Greek Society & Diversity
People don’t usually think of diversity when they think of the history of modern Greece. There tends to be an image of an ethnically-singular nation, “the Greeks”, who fought for independence from a larger empire (the Ottomans) 200 years ago to found their own country. This image obscures the fascinating variety of traditions, languages, religions, and identities that came to make up the modern Greek nation. From the Balkan Latin that lies at the roots of the Vlach language, to the Romani language of the Greek Roma, or the language of the Arvanites (once in danger of extinction, now seeing some revival), the many tongues and dialects in Greece speak to population movements of centuries past and of unique local histories. The lands that won that original independence were less than half the size of Greece today; new territories were slowly added for more than a century, each region and island bringing with it its own traditions and backgrounds. Did you know that in the early 1900s, the majority of Thessaloniki (today Greece’s second largest city) was Jewish? Or that in 1923, nearly 20% of Greece’s population was made up of refugees who arrived from Asia Minor as a result of the Greco-Turkish war? Or that there is a sizable historic Muslim minority in the region of Thrace? Although the image of Greece projected through tourism is a homogenous one of blue skies, blue seas, and whitewashed island homes, Greece’s modern history contains many different stories and many different peoples.
For students coming from US colleges and universities, however, the question of diversity carries with it a more specific set of concerns. How inclusive is Greece of its minorities? Where do LGBTQI+ rights stand? What is the experience of people of color? Are there groups who face social exclusion? Greece has been undergoing rapid social change over the past 20 years regarding these issues; even just in the past five years we’ve seen some dramatic changes. You’ll find that these topics are very much part of a public conversation, and that there is a tremendous amount of activism currently taking place towards pushing these conversations forward. Our students frequently participate in these social movements through volunteerism, and can take classes at CYA that explore the history and social context of these issues, and of activism, resistance, and social justice in Greek society.
Before you come here, however, what should you know? First, it’s important to realize that religion does play an important role in Greek identity. More than 90% of the country belongs to one religion: Greek Orthodox Christianity. It is the case that other religious communities have faced exclusion at different points in Greece’s history, although the laws have been slowly reshaped towards greater religious tolerance. At the same time, although Greek Orthodoxy is ever-present (you’ll find religious icons in your taxi, in the police station, in shops, and so on), you’ll find a great amount of variety among its practitioners. They belong to every political party, and hold different opinions on social issues. While religion remains important to Greek identity, it has played a far lesser role in shaping concerns like reproductive rights or access to contraception (where things are more progressive in Greece than in the US). There’s no social taboo in asking someone about their religion in Greece, so you may find people curious about yours, and happy to talk with you about their own. Outside of Greek Orthodoxy, you will find many, many different religious communities practicing here in Athens, and CYA can help you be in touch with yours. They often serve an important social role in the lives of their congregants, and for many groups, including those who have migrated to Greece over the past decades and settled their roots here, they can be a strong base of mutual support and community organization. Occasionally, religion gets caught up in politics; for instance, you may come across anti-Islamic sentiments, based in the region’s Ottoman history, and a fear that that empire continues as a threat (in its current form as the nation of Turkey). But you’ll also find many individuals who are muslim, who have made their home in Athens (and CYA’s neighborhood of Pangrati) and live and worship here. If you have specific concerns about your religious practice or identity, CYA can put you in touch with an alum who can share with you their personal experiences. Our diversity resources page also has contact information for many different religious communities and places of worship.
Greek Ethnicity & Race
Regarding ethnicity and race, it’s helpful to keep in mind that Greece lacks the historical structures of racism that we find in post-slavery societies like the US, or former colonial powers. Greece did develop, however, a narrative of “shared blood” that creates the identity of “Greekness” as an ethnicity, and it also historically participates in the privileging of a European whiteness. This has made it difficult for new migrants from other societies to be included in this story of who counts as “Greek” (and has caused regional conflicts in Greece over the past century as well). Migration to Greece from other countries by “non-Greeks” is a newer phenomenon in modern Greece; it only really begins in a significant way in the 1990s. Migrants have faced both social and legal difficulties towards inclusion, and there has been frequent discrimination. Race isn’t however the primary factor in discrimination; ethnicity and religion have played equal or greater roles, and not all white European ethnicities hold the same position of privilege in this context. Today a whole generation of people—with migrant parents but raised in Greece—are coming of age and expanding Greekness to include many races and ethnic backgrounds. It’s an exciting time in this respect, and Athens is more of a multicultural city than it’s ever been.
However, Greece has only been having a strong public conversation about what racism is for a decade or two. It lacks the long history of public discourse on racism and civil rights that we find in the US and in other countries with a colonial past. As a result, students of color frequently face microaggressions that many people in Greece haven’t learned to recognize as racism: being asked where they are really from, being complimented for their “exotic” looks, being stared at, and so on. Catcalling in the street can be common in Athens, particularly directed towards young women, and we have seen that our students of color sometimes face catcalling that is racially charged. As foreigners from a privileged country, students are generally not subject to the kinds of structures of discrimination that migrants, refugees, the Roma, or other minority groups face in Greece. However, students may often hear negative things being said about these groups, and people may speak badly about “foreigners” without expecting the American student (who is a different privileged category of “foreigner”) to take offense. Students can also easily find people in Greece who are actively working against racism and discrimination in this country, and who are in solidarity with that struggle in the US. There are links to such groups, and some personal narratives about race in Greece, on our diversity resources page. Most recently, since the summer of 2020 many political demonstrations and anti-racism actions in Athens have placed themselves in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The anti-racism movement in Greece is both strong and active; “racism” in Greek (ratsismos) can also refer to discrimination based on things like ethnicity, religion, and other aspects of identity, so this is a broad realm of action with room for building solidarities between groups. Most recently police violence in Greece has also become an important part of this public discussion.
LGBTQIA+ rights groups also have a shorter history in Greece than they do in the US, but the past decade has seen a great number of changes in Greek law towards inclusion, and more are in the planning stages.
Rights to a civil union, to fostering children, to having a gender-neutral name (names are traditionally gendered), and to easily changing one’s legal gender have been established between 2015 and today. Greece’s laws against hate speech and hate crimes are among the strongest in Europe. This evolving legislation puts Greece in the more progressive sphere when it comes to LGBTQIA+ rights. In everyday life, however, one finds a variety of social opinions and responses to these issues. Things can be more difficult for individuals who are not gender-normative in their presentation, and they may face microaggressions and stares. A significant percentage of the country holds conservative views on these issues. American students in Greece are somewhat protected from experiencing the worst examples of this, however, because of their location (LGBTQIA+ visibility in Athens and other major cities is more established), their generation (as people their own age also report higher levels of acceptance), and because of being privileged foreigners (as tourists often receive different levels of tolerance than locals do, and Greece is a top destination in the gay tourism industry). Students often notice that physical intimacy that expresses friendship, not romantic intent, between same-sex friends is quite common in Greece. Two men embracing and kissing each others’ cheeks, two men sharing a motorcycle, two women holding each other by the waist as they walk in public: these are all intimacies of friendship that are common in public. This doesn’t mean that Greece doesn’t have homophobia: Greek same-sex romantic couples report feeling often uncomfortable holding hands in public. Athens however has a very active local scene and there is a geography of gay-friendly and queer spaces that is easy to locate and participate in. Institutions like the Pride Parade are well-established in the larger cities, usually with attendance by the Mayor. Recent activism by transgender and gender non-binary individuals is expanding public awareness. Youth-specific activist organizations have been open to participation by visiting US students, and CYA students have consistently found queer spaces in Athens to be friendly and inviting; you’ll find links with more information about organizations and spaces on the diversity resources page.
Disability rights are another place where we find a very strong legislative framework in Greece, where the law guarantees “equal participation in society, independent living and economic autonomy for people with disability and special educational needs, as well as full consolidation of their rights to education and social and professional inclusion.” In practice, however, Athens can be a challenging city to negotiate for a person with physical disabilities. There was a full implementation of ramps, wheelchair-friendly public transportation, audio-cues for traffic signals, tactile sidewalk paving, and similar accessibility accommodations put into place in preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games and Paralympic games held in the city. The fiscal hardships Greece faced after the financial crisis in 2009, however, saw some of these things fall into disrepair. As the economy has improved in recent years, the infrastructure for accessibility has again become a priority (with an eye to both locals and tourists). Students may face difficulties that are different however, from what they face at home, and accommodations available in the US may not be as standard here. We suggest that you contact CYA to get further insight for your specific circumstances, and see here for some more general resources about studying abroad with a disability.
You are going to meet a lot of people in Greece who are excited to meet someone new and different from themselves. And who will be excited to talk about their own difference: where they come from, their family background, their opinions and their life experiences. It’s a society that has many structural problems when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and you will witness that firsthand. You’ll meet people who haven’t been educated on structural racism, or on human rights issues, and who believe firmly that their way of doing things is the best way. But it’s also a society where these are topics that people are thinking with and working on, where there’s a long history of political activism, and where there’s a tradition of political engagement and organization amongst college students; it’s easy to find like-minded people who care about creating a Greece that is more just, equitable, and inclusive to all. We want to be honest with you so that you know what to expect: students should be prepared to witness and experience racism, homophobia, discrimination, and exclusions of multiple sorts. CYA is here to help contextualize those experiences, offer you tactics and support, put you in contact with local individuals who share your identities, and help you learn about and participate in local activism if you so choose. We also want to create an environment where all students learn how to be allies to each other.