Greece is undeniably beautiful: a Mediterranean haven that promises a rich, historic culture and a gorgeously blue sea. Or so argues the Greek summer advertisement released two years ago to promote Greek tourism after Covid-19 devastated the industry. The video asks: “What makes Greece so precious? It’s not the sea. It’s not the sun. It’s more than that.”
It is certainly much more than that. It is also a state rife with corruption that has historically turned a blind eye to racist micro-aggressions, racial slurs, beatings, and even murders, all perpetuating oppression.
Afro-Greeks—African immigrants and Greeks of African origin—are often victims of racist attacks carried out mostly by members of the Golden Dawn, a far-right neo-fascist and ultranationalist political party that rose to prominence during Greece’s 2009 financial crisis. It became the third most popular party in the Greek parliament during the January 2015 election. The party’s infiltration of the Hellenic Police, and its surging popularity among supporters of Greece’s former military junta, have led to six dark and unsettling years for Afro-Greeks and immigrants.
Nonetheless, blaming the financial crisis as the sole factor driving racist phenomena in Greece is as easy as deeming the Golden Dawn the single culprit of discrimination. Racism existed in Greece far before 2009—people were just too ignorant to name it. Neo-Nazis, alt-right supporters, and neutral spectators of racist incidents are just as responsible for the xenophobic ordeal Afro-Greeks and immigrants have and still are going through. Although the rise of the Golden Dawn was the fuse that lit wildfires of anti-Afro-Greek hate, accountability equally lands on the shoulders of a predominantly white country that chose to either remain apathetic to injustice and fear or not vote at all in the parliament elections.
In October 2020, a Greek court finally labeled the Golden Dawn as a criminal organization—only after a white Greek man was murdered—but the racism and corruption that the group perpetuates are far from over. Racism makes it difficult to stand against corruption, and corruption discourages victims of discrimination from demanding justice.
Corruption, according to history, seems to be an inherently Greek trait. In April 1967, police officers led by Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos launched a coup d’état, establishing the 1967–1974 military junta. Thereafter, Greek politics were characterized by single-party majority governments that alternated between the socialist and conservative parties. Coalitions, in other words, were rare. Even if coalitions are more common nowadays, the remnants of these sharp, bitter pendulum swings are still present: Most Greek parties still identify as “Right,” “Centre,” and “Left.” Today, New Democracy is the leading center-right political party and SYRIΖΑ its major leftist opposition, and the two have continued a long tradition of political dualism and childish tantrums thrown by opposing Ministers of Parliament.
With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact states in 1989, immigration to Greece was transformed, becoming a massive and uncontrollable phenomenon. Immigration from Africa followed soon after. The main wave of African immigrants started in 1997 and continued throughout the 2000s. Most came from Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, and Somalia. Today, the majority of Afro-Greeks live in central neighborhoods of Athens, like Patisia and Kipseli.
Until 2010, no legislation recognized the citizenship of people who had been born and raised in Greece and whose parents had immigrated to the country. The right to Greek citizenship was granted to children of immigrants born or raised in Greece in 2015, though the examination questions are so highly specific that not even a Greek citizen can know the answer. Thus, obtaining Greek citizenship has come to replace a previously absent legal framework with an absurd exam process as well as the usual slowness of the public sector, meaning that an Afro-Greek might remain legally stateless for up to five years until their Greek citizenship is granted.
To gain Greek citizenship as a second generation resident, there are three pathways: firstly, having been born and currently living in Greece with parents who have permanently and legally lived in the country for at least five years; secondly, having successfully completed at least six years of Greek education, while permanently and legally residing in the country; and thirdly, applying for Greek citizenship at a public service center in the three years after turning 18—a process which costs 100 euros.
Would the process of gaining citizenship be as complicated and time-consuming if the Greek Parliament were more ethnically diverse? Would it take years to sentence the Golden Dawn as a criminal organization if Afro-Greeks were represented in the government?
The life of an Afro-Greek is the epitome of duality and contradiction. On the one hand, an Afro-Greek is refused a job at a store because they threaten its prestige. An Afro-Greek athlete is not Greek enough to represent the country in international tournaments or even to play for the local sports team. An Afro-Greek woman is catcalled or considered a sex worker because all Afro-Greeks must be poor, desperate, and turning to prostitution for income.
On the other hand, Greeks recognize that a minority can be extremely beneficial for advertisement purposes. An Afro-Greek suddenly becomes the perfect fit for a Greek yogurt commercial. Afro-Greek actors are now beginning to play roles in theater and television other than the caricature of an uneducated, kind-hearted, and hardworking Black comedy relief with an exaggerated African accent. The token Black employee in a Greek Nike store signifies that the company is diverse—its mindset international.
Observing this reality, it is easy to note that there are two ways an Afro-Greek can be presented by the media: either as a criminal, with the ethnicity of the accused strongly highlighted in the headlines, or as an exceptional immigrant. Take Giannis Antetokounmpo, an Afro-Greek born and raised in Sepolia but not a legal Greek citizen until 2013. Although some who challenged his nationality were very eager to view him as Greek once he became an NBA superstar, he still is not fully socially accepted, as evidenced by the racist reactions on social media after the recruitment of the Antetokounmpo brothers by the Greek National Basketball Team for Eurobasket 2022.
Not all Afro-Greeks are internationally ranked athletes—does that mean they should not be accepted as Greeks? Excellence being the only way to gain respect and overcome racism is a larger manifestation of inequality and corruption in Greece. Equality and representation should never depend upon exceptionalism; it is a basic human right to be acknowledged and treated with respect.
Action must be taken to compensate for the unfair treatment of the Afro-Greeks: realistic representation of Afro-Greeks in the Greek Parliament, not just as tokenized people of color, but in numbers representative of the vast diversity of Greek society. Reform within the legal system and the public sector is necessary to make the process of obtaining legal documents, including Greek citizenship, less convoluted.
Greek identity must be reinvented to account for Afro-Greeks because we exist and are here to stay.
[Editor’s Note: This article was published in the Fall 2022 issue of the BPR magazine.]