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Ethnicity and Culture

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The melting pot theory that was so popular several decades ago has generally been discarded because it does not accurately describe a sizable percentage of this country's citizens. Rather than describing how people in this country assimilate into the dominant American culture, discourse about ethnicity and culture tends to describe how people are at once similar and dissimilar as a result of (a) the dominant American culture in which they are embedded, and (b) their ethnic ties.

Since most members who belong to the Greek Orthodox Church have a Hellenistic background, they tend to value and celebrate its accomplishments when they gather. While this is not unusual in our diverse society, when Greek Orthodox communities place a skewed emphasis on their Hellenistic backgrounds this can create challenges for intermarried couples and their families. This section will briefly describe what participants stated about the value of culture, as well as the challenges that intermarried couples encounter in some Greek Orthodox Churches.

A Dominant American Worldview

  • Most participants valued ethnicity and reported having a moderate to high attachment to their ethnic background. Despite this observation, almost all participants indicated that they had a distinctly Americanized perspective of the world, and that their sense of self was more closely tied to the dominant American culture. One Greek Orthodox respondent stated, "There's a great difference between the Greeks in this country, and the Greeks who live in Greece. We're definitely Greek-Americans – mostly American, with some Hellenism mixed in to give us a Greek-American flavoring."
  • Additionally, when participants talked about ethnicity and culture, they utilized contemporary multicultural concepts from the dominant culture to discuss their value. They also talked about ethnicity and culture from both a positive and negative perspective.

Positive and Negative Observations

  • When these couples talked about ethnicity and culture from a positive perspective, they described how ethnicity and culture positively impacted and enriched their lives as individuals, couples, and families. Ethnic foods, music, art, language, religious and cultural traditions, were frequently described as having enriching effects on their lives. Three attributes of Greek-American culture that participants repeatedly admired and respected were (a) its "philoxenia," or the friendly, welcoming attitude that is typical of Greek-Americans toward others, (b) Greek-Americans' emphasis on family, and (c) the close-knit quality of Greek-American communities.
  • Conversely, nationalistic and ethnocentric attitudes were repeatedly rejected because they devalued other cultures and were inherently exclusionary, intolerant and biased. Such attitudes were also perceived as having the potential to negatively impact intermarried couple and family well-being. Respondents repeatedly stated that spouses influenced by such attitudes could make their partners feel as if their religious and cultural traditions were “inferior,“ and “second best.” This could, in turn, create couple conflict.

Intermarried Couple Friendly Churches

  • Participants also repeatedly described the kinds of Greek Orthodox Churches they preferred. One respondent called these churches, “intermarried couple friendly churches.” Briefly, one attribute that these churches shared was their ability to respect all cultures, as well as placing a special value on Hellenism. A non-Orthodox respondent put it this way, “When I attend my wife’s church, I don’t mind it when I hear about Greek culture. What’s not okay is when too much of this kind of talk takes place. When this happens, I feel like there’s no room for me. I think Greek Orthodox churches should talk about the good things about Greek-American culture, while also making room to value other cultures and ethnic groups.”

Culture Shock

  • Non-Orthodox with distinctly Americanized worldviews repeatedly stated that they experienced culture shock when they began attending the Greek Orthodox Church. They frequently described an awkward interim adjustment period lasting anywhere from a few months to several years. During this adjustment period, most described how they struggled to gain a deeper understanding of Greek Orthodox cultural, and religious idiosyncrasies. Conversely, Greek Orthodox participants with Americanized worldviews were significantly less likely to describe similar experiences. While a few Greek Orthodox respondents did report encountering some difficulties, the difficulties tended to generally be fewer in number and less disorienting in nature.

Ethnocentric Attitudes Cause Conflict

  • And finally, despite the moderate to high levels of love and respect that Greek Orthodox participants had for their Greek heritage, their observations regarding the value of culture were often laced with ambivalence. To be more specific, Greek Orthodox participants frequently identified themselves as Greek Orthodox. They believed that their religious and ethnic backgrounds enhanced and enriched couple and family life. However, they sometimes objected to some Greek Orthodox Churches' ethnocentric and nationalistic attitudes. From their perspective, these attitudes tended to disrespect their non-Greek Orthodox partner and create a wedge between these couples and the Greek Orthodox Church. Some respondents also felt that such attitudes could potentially have a negative impact on marital satisfaction. They observed that when churches promote ethnocentric attitudes, this can influence and reinforce individuals’ ethnocentric attitudes, which in turn could promote marital conflict among intermarried couples.

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