Study to uncover history of racial slurs against Mediterranean migrants

Photo by Joey Csunyo.

Griffith University research into the history of racial slurs during the early 20th century, aims to give new insights into how migrants from the Mediterranean region to Australia embraced and resisted racial stereotyping.

Dr Andonis Piperoglou

Historian Dr Andonis Piperoglou has begun searching through documents and oral testimonies at the National Library of Australia for evidence of how racial slurs like ‘dago’ and ‘wog’ circulated among migrant communities.

“Who is a ‘dago’ and who is a ‘wog’ is still contested among many migrant groups. I’m interested in unpacking this and finding out where did this all start.”

Supported by a Herbert and Valmae Freilich Early Career Research Grant, he will also compare his findings to the US immigrant experience.

Dr Piperoglou, Research Fellow at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, says the study will reveal how racialised name-calling has significantly shaped the way migrants have understood cultural difference and how they viewed different ethnicities from the Mediterranean region.

“Despite how common these racial slurs are, there hasn’t been a lot of historical attention paid to them.’’

“These derogatory and prejudicial slurs positioned Mediterranean migrants as problematic citizens and it affected their daily lives.

“By analysing and comparing the transnational circulation of racial slurs between the US and Australia, you have an effective method for comprehending bigotry across time and space and how the meaning and use of racial slurs adapted to local and national circumstances.”

Dr Piperoglou said the research would also investigate how migrant communities not only resisted but also embraced the loaded racial categories imposed on them.

“These words have derogatory origins, but I’m more interested in how these groups appropriated and reworked these words to reposition themselves and to even discriminate against other migrants.”

“The current trend for migrant ethnic histories is telling a contribution narrative – we came, we worked hard and we’ve assimilated and now we’re Australian. But let’s also acknowledge that migrants and their descendants retained a little Greek or a little Lebanese and the migrant experience wasn’t smooth and free of racism.”

Dr Piperoglou sees his research as a direct challenge to cultural prejudice and bigoted understandings of cultural difference in contemporary society.

“We need to understand how racial slurs across the 20th century became a central way in which Mediterranean migrants to the US and Australia were put in their place and how it affected how they saw and understood themselves.

“When we have a more nuanced understanding of the mechanics of this history, we stand a much better chance of eliminating prejudice and bigotry.”