Comment: Is Harmony Day an empty sentiment?

Is Harmony Day an inoffensive, watered-down way of dealing with a complex topic? asks Saman Shad. (Photo: @Miss_H_Coates)

It's meant to be a celebration of diversity - but does Harmony Day celebrate the cultural shifts taking place in Australia without challenging racism and xenophobia?

Last Friday was Harmony day – a day which for many parents involved scrambling around for orange clothes and/or accessories as schools across the country encouraged their pupils to wear orange – the colour chosen to represent the occassion.

As our kids went off to school looking a little bit like miniature walking, talking pumpkins, most of us weren’t really aware of the significance of the day. “It’s something to do with multiculturalism,” some of us may have said. “Is it about cultural diversity?” others may have asked. But really, how wearing orange may represent multiculturalism or cultural diversity is beyond me. Perhaps that’s really the point. It’s an inoffensive, watered-down way of dealing with a complex topic.

The first Harmony Day was celebrated on the 21st of March in 1999. It coincides with the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. But while the UN created their day to mark the events of the 21st of March 1960, when police in Sharpeville, South Africa opened fire on a group of peaceful protestors, killing 69 of them – Australia’s Harmony Day is borne out of a Howard-led government mandate to show multiculturalism in a more positive light.

Back in 1998 the government at the time commissioned Eureka Research (which is now part of the Ipsos) to “explore and understand the subtleties and nature of racism in the Australia of the late 1990's”. According to Professor of Sociology, Andrew Jakubowicz, “what it found apparently so shocked the government of the day that the report was declared too dangerous for release to the Australian people whose attitudes it had investigated and who had paid for its surveys and conclusions.”

For example, 32% believed “If an Aboriginal moved in next door, property values in my area would fall overnight”; and 36% believed “There are too many Asian migrants nowadays”. Almost half (49%) also believed migrants shouldn’t receive any social benefits from the government and Aboriginals should be made to work in order to receive government assistance.  From this, one can surmise that these people felt the only ones who should be getting government assistance are white Australians.

The government decided that rather than tackling what in reality was the ugly side of how many Australians viewed cultural diversity and multiculturalism, they would instead focus on “harmony” – an inoffensive and inclusive term that wouldn’t necessarily be too tasking or make Australians ponder the reality of racial inequality in this country.

So here we are 15 years since the first Harmony Day and while racism still remains a big problem in this country – with one in five Australians experiencing racist abuse - all this day seems to be about is ignoring the obvious. Instead the day and its various initiatives seem to centre around: eating foods from different cultures – promoted through the concept of “A Taste of Harmony”; the handing out of “multicultural” awards; and State led cultural diversity initiatives, which pretty much means more eating of different cultural foods. Schools too across the nation try their best to inform pupils about multiculturalism on this day – but whether this actually means anything to the likes of my 5 year-old, who went off last week dressed in orange – is another matter all together.

For me, Harmony Day is giving lip-service to the fact that we are a diverse and multicultural nation that is yet to deal with the fact that many of us still to this day hold racially offensive views that are yet to get challenged. Views which most likely will never get aired and addressed as they ought to be. Instead, we are glossing over the ugliness with the fact that we all like a bit of Thai food and isn’t it great that we now not only have Chinese, but also Thai and Indian takeaways around the corner.

Multiculturalism, it shouldn’t have to be said, is more than just about having a greater choice when it comes to dinner options. It’s about recognising that cultural lines are blending, and that who we once viewed as “Australian” aren’t the Only Australians. There are a great number of us who come from just about every country in the world, and we live side by side.

So yes, while we need harmony and understanding, we also need debate in order to air our differences. If that means being inharmonious, at least temporarily, then so be it.

Saman Shad is a storyteller and playright.

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