How Selling Fruit in Greece Uncovered Attitudes About Immigrants

Athens Fruit Market (Credit: The Graduate Center, CUNY, courtesy of Max Papadantonakis)

Max Papadantonakis couldn’t ignore the “social problems” he witnessed in his native Greece in 2012. With the country experiencing an intense economic crisis, Papadantonakis watched as right-wing ideologies gained prominence. So, as a cultural anthropologist, he decided to analyze the matter.
For 13 months in 2013 and 2014, Papadantonakis, a Ph.D. candidate (Sociology) at The Graduate Center, worked as a fruit vendor in Athens among Greek and immigrant workers. His goal? To determine how racialization takes place on even the smallest levels of interaction among street vendors.
There, he saw firsthand the treatment of immigrant street market workers from North Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent labeled “mavri” (a discriminatory term alluding to a black immigrant). His findings were published in a paper titled “Black Athenians” in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.  
“My biggest takeaway is that 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 says. “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.”
Papadantonakis found that the groups — Greek and immigrant workers — separated themselves, with Greek vendors perched at the top of the social hierarchy and the migrants “marginalized as racialized others.” From criticizing their smells to questioning their sexuality to describing them as “dangerous” and dishonest, the Greek vendors seemed to demonize the immigrant workers in several ways.
Doing the research, Papadantonakis found himself “in between two worlds.”
“Being Greek, I was tied to the Greek community of vendors who took me under their wing. But I was interested in learning about the immigrant experience,” he explains. “Greeks would accuse me of being a traitor. That was a way for them to further racialize this group, as a dangerous group that I had to stay away from. There were people that didn’t talk to me anymore because they associated me with others.”

Graduate Center student Papadantonakis at the Athens fruit marketMax Papadantonakis at the Athens fruit market, where he worked as a vendor (Credit: The Graduate Center, CUNY, courtesy of Max Papadantonakis)
Meanwhile, the immigrant workers resisted this discrimination by always being well-dressed and well-groomed as a sign of empowerment. They also prided themselves on their work ethic, often describing Greek vendors as lazy. But the marginalization didn’t stop at the two groups.
“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.
Papadantonakis has long been interested in ethnography, even utilizing the method in other fields. He wrote about tech workers and hackathons alongside Professor Emerita Sharon Zukin (GC/Brooklyn, Sociology), and is currently working on his dissertation about software engineers in New York City. Studying, even experiencing, the way people interact is a “common element” in his work.
“Ethnography is basically grasping reality from the point of view of the people you’re trying to learn something from,” he says. “You have to be there and you have to hang out. As unscientific as it sounds, a lot of the things I observed were from me literally just hanging out and observing people. It’s an immersed way of grasping social reality.”
Papadantonakis began pursuing his Ph.D. in 2015 after moving to the U.S. from Greece. He credits Zukin with inspiring much of his work.  
“She’s been amazing,” he says. “I owe so much to her, and she’s a great mentor.”
Papadantonakis is expecting to complete his Ph.D. in 2020 and plans to teach and continue conducting research at an academic institution.
“I find societies struggle with a lot of issues,” he says, “and I look forward to conducting more research so we can come up with policies that can solve social problems.”

Submitted on: JAN 9, 2020

Category: GCstories | General GC News | Immigration | Sociology | Student News