One day in grade two, I was reading my class assigned reading book with my teacher, Mrs Peacock. I was still learning to speak English.
Although quite competent, I was still receiving what was known in the 1970s as special English classes. I remember reading out loud from a book describing a character, a little girl in a sari, as having olive skin and almond eyes. The little girl was Indian.
“What is olive skin?” I asked Mrs Peacock.
Mrs Peacock explained people have different colored skin. She rubbed the top of my wrist and said, “Your skin is olive too, see? My skin is white,” she said, pointing to herself.
The girl in the picture was clearly brown. I remembered feeling completely confused, staring at the spot of skin Mrs Peacock touched, trying to see the similarity between myself and the character in the book.
This was the first time in my life I’d become aware of my skin, that it was different to other people in my class. It was one of my first memories of being othered. Mrs Peacock had made it very clear that I was not like her. I was like the Indian girl in the book.
Anyone who knows me, who may be reading this, is probably feeling just as baffled as I did. At seven years of age, I had dark blonde hair, green eyes and fair skin, albeit olive.
I don’t know what Mrs Peacock saw when she looked at me. I was closer to her in color than the little girl in the book. It was the beginning of the conditioning of my self-identity as a person that wasn’t white.
To be fair to Mrs Peacock, there was a prevailing belief last century that Greeks were not white but brown.
In the 19th century, when scientists were dividing people into races, there were scientists who considered Greeks to be `dark whites’ descendant from white Nordic races who had mixed with darker races.
Giuseppe Sergi, an Italian anthropologist of the early twentieth century, rejected this idea. He argued in his 1901 book, `The Mediterranean Race: A Study of the Origin of European Peoples’, that the Mediterranean people, to which he belonged, were `an autonomous brown race’.
To Mrs Peacock, I was not a white Australian which, in the 1970s, was widely understood in Australia and the world, as being an Anglo-Saxon person of British descent.
I started school a few years after the `White Australia Policy’ was fully abandoned in 1973. The policy, whose origins started at the beginning of the 19th century, was designed to protect and uphold a vision of white British Australia.
In a National Archives of Australia paper titled, `More People Imperative: Immigration to Australia, 1901–39′, Greeks were classified as `White Aliens’ along with other non-British Europeans like the Italians, Polish and Maltese.
The paper also states they were sometimes seen as `semi-colored’. Identity politics that created ethnic hierarchies shaped people’s views.
There are several instances in Australian history where Greeks were victims of racist policies in Australia that include the Kalgoorlie racial riots of 1934 and incidents in 1902 preventing Greeks from crossing the NSW border to enter Victoria.
This idea that Greeks and other southern Europeans were not white existed in America as well.
American historian David R. Roediger’s book, `Working Toward Whiteness: How American Immigrants Became White’, discusses how southern Europeans, referred to as ‘new immigrants,’ at the beginning of the 20th century, sought to be considered white.
I was fortunate enough in the 1980s to go to a high school where most of the students were Greek. It meant that I escaped the racism some of my cousins and friends experienced going to a school where they were an ethnic minority.
I don’t remember any us talking about ourselves in terms of our skin color. There are Greeks that are fair and Greeks that are dark.
Our skin was not an identifier the way our shared ethnicity was. We lived in an area with a strong Greek community. We went to Greek school on Saturdays and attended a Greek Orthodox church.
The school also enjoyed a strong Vietnamese community. As Greek Australians, we saw ourselves in the same group as them. The migrant group.
Our color being secondary to our identity because white Australians generally didn’t include us in their definition of white – and – Australian only with the qualifier of where our parents came from. I wonder looking back now whether the Vietnamese kids saw us in the same group as them, kids of migrants, or as white.
A white Anglo Saxon friend I know said to me recently, `Greeks are white now.’
I found this baffling. I’m not alone. When did Greeks become white? Like most Greeks, I have Greek family members that are clearly not white. They are regularly mistaken as People of Color, (PoC).
When I asked my friend whether these family members were white, he could not answer. This issue then of whether Greek Australians are white or not can be contentious.
While some Greeks I know happily accept white as part of their self -identity, some do not. Some don’t identify with the classification of white because of the traditional, decades long global definition of white as someone from an Anglo-Saxon ethnicity.
Confusingly, there are Greeks, who say yes, even dark olive-skinned Greeks are now white. What makes us white? Our skin or our race? Who can and should be able to decide?
What my friend was suggesting was that Greeks have been elevated now to that of equal status to the wider white Anglo Saxon community because we have been here so long and considered to have assimilated.
As more people migrated to Australia from African, Indian and Asian countries, the ethnic diversity in our community increased and we were moved under the white umbrella by the same people who until recently told us we weren’t white.
After some research, I discovered the definition of who is white changed.
Mediterranean people, Jewish people and even Irish Catholics were re-racialised and re-classified as white at some undefined point in the late 20th century. Even though their biology remained the same.
Apparently, whiteness is fluid and determined by others, not ourselves. In America, these races were formerly referred to as white ethnics.
The problem with the classifier white, is that it denies intersectionality and ethnic diversity. It’s meaningless and confusing. It lumps everyone into one group.
It denies personal history and the decades long experiences of racism people under that umbrella have faced. It infers equality of privilege.
There are complex nuances around race and racism in this country that go beyond skin. White implies we are all equal when we are not. Racism exists within whiteness. There is still a hierarchy. Non-Anglo-Saxon people are still beneath Anglo-Saxons in this country.
When people see me, they may now see a white woman, but not when I apply for a job in the Arts. In 2019, Diversity Arts Australia released the results of a study that investigated representation of Cultural and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) Australians in leadership positions within our major arts, screen and cultural organisations.
The results, published in `The Conversation’ (8/27/2019)’ found leaders, directors and board members of Australia’s major cultural bodies are overwhelmingly from non-migrant backgrounds.
Less than half of our nation’s museums, music and opera companies, screen organisations and theatre companies have representatives from CALD people among their leadership teams with less than 10% as artistic directors. Greek Australians, and other southern Europeans, have more in common with other groups that experience racial discrimination in Australia than white Anglo-Saxon people.
Some Greek Australian friends I’ve discussed this with, say they feel they can’t reveal how they self-identify as PoC and not white.
They feel it sets them up for accusations of cultural appropriation. Even though the idea they weren’t white was once imposed on them by other people.
Our lighter skin (for some) gives us greater privilege and opportunity. I can walk into a room, and no one will know my ethnicity. Until they learn my name.
Our history in this country, albeit racist, does not compare to that of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPoC).
We do not and have not experienced the same horrific systemic racism or violence in this country that Indigenous Australians experience.
With that reality, is it fair then for those Greeks who identify as a PoC to align themselves in that group? Should their racial self-identity now change?
People who identify themselves as Indigenous in Australia can range from dark-skinned to blonde haired, blue-eyed people.
Indigenous people define Indigenous not by skin colour but by relationships and self-identity.
To meet the government’s current criteria for identifying as Indigenous, a person must be of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, identify as Indigenous and be accepted as Indigenous by the community in which they live.
Interestingly, fair skinned Indigenous people can often face challenges on their Aboriginal identity.
The three-part definition became the culturally accepted standard in the 1980s, in preference to earlier classification systems which relied on the racist science of eugenics through a calculation of blood quantum related to skin color.
The present three-part definition makes space for the racist historical experiences of Indigenous people and the part past racist policies of assimilation played. It makes cultural identity and experiences central, not skin color.
Researchers who have studied humans at the genetic level now say that the whole category of race is misconceived.
When scientists set out to assemble the first complete human genome, which was a composite of several individuals, they deliberately gathered samples from people who self-identified as members of different races.
In June 2000, the results were revealed, the concept of race was found to have no genetic or scientific basis. There is no gene that determines, white, black or brown skin.
Different ethnic groups develop different physical characteristics based on their geographical environment and maintain those differences through endogamy.
What scientists found, is that everyone’s DNA can be attributed back to Africa.
Race is a made-up label that more accurately describes ethnic groups of people than actual biological groups of people. Ethnic populations are much more diverse than color labels.
I’ve been back to Greece several times now. On my last trip, I spent five weeks driving around Greece with my family.
Had I grown up in Greece, would I have considered myself white? By growing up in Australia, I too, had come to believe the Anglocentric idea that typical Greeks looked like that racist 1980s character, `Con the Fruiterer’, from the comedy show Fast Forward.
The blonde-haired blue-eyed comedian who played him, Mark Mitchell, colored his skin brown and wore a black wig to drive home the racist stereotype that we are dark skinned. He also played the part of Con’s wife `Mariko’, a dark-skinned hysterical woman with a moustache.
How Greek Australians should self-identify is not for me to say. For too long other people, governments and organisations have sought to tell us, and keep telling us, what we are and how we should identify.
Self-identity is complex and multifaceted. It’s determined by one’s lived experiences, race and color play one part; and that exists within a historical, political, societal context. I think we should respect whatever people decide for themselves.
While I accept Greeks are now classified as a white race, I feel the word bleaches my ethnicity and my personal history.
It doesn’t feel authentic yet based on how I was taught to see myself as a fair skinned Greek, not as a white person.
I prefer to refer to myself as belonging to the Mediterranean race or as Greek Australian. Forty-six per cent of all Australians have at least one parent who was born overseas.
We are culturally and linguistically diverse.
Even with intersectionality, we have shared experiences in this country as migrants and as the children of migrants, irrespective of ethnicity.