When did I become ‘white’?

Those Greeks and Italians who may feel 'white' should be reminded that Greeks, Italians, Jews, and even Irish Catholics were not considered 'white' for a long time

I am not sure when I became ‘white’ or ‘privileged’, but I was shouted down as a “white privileged man” and accused of being a “typical Greek man” by someone who identifies as Blackasian. Months earlier I was attacked by the neo Nazis Golden Dawn on their blog as “a Gypsy, a Jew and gay”. I am possibly all the above given my heritage.

Greek cohorts who may feel ‘white’ should be reminded that Greeks, Italians, Jews, and even Irish Catholics were not considered ‘white’ for a long time.

From the mid 19th and early 20th centuries we were seen as ‘semi-coloured’ and were prohibited, later restricted, from entry to Australia. This was the same in the USA and Canada.

We were ‘unsavoury’, and our values were unaligned to WASP Australia, Canada or USA of the time. Supplement the word Muslim, refugee, African, with Greek, Maltese, Jewish and Catholic and one finds identical narratives. Fear of our allegiances to home nations and non-Protestant faiths; politics, look and dress; languages and behaviour were seen as threats to WASP elites, farmers and the ‘white’ unionised working class.

The 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, or ‘White Australia Policy’, aimed mainly at Chinese, Asians and Pacific Islanders, considered those from the south east of Europe, Middle East, Levant, and Eurasia as ‘undesirable’. Premier P. Collier, of Western Australia, wrote to the Prime Minister’s Department in 1926 stating that “Southern Europeans, were arriving in the state in increasing numbers”, “contrary” to the revised Act of 1905.

Anti-Greek riots broke out in Perth in 1915 and in Kalgoorlie in 1916, and later in the 1930s again in Kalgoorlie, resulting in deaths. In the US, Greeks working in packinghouses and on the railroads in South Omaha, as The Omaha Daily News wrote: “They have insulted women … Greeks are a menace to the American labouring man − just as the Japs, Italians, and other similar labourers are.”

The American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) formed in the 1920s as a direct response to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), after the 1919 anti-Greek riots in Omaha. In 1918, thousands of Toronto citizens went “hunting Greeks” as they destroyed downtown Greek businesses, and by 1922 the Greek-language press routinely featured reports on Klan anti-Greek violence in the USA.

Fred L. Gifford, Klan Grand Dragon of the Realm of Oregon, Atlanta, in 1923 wrote: “The Klan in the Western States has a great mission of Americanism to perform. The rapid growth of the Japanese population and the great influx of foreign labourers, mostly Greeks, is threatening our American institutions, and Klans in Washington, Oregon and Idaho are actively at work to combat these foreign and un-American influences.”

Bootlegging, gambling, the hiring of African Americans in Greek shops cemented the Greeks’ colour. AHEPA, according to critics like Saloutos, represented the way Greeks could ‘whiten’ and de-Hellenise, by reinventing themselves according to the Germanic and Anglo eugenic-inspired views of ancient Hellenic whiteness − a mythology based on European archeologists’ findings of bleached white marble statues.

We did not suffer the sickening level of terror, violence, prejudice and genocide inflicted on African Americans and the First Peoples in the US, Australia and Canada, but Italians, Jews and Greeks were routinely beaten, raped, stabbed, whipped and lynched. The largest mass lynching in the US was in 1891 of 11 Italians in New Orleans accused of killing a policeman.

All these events occurred in the context of new nation building projects in south east Europe that resulted in ethnic cleansing and anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia, mass slaughter of Armenians in Turkey and burning of the port city of Smyrna (now Ismir) by the new ultra-nationalist Turkish forces, who were not too different from the ultra-nationalist Greek forces that time in Greece.

The burning of one of our most ancient Hellenic cities, Smyrna, ignited the slaughter of more than 150,000 Greeks and Armenians, starvation, a death march, mass atrocities, mass rapes and the final expulsion of over one million Hellenic inhabitants of Asia Minor. Similar to what Syrians, Iraqis and others now fleeing war and religious persecution and ethnic cleansing face. Earlier in that nationalist period, thousands of Turkish or Muslim Greeks were expelled and killed in a Europeanising Greece. The ‘new’ Turkey and Greece were defining themselves on nationalisms based on racial grounds, a recipe brought in by German, British and French eugenics.

When I grew up, the term ‘wog’ was not an empowering term as it is now. Our woodwork teacher sprayed our feet after lunch because we were “smelly little wogs”. We were often beaten and had to defend ourselves (some better than me), laughed at, spat on by Anglo peers, and refused service by some. Things got far better after 1976 when multicultural policy was cemented across most services and education.

My late mother’s favourite story was how many “Australian [WASP] women” in the 1950s called her a “whore” for wearing off-the-shoulder red dresses in the 1950s. According to my mum, Anglo women were “simply jealous” of her sexuality and beauty.

Hellenophobia has been ramped up recently in northern and western Europe after Greece’s financial crisis. Slurs about lazy, dirty and corrupt Greeks flourish. According to the real culture warrior, Samuel P. Huntington, in his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Greece belongs to an entirely different civilisation: the Orthodox one, together with Serbia and Russia.

Nevertheless, by the 1980s we graduated to sort of white in Australia, due to our numbers, changes to our names and the pluralist policy of multiculturalism. Our ‘success’ in education, business and politics played a role as well.

The migration of peoples who were less ‘white’ than us after the late 1970s − South East Asians, South Asians, Africans and Chinese − made us even whiter. So when I was criticised as a “Greek man”, I realised I was being defined again by someone else’s racial fears, just as when the Nazis attacked me as a “Jew, Gypsy and gay”.

‘Greek Man’ is a trope that has defined us since the days of Lord Byron. Byron fought in the Greek Revolution in the early 19th century; his fantasy Greece was formulated through a Harrow view of the white, stoic Greece of Plato and Aristotle, now swamped by 400 years of ‘Oriental’ Turkish occupation. In Greece he found Greeks to be not so stoic or ‘white’, just like the peoples that inhabited a multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire. As he muses in a letter: “I came into Greece in the same way as Mrs Elizabeth Fry [the prison reformer] went into Newgate Prison. Not in the hope of finding anybody good, but to improve their treatment so they might give up their burglarious and larcenous behaviour.”

‘Greek man’ is loaded with racially defined notions of laziness, misogyny, perverse sexuality, aggressiveness, danger and duplicity. A ‘typical Greek man’ − how often have we heard that from non-Greek women and men? Change ‘Greek’ to African, Latin, Muslim, or southern Italian, similar underlying fears arise. Worse, this stereotype depletes Greek women of agency, anointing them with victimhood that non-Greek feminists will sort out for them.

As an aside, Greeks had the first full-fledged woman admiral Laskarina Bouboulina in the mid-19th century, who wiped out the Ottoman fleet. The first female admiral in Australia was appointed in 2011, in the USA in 2016, and in Canada in 2006. Greek men would be hard pressed to identify where very powerful matriarchy ends and their public masculinity begins.

I am proud enough of my culture’s diverse cultural roots, music(s), philosophies, our ambiguous sexuality and non-white histories. The great Europeanisation project of the late 19th century, the desperate need to make Greeks ‘western’, to masculinise them as white men, resulted in a self-loathing.

We know deep in our hearts and we are told sporadically that Greeks are not ‘Europeans’, regardless that Rome and the entire west from antiquity to renaissance and enlightenment, even in the fight against the WWII Axis Powers, was premised on Hellenic ideas. A few years ago, when the Coalition wanted to teach ‘western values’ at school, they feared going back any further than the English Revolution of 1648.

The 19th-century Europeanisation project inspired racist demons that still feed on Greeks’ notion of their ‘whiteness’. It ushered anti-Asian, anti-Muslim and anti-African racism. The new ‘European’ Greeks bought the full package of British, Franco-German myth of Hellenism. We, to our detriment, rejected our Asian, Jewish, Arab and African links. We rejected what we were, a people of diverse faiths and cultures linked by the Greek language and the universal values of Hellenism.

Hellenes’ impact on culture, politics, philosophy and art since around 1500BC would have been impossible without an exchange of ideas, art and economies with Africans, Egyptians, Jews, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Celts, Britons, Persians, Chinese and others. Ancient Hellenism aesthetically may have looked more like the cultures of Egypt, Ethiopia, India or Babylonia of the time. The difference was our values, proto-capitalism, proto-socialism, proto-tyranny, humanism, individualism, rationalism, science and philosophy and most important of all, citizenship not defined by colour.

Next time someone calls me a “Greek Man”, extrapolating the worst of their racist built fantasy, or equally, a Greek nationalist calls me un-Greek, I will repeat Socrates and just say: “I am not an Athenian, or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”