What are Racial Politics Like in Athens?

What are Racial Politics Like in Athens?
Photography by Dimitris Lambridis


This section was written by Dan Hong, a man of East Asian origin from London, currently living in Athens.

The vast majority of people in Athens are incredibly hospitable, but there is an ongoing issue of lack of education and exposure, which can make my experience as a London-born, East Asian man, uncomfortable. Most of it I can live with, such as being regularly mistaken for a half-Greek half-Japanese celebrity chef (can I get a free meal from this somehow?) or the eternal “where are you really from?”, to which I actually quite enjoy making up outrageous answers to.

However, Coronavirus, or the “Chinese Virus” as I saw it called on the Greek news, made things worse for East Asians. Throughout lockdown, I became used to people crossing the street when they saw me, nervously adjusting their masks. Once, I was even physically threatened on the street while the person with me (racialised as white) was accused of being a race traitor. When I called the police they informed me that unfortunately, it didn’t sound like racism to them. These experiences have scarred me, even though things have improved since the lockdown ended.

It’s hard to say how it is for other people of colour. I was once told that I shouldn’t expect too much racism in Greece, that it was worse for Black and Brown people. I’m not yet convinced by this because East Asians hear it almost everywhere we go but rarely with a compelling evidence-base. But for instance, I do see that Islamophobia is a problem here. Of course this hardly makes Greece exceptional in Europe, except that here it partly stems from the country’s history under Ottoman rule and strained relationship with modern-day Turkey.

There’s some evidence that attitudes are changing, particularly among young people who have studied or worked abroad and returned to Greece (an increasing number, as Greece’s economic fortunes improve following the financial crisis). But they remain the minority and many Greeks deny the existence of racism in their country. This is reflected in the political discourse: while in the UK the political left have come to be associated with anti-racism and social progressivism, their Greek analogues are still defined by a more traditional leftism centred around workers rights and anti-establishmentarianism. Meanwhile Greece’s own immigrant/non-white community are not given a platform to speak, despite the fact that (arguably) the most famous Greek on earth right now is the basketball player of Nigerian-origin, Giannis Antetokoumpo, nicknamed the “Greek Freak”.

If you’re visiting Athens as a person of colour, I’d say staying in the rough centre of Athens is advisable, where locals are used to tourists from all over the world. That doesn’t restrict you to the most touristic centre, but does mean avoiding the outskirts. I don’t believe people of colour need to moderate their behaviour to feel or be safe in Greece, but you should be prepared for locals’ slightly uninhibited curiosity for strangers - the flipside of Greek hospitality.

This section was written by Timothy, a 27-year old British Nigerian professional, He currently splits his time between London, Athens and Berlin.

My experience in Greece is mostly centred around Athens. For the last three years, I’ve been living in different neighbourhoods across the city for months at a time. Greeks are very proud people, like a lot of Europeans right now. This sentiment of national pride is juxtaposed by diverse ethnic groups spread across the city, from the prominent African neighbourhood of Kypseli to the Chinese and south Asian Omonia and the mostly Greek Kolonaki & Pangrati districts. “Racist” is not a label I would give to Greece, but I would say that the integration of cultures that we are accustomed to in cities like the UK is not quite a reality in Athens.

One of the biggest misconceptions pertaining to Greece is that Athenians are not used to people of different ethnicities breaking the mould of their preconceptions. I can only speak from my own experience as a Black man who walks with his head held high; Greeks automatically assume I must be an athlete of some kind to walk around with the confidence that I do.

It’s tough to say whether tourists will be subject to racism while visiting. POC travellers know that anything can happen anywhere. I don’t think I would be doing Greece – a place I love – justice, by suggesting that tourists will be subject to racism without fail.

I guess racism in Athens is more of the generic kind, however, I don’t like this term as nothing about racism is generic. As a person who travels a lot, I don’t believe you can ever fully ensure your safety. What I will say is that when travelling, understanding the culture and geography will always help. A few quick pointers: take cabs at night when you can, although Athens has a robust metro system that is inexpensive too. If you opt for a normal cab, always confirm the price before beginning your journey.