelift" experienced by some Greek immigrants, most retained at least some memory of Greek culture. They became anglicized Hellenes, or what the author would like to refer to as "AngloGreeks." Unfortunately, some went to such length in psychologically denying their own Greek culture, that they started degrading their Greek roots. They began projecting their fear of themselves (or of their Greekness) on their fellow Greeks. For example, to further distance themselves from their Greek roots, they derogatorily referred to recent Greek immigrants as "displaced persons," or "DPs"(22).


ALBERT MEMMI ON THE SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY OF THE OPPRESSED

In his psychological study of the oppressed, Dominated Man, the philosopher-sociologist Albert Memmi showed that those who are politically oppressed risk becoming, in their struggle to gain status, just as, or even more oppressive, than their oppressors(25). In their effort to gain power, the oppressed "internalize" the values of the powerful. In fact, they may internalize the values of the dominant group so well that they, in turn, may become staunch defenders of the values of the dominant group that once oppressed them.

Memmi's analysis may be applied to Greek immigrants who were once oppressed in their own country, or in the United States. It could be argued that many Greek immigrants who converted to the Anglo culture so internalized Anglo-values that they continued defending Anglo values even if the social circumstances that had once required them to be Anglo-like to survive, had changed. They tried so hard to "assimilate" into the Anglo mainstream that they "over-internalized" the dominant Anglo culture(26). Table of Contents

GREEK CULTURE IN THE UNITED STATES


As a result of the anglicization of Greek immigrants, many such immigrants may have developed a peculiarly ritualistic, or "for appearances only," Greek-American culture. These immigrants may have sacrificed the substance of Greek culture, to keeping only a Greek cultural facade, such as, church attendance, folkdances, Greek food, ethnic parades, and the like. There was no attempt made to analyze in-depth the meaning of Greek culture, or to explain its symbols, study its history, literature, or art. Such in-depth cultural plunge may have been psychologically too difficult to bear, while simultaneously trying to convert to Anglo culture--not to mention practically almost impossible in the absence of qualified scholars, or of a supportive social or political milieu. Their new "showcase" Greek culture was so devoid of careful analysis, or study of one's ethnic heritage, that it became psychologically non-threatening to Anglo-converted Greeks. In fact, one could argue that this was precisely the reason why it never went beyond scratching the surface, let alone open up a dialogue about the Greek American experience. This kind of showcase culture was also politically "safe" from an Anglo point of view, and, by extension, from the view of the completely anglicized Greeks. This is so because it lacks the ideology of a movement capable of challenging the ethnic Anglo dominance in American society(27).

THE GREEK ORTHODOX CHURCH

Some Greek immigrants may have substituted Greekness, with membership in the Greek Orthodox Church. Although strong in the Greek countryside, the Greek church was never so central in 19th and 20th centuries Greece, as it has become in the Greek-American community in the United States.(28) This may be due not only to the peculiar nature of American nativism, as explained, below; but also to the fact that at the time when many early Greek immigrants came to the United States, around the turn of the century, the Greek Orthodox Church was by far more important in their lives even in Greece, than it is to modern Greeks living in Greece today. This was particularly true to Greek immigrants coming to the U.S. directly from places still occupied by the Moslem Ottoman Turks, where historically the "enslaved" Greeks clung even closer to their churches to survive (see on-line monograph on Greek History). As modern Greece became increasingly "independent" from Ottoman control, and secular, so were later Greek immigrants more likely to value other cultural institutions, such as, universities and other types of secular cultural activities, as much, or even more, than the Greek Orthodox Church.

Since becoming a new nation, the United States has consciously and systematically promoted religious pluralism. For example, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief. This type of established religious pluralism made it easier for different religious groups to peacefully coexist and flourish, than it did for different ethnic groups to keep their secular cultures in an Anglo-dominated society. Consequently, many Greek immigrants found it much easier to maintain their religion, than to preserve their secular ethnic culture. Discouraged from maintaining their secular culture, they turned to their religion with a vengeance, building Greek churches everywhere where there were enough employed Greeks to finance them. Saloutos referred to this phenomenon in the early Greek-American community as a "mania" for church building(29). The Greek Church came to symbolize for Greek Americans the sense of belonging, which Greek society as a whole did for the Greeks living in Greece. This is why we have today the seemingly unexplainable, if not contradictory phenomenon of completely anglicized third and fourth generation Greeks zealously supporting the Greek Orthodox Church: their Church touches them as deeply, or as completely, as does one's place of birth, or even country of origin.

Many Greek immigrants channeled their love for their cultural heritage, which they felt they had to give up in an Anglo-dominated society, toward their Greek churches(30). As indicated earlier, where in the old country they loved all components of their cultural heritage about equally, depending also on when they emigrated to the U.S., social circumstances in an Anglo-dominated, but religiously pluralistic society, led them to channel their love for their ethnic heritage into support for their churches. This is why Greek churches in the United States have traditionally been more than just places of worship, they are veritable small-nations-within-a-nation, complete with Greek schools, large halls for lunches, dinners, dances, and conferences, annual festivals and ceremonies, communal and camouflaged political activities and elections, sport events and study groups, and many intricately organized youth and adult clubs with national and local officers, and even church-sponsored "Olympic games(31)."

Greek immigrants built their churches large enough to fit their culture. What the Anglo-dominated world outside denied them, their churches accepted. Unfortunately, the secular didn't always mix well with the religious, with the result being that much of the church-preserved "Greek culture" became either a "sanitized" version of their original secular culture, or degenerated into a "dead" ritual devoid of its original cultural meaning. By giving Greek culture a roof, the Greek church kept its form, much as the Greek church of the Byzantine empire had done for ancient Greek "pagan" culture, but risked destroying its substance. It is the author's view, based on his personal observations within the Greek American community(32), that much of church-preserved Greek culture is like a well-kept butterfly inside a thick exhibit glass, than it is a live movement capable of evolving, or of shaping people's lives. This is particularly true regarding controversial folk ideals, or popular literary, social, or political figures.

New waves of Greek immigrants kept testing the ability of the church to expand, to include ever more secular-based Greek cultural characteristics(33). This led inevitably to conflicts within the church between anglicized Greeks who advocated "Americanization," and therefore wanted their church to reject becoming more "Greek;" and recent Greek immigrants, who wanted their church to give them another "Greek island" in the midst of an Anglo dominated country(34). This explains why Greek churches offer many "services" which Greeks in Greece today would expect to find outside their churches, such as, education, entertainment, and business opportunities, not to mention the possibility of finding a partner for marriage(35). At the same time that recent Greek immigrants demanded a more Greek-like church, anglicized Greeks pushed for a church that embodies at least some of the more central American values, such as, conspicuous consumption, democratic elections, and business-like organization of church affairs.

During Greek American functions, priests have usually been ackowledged first, thus symbolizing the community's respect for their churches. The exception to this may be new secular-based Greek cultural groups organized by post-WWII Greek immigrants. Such groups are usually dominated by well-educated Greek Americans, many of whom hold doctoral or professional degrees, or teach in universities, and whose appreciation for church affairs is at least matched, if not exceeded, by their love for secular Greek culture(36). Apparently, the leaders of these groups never internalized the same high regard for priests, or the central role that the Greek Orthodox Church should play in the Greek American community, as did previous generations of Greek Americans(37). Instead of being heavily church-centered, such groups promote many events outside the church that need neither church approval, nor even the support of the church, such as, lecture series, cultural and artistic events, and even informal educational projects for young people (music choir, theater, and the like). We may speculate that as the United States becomes more ethnically pluralistic, meaning, more accepting of ethnic differences, Greek immigrants may find it easier to express their secular culture outside the Greek church, through secular schools, and cultural centers and organizations. Table of Contents


Endnotes


1. These excerpts are taken from a paper presented in 1989 at an international conference on the Greek-American experience, after certain revisions made in 1993 and 1998. A. Makedon, "The Social Psychology of Immigration: The Greek-American Experience." Presented at the Saloutos International Conference on the Greek-American Experience, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, May 13, 1989. Original paper published in ERIC database, Document ED 349 201. Click on the endnote number to return to the text.


2. It may be noted here that the standardization of its meaning within the English language serves to illustrate the extent to which language is shaped by historical events, and eventually becomes another type of historical record of the human experience.Click on endnote number to return to the text.


3. John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925, New York: Atheneum, 1972. Helen Papanikolas has written about the lives of maiinly Cretan Greeks in Utah. See, for exmple, Papanikolas, Small Bird, Tell Me: Stories of Greek Immigrants, Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press/Ohio State University Press, 1993; and Emily-George, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987.Click on endnote number to return to the text.


4. Charles C. Moskos, Greek Americans: Struggle and Success, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980. Greeks killed in Nevada in 1908, p. 16; Greek stores destroyed, Greeks singled out for intimidation by the KKK in Utah, p. 16; riot against a Greek shanty town in South Omaha, Nebraska, in 1909, pp. 16-17; hostile reception of Greek laborers in Lowell, Mass., p. 18.Click on endnote number to return to the text.

5. For example, witness the riot against Greeks in South Omaha, Nebraska, which was instigated by the fact that a Greek man was seen walking with a "white" woman. See Moskos, Greek Americans, pp. 16-17.Click on endnote number to return to the text.

6. Only 100 additional Greeks per year were allowed to enter as legal immigrants. Michael Novak, The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics: Politics and Culture in the Seventies, New York: Macmillan, 1972, p. 89; Theodore Saloutos, The Greeks in the United States, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1964, pp. 243-45; James A. Banks, Multiethnic Education: Theory and Practice, 2nd ed, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1988, p. 5.Click on endnote number to return to the text.

7. "The Erosion of Hellenic Sentiment," in Saloutos, Greeks in the U.S., pp. 232-256.

8. For example, Papanikolas mentioned Yiorgis' anglicization of his Greek name to get a job as a foreman. Yorgis became George "Nelson." Emily-George, p.209.

9. See Saloutos, Greeks in U.S., p. 250.

10. Petros, Nick "(article in the process of being retrieved)"

11. See "Theories of Assimilation: Anglo-Conformity," by Milton Gordon in his book Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origins, New York: Oxford Universiy Press, 1964, pp. 84-114. See, also, "The Nordic Jungle: Inferiority in America," Unmeltable Ethnics, pp. 72-115. Finally, in the area of Greek-American Studies, see "Erosion of Hellenic Sentiment," Greeks in the U.S., pp. 232-257.

12. The list, below, is representative of works on ethnicity in the United States. On Anglo-conformity and European immigrants, see Andrew M. Greeley, Why Can't They Be Like Us? America's White Ethnic Groups, New York: Dutton, 1975, esp. chapter 4, "Steps in Ethnic Assimilation." See also Novak, Rise of Unmeltable Ethnics; and Gordon, Assimilation in American Life. Finally, see Banks, Multiethnic Education, esp. chapter 8 on "Ethnicity and Citizenship Education;" and the following: Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, eds., Ethnicity: Theory and Experience, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975; and John Higham, Strangers in the Land.

13. See Saloutos, Greeks in the U.S., pp. 75, 237. Efforts by Greek-American orgnizations, esp. A.H.E.P.A., to conform to Anglo-American ideals are described by Saloutos in Greeks in the U.S., pp. 249, 251-53. See, also, Charles C. Moskos, Greek Americans, esp. chapter 2 on "Greek America Forms;" and Alice Scourby's essay "Three Generations of Greek Americans: A Study in Ethnicity," in The Greek American Community in Transition, edited by Harry J. Psomiades and Alice Scourby, New York: Pella Publishing, 1982, pp. 111-122.

14. "What Multiculturalism Should Not Be." Proceedings of the Midwest Philosophy of Education Society, 1995 and 1996. Ed. M. Oliker. Chicago, Illinois: Midwest Philosophy of Education Society, 1997, pp. 172-86. Also available on the Internet. To see it, please click here.

15. Greek Star, Sept. 8, 1988.

16. Banks, Multiethnic Education, pp. 144-45. See also Gordon, Assimilation, p. 101; and the philosophical arguments of such writers as Horace M. Kalen, Culture and Democracy in the United States, New York: Boni and Liveright, 1924; and Julius Draschler, Democracy and Assimilation, New York: Macmillan, 1920.

17. Gordon, Assimilation, pp. 139-40.

18. D. J. Palumbo, American Politics, New York: Meredith, 1973, p. 187.

19. Banks, Multiethnic Education, pp. 144-47. See, also, Colin Greer, The Great School Legend: A Revisionist Interpretation of American Public Education, New York: The Viking Press, 1973.

20. Robert L. Church, Education in the United States: An Interpretive History, New York: The Free Press, 1976, pp. 16-20.

21. Novak, Rise of Unmeltable Ethnics, esp. chapter on "Spiro Anagnostopoulos: Remembrance of Humiliations Past," pp. 116-134. See, also, Saloutos, Greeks in the U.S., chapter 4.

22. Moskos, Greek Americans, p. 60.

23. The church, which is well known in the Chicago-area Greek American community, is located in a western Chicago suburb near the intersection of highway 290 and Central Avenue.

24. Saloutos, Greeks in the U.S., chapter 3, "Early Years;" Moskos, Greek Americans, chapter 1, "The Greek Comes to America."

25. Albert Memmi, Dominated Man, New York: Continuum, 1967.

26. On the Greek immigrants' search for "respectability," see Saloutos' chapters on "The Erosion of Hellenic Sentiment" and "The Era of Respectability," Greeks in U.S., esp. pp. 237-51, 382-83.

27. At the theoretical level, the Anglo cultural dominance has been challenged by such ethnic studies scholars as Greeley, Gordon, and Novak (see preceding endnotes). See, also, Peter Schrag, The Decline of WASP, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.

28. On the role of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, see Saloutos, Greeks in the U.S., chapter 5, "For God and Country;" and chapter 6, "The Greek Orthodox Church: The Beginnings." See, also, Moskos, Greek Americans, chapter 3, "The Greek American Community;" Nicon D. Patrinacos, "The Role of the Church in the Evolving Greek American Community," in Psomiades and Scourby, eds, Greek American Community. Also Thomas Burgess, Greeks in America: An Account of their Coming, Progress, Customs, Living, and Aspirations, Boston: Sherman, French, 1913, esp. chapter 7, "The Church of the Greeks;" and J. P. Xenides, The Greeks in America, New York: George H. Doran, 1922, pp. 118-135.

29. For example, during the period between 1914 and 1918, alone, sixty one new churches were organized. Greeks in U.S., pp. 128-29.

30. The author is preparing a paper on the Greek Orthodox Church, where he holds the view that the suppression of non-religious forms of ethnic identification during the American nativist movement in the early twentieth century may partly explain the founding of a large number of new Greek Orthodox churches at the time. Makedon, "The Role of the Greek Orthodox Church During the Nativist Period in the United States," under preparation.

31. Church-organized "Olympic Games" receive wide publicity in the Greek-American press in Chicago, Illinois, as in the weekly newspaper The Greek Star.

32. His involvement was largely as a professional educator, than as a "cornerstone parishioner." He has been associated, or visited Greek Orthodox parishes in the United States for approximately 25 years , including the principalship of two church-sponsored Greek American schools in Ann Arbor, michigan, and Chicago, Illinois. His involvement largely ended by 1995 to concentrate on academic pursuits.

33. See Moskos' chapter on the "New Greeks," Greek Americans, pp. 54-77.

34. See Andrew Kopan's anecdotal account of the new Greek immigrants' thirst for cultural and linguistic maintenance. Kopan, "The Historical Development of the Greek Community in Chicago: The Case for Education," unpublished monograph, esp. pp. 7-12.

35. The author even heard a mother with standing in the "philoptochos," a church women's group, advertise on the microphone to the whole parish during one of the well organized and attended church holidays, the "availability" of her daughter for marriage. Obviously, her church provided enough of a family atmosphere for her and her daughter, that she felt quite free to announce publicly some of her most intimate and burning concerns.

36. For example, within the Chicago area alone, the author became acquainted for a certain number of years with several such groups through his involvement with others since 1984 in their "establishment" or administration, or as a member attending lecture or other activities. At least two such groups were created in the late 1980s, including the midwest chapter of Krikos and the Hellenic Cultural Organization; while others, such as, the Hellenic Council of Education and the Hellenic Professional Society, had been already established some years earlier.

37. Greek Americans seem to be more church-centered, than Greeks elsewhere in the Greek diaspora. Moskos, "Greek Australians," Greek Americans, p. 153.

38. For a multicultural perspective, see "What Multiculturalism Should Not Be."

39. Banks, Multiethnic Education, esp. ch. 2, "Ethnic Revitalization Movements;" and Novak, Rise of Unmeltable Ethnics, esp. Part 3, "The New Ethnic Politics.

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