Black Athenians: Constructing Race Among Greek & Immigrant Workers

Racism can be found in all facets of society, and expressions of racism aren’t always overt violence. Sometimes — most of the time — racism comes in the form of marginalizing language, gestures, and other social markers.

Max Papadantonakis, a Ph.D. candidate (sociology) at The Graduate Center, CUNY, spent more than a year in Athens, Greece, working as a fruit vendor among Greek and immigrant vendors. There, he saw firsthand the treatment of the immigrant workers labeled “mavri” (a discriminatory label alluding to a black immigrant). His findings were published in a paper titled “Black Athenians” in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.  

He explored the many ways immigrant street market workers from North Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent are “marginalized as racialized others,” from being called labeled “mavri” to being emasculated and ostracized.

“People find so many different ways pertaining to their interactions to create distance between one another and to create racial distance through things like how people look, how people smell, how people talk, how people humanly behave,” Papadantonakis tells SUM. “All these little things people use to discriminate against each other. It shows you how people will go to such crazy lengths to create absolute difference and hierarchies between people.”

Max Papadantonakis working as a fruit vendor in Athens, Greece

Papadantonakis shows that racialization also constructs whiteness. As a white man in Athens, Papadantonakis was chided by Greek workers for simply having a conversation with an Egyptian immigrant — one of the “dangerous” and dishonest “mavri.” Thus, he had been ascribed the racial identity of a white worker and was expected to maintain the social hierarchy.

Meanwhile, the immigrant workers prided themselves on their work ethic, believing that they worked harder than the nearby Greek vendors and were therefore more successful. They often even worked in groups of five to six to protect themselves from right-wing hate groups and other external threats. Papadantonakis noted that the immigrants were almost always well-dressed and well-groomed to resist the stigmatization of being “dirty.”

“By performing a powerful work ethic, uniting under a higher set of morals and standards, immigrant workers imposed stigmas on their dominators and other subordinate groups,” he wrote. “Despite being marginalized and stigmatized, they resisted such actions by contesting and redrawing racialized symbolic boundaries.”

However, Papadantonakis noted, the immigrant workers often perpetuated the discrimination by stigmatizing “groups who were in a lower position in the social hierarchy.”

“Some immigrant workers, as a form of resistance, racially othered other immigrant groups using the discourse employed by Greek workers,” he wrote in the study.