About Racial Discrimination and Racism

Summer 2013, Athens, Monastiraki
Summer 2013, Athens, Monastiraki Despina Margomenou

 “Is Kassidiaris a white European?” inquired the White Nationalist Community “Stormfront” recently. Their online rambling post included photographs of this prominent member of the Greek racist political party “Golden Dawn”, as proof that “he looks like an African admixture”. Should we just grin at the obvious irony as did most of the Greek media, satisfied that the Golden Dawn (specific individual included) is getting a much deserved comeuppance? Or is this a significant opportunity to discuss racism beyond the anecdotal, beyond shock, frustration and anger?



I enter the discussion from my field, as an anthropologist; specifically, a US trained anthropologist. This distinction is necessary especially if race and racism are the focus. Traditional American anthropology differs from its European counterpart.  One of the most influential American anthropologists was Franz Boas (Boas, F.  1966 (orig. 1940), Race, Language, and Culture. New York: Free Press). His research interests, furthered by those of his students, shaped traditional American anthropology into a four field discipline that includes: cultural anthropology (somewhat similar to European “social” anthropology), archaeology, linguistics, and biological anthropology. The construction of racial categories and racial discrimination were fundamental research questions for American anthropology almost from its institution. They were also specific to American anthropology which developed both theoretical and methodological tools to address such questions (vs. European anthropology which focused primarily on other issues).  Given the four field approach of the discipline in the US, questions about race are addressed comparatively from different perspectives: sociopolitical and cultural, historical, linguistic, and biological. I will touch on a few matters here that pertain to the racist phenomena unfolding in Greece. I am particularly interested in how such phenomena are discussed by the Greek media since these are primary forces shaping mainstream views. Inevitably this includes the strange reaction to the recent Kassidiaris questionnaire; strange because the obvious message delivered to the public was that racism is fine (in fact it may be entertaining) as long as it is directed against the “right”(sic) people. I argue here that regardless of the selected victim(s), racism is not amusing, cute, or entertaining; racism is the most dangerous form of social discrimination and clearly the most insidious if this Kassidiaris example is any indication.  

In its everyday use, within the sociopolitical contexts of 21st century Greece, in the here and now, “φυλή” communicates quite different meanings including one where biology and culture are perceived as interchangeable


Let’s start with basic Greek terminology and a linguistic observation regarding everyday standard language. I focus on this kind of language (rather than e.g., academic), because discrimination, including racism, is not an academic concept; it is lived experience. It involves all the ways in which we identify ourselves (vs. others), how we perceive differences, how we belong, how we exclude, and the categories we construct or imagine. In effect, words, names, and terms matter; they are not banalities (“that is just how we call things”). What is the most common Modern Greek word for race? «Φυλή»; a word that also means “tribe”.  In old fashioned American anthropology “tribe” was part of a model which included the hierarchical classification of societies, ancient and modern. “Tribe” was supposed to be a type of society, alongside “bands”, “chiefdoms” and “states”, and was defined based on specific forms of kinship identification, economic practices, and political organization. In other words the term “tribe”, even if outdated and colonialist, describes cultural phenomena. “Race” on the other hand, describes a group of people defined on the basis of shared biology (often expressed in terms of “blood” or “DNA”).


The Greek term «φυλή» allows no distinction between culture and biology. There are historical reasons for this and one can look up the etymology of “φυλή” in any dictionary. The issue is not how or why e.g. a 5th century Athenian would use the word. In the social and political contexts of the time the term communicated specific meanings and relationships to a community of speakers. In its everyday use, within the sociopolitical contexts of 21st century Greece, in the here and now, “φυλή” communicates quite different meanings including one where biology and culture are perceived as interchangeable. And the slope paved with the notion that somehow “our shared culture is inscribed in our blood/DNA and transmitted biologically” can be very slippery indeed.


There seems to be further confusion. Mainstream discourse on discrimination in Greece conflates racism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and prejudice. Indeed, all these are forms of discrimination; they do not however describe the same kinds of phenomena. Granted, it is difficult sometimes to distinguish ethnocentrism from xenophobia or prejudice at first glance and without analyzing phenomena deeper. Racism however is an entirely different story. Surprisingly, although the most insidious form of discrimination, it is also the easiest to identify.


Unlike other forms of discrimination which tend to share similar rhetoric, racism is unique because its entire ideological construct is based on biology (and thus “nature”). A basic definition of race and racism by Conrad Kottak will clarify things. I slightly paraphrase: When a group of people (most often ethnic, but not necessarily) is assumed to have a biological basis (expressed as shared “blood” or “genes”), it is called a race.  Discrimination against such a group is called racism (Kottak, K. 2008, Anthropology : The Exploration of Human Diversity. 12th edition. p. 304. New York: McGraw Hill). In other words, racism uses biology (as a synonym to “nature”) to construct its specific ideology of discrimination. It makes sense therefore that all historically known cases of racist regimes have sought so-called “solutions” that were in fact biological (death camps, mass extermination, genocide). This does not mean that other forms of discrimination are innocent or less violent. However the goal of all racist action (or violence) is ultimately biological extermination. And this is because at the core of every racist ideology lies an argument expressed in biological terms. That is first and foremost why racism is the most dangerous form of discrimination.


This leads to a few further questions. Can biology identify races on the basis of biological criteria? What about the diversity we see before our very eyes? Can it be organized in some way using biology? How can an individual belong to a racial group or be excluded from another? Is there a “pure race” (a concept favored by racist groups including the Greek Golden Dawn and ironically used against one of its members in the case of the Kassidiaris questionnaire)? Moving beyond biology how does racism articulate with economic and political inequality (“structural and institutional racism”)? What is happening in Greece these days and what are the answers that all of us educators and scientists can provide in concrete and straightforward ways to the public and especially young people?


For the moment I leave you with some food for thought (for iphone users and non users):

For English speakers there is a wealth of information but some very useful links are the following:


Understanding Race is part the action undertaken by the American Anthropological Association. The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor also devoted its Winter 2013 Semester to the Understanding Race Project



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