- Contours of White Ethnicity: Popular Ethnography and the Making of Usable Pasts in Greek America
This book by Yiorgos Anagnostou centers on "popular ethnography," a hybrid genre combining autobiography, family history, folklore, ethnography, oral history, poetry, and fiction, authored by people who actively identify themselves as Greek-Americans. Anagnostou has chosen to focus on this literature about the Greek-American past in order to reflect on the hypotheses of 1990s sociology regarding "white ethnicity."
Anagnostou finds these arguments persuasive but he wonders if they are not also overly dismissive and generalizing. This body of scholarship, which Anagnostou reviews in the first chapter, tracks the way formerly stigmatized European immigrant groups, such as Greeks, Italians, Jews, Poles, and Irish, emboldened by civil rights discourse, began to claim public visibility from the 1970s on, exposing their experience of racism and re-signifying cultural practices that once had been derided in mainstream America, such as bilingualism, distinctive food, dance, music and other cultural traditions, transforming them into sources of pride and authenticity. In highlighting the racial aspect of this ethnicization process, the use of the term "white ethnicity" challenges the ahistorical rhetoric of American liberal multiculturalism, drawing attention to the fact that immigrants' assimilation depended on their consent to American racial [End Page 144] hierarchies. By extension, as Toni Morrison has charged, the social ascent of these immigrants was achieved on the "backs of blacks" who experienced continuing racism and even downward mobility as a result. Another key component of the white ethnicity argument centers on how "feeling ethnic" has taken the place of "being ethnic" as identities became available for opportunistic consumption and superficial, excessive performance during moments of leisure. A putatively collective identity, this new ethnicity has been derided as highly individualistic: a temporary connection devoid of social obligations and restrictions, easily revocable. Hardly distinctive, each cultural essence appears to have been poured into the same mold: exchange the kalamatiano for the polka, but ethnicity-as-spectacle remains a constant.
At worst complacent and compliant with American racial prejudices and exclusions, at best a comical buffoon, peddling an Orientalist and out-of-date version of Greek culture to white America, the Greek-American from the perspective of the white ethnicity argument does not appear to be an appealing subject, at least for progressive social analysis. Anagnostou's book emerges from the melancholy entailed in facing the Greek-American in the wake of these devastating critiques. Its driving question is whether there is anything more: anything progressive, creative, heartfelt to be found in the discourse of "white ethnics" such as the Greeks that might problematize these blanket condemnations. Yes, Anagnostou concedes, histories of racism and exploitation have been deployed in conservative ways to support anti-minority positions and undermine demands for social justice, with the immigrant success story used to renew the promise of the American dream. Meritocracy and individual effort, bolstered by a strong immigrant "culture" (work ethic, entrepreneurialism, investment in education, family solidarity), have been touted as responsible for success, against evidence of persistent social and economic structures of racial exclusion and preference. Nonetheless, Anagnostou wonders if there are not narrations of the Greek-American past in which histories of racism, not to mention leftist political activism, have been used to promote interracial solidarity and to push for social change on a structural level. Yes, the figure of the dancing, cooking Greek-American of the festival circuit, the postmodern consumer of roots discourse, abounds, but are there no instances in which connecting to the past builds deeper bonds of community. Is it so "easy" to be Greek after all?
To answer these questions, Anagnostou takes a sample from the potentially huge archive of practices, images, texts, and performances that have been producing Greek America since the 1970s, including ethnic festivals, parades, dance performances, cultural centers, cookbooks, autobiographies, family genealogies, documentaries, language programs, university ethnicity studies, and oral history projects, choosing to focus on the community's self-reflexive, pseudo-scholarly discourse about its past(s). The first...