This week kicked off with a national celebration ‘Harmony Day’ on 21 March, though I didn’t really see it talked about much other than a few news grabs of the Governor General attending some sort of massive morning tea with hundreds of different kinds of ethnic foods.
Nevertheless it did prompt me, as somewhere in between a first and second-generation migrant (my parents moved to Australia from Pakistan when I was two years old, so while I was born overseas, my only memories of growing up are in Australia), to think about identity, multiculturalism and how we celebrate and, sadly, denigrate it.
One thing that stood out to me was that despite having celebrated Harmony Day since I was a kid, mainly through the sharing of delicious food at school, I still didn’t really understand its purpose or history. It was only this year that I learnt Harmony Day deliberately falls on the same day as the UN Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. That day was chosen to commemorate the massacre of nearly 70 anti-Apartheid protesters in South Africa and to call on governments everywhere to end racial discrimination.
The one day we set aside to talk about anti-racism is actually all about… avoiding talking about racism.
Despite Harmony Day’s genesis in the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, our version seems much less political, places greater emphasis on this amorphous concept of ‘harmony’, and never explicitly addresses the actual issue of racial discrimination in Australia. This is likely deliberate, given the idea of our Harmony Day actually came out of focus groups conducted by the Howard government. The whole purpose of the research that ultimately led to the concept of ‘Harmony’ was to find a way to talk about multiculturalism without making white people feel guilty for racism. So we now find ourselves in this weird position where the one day we set aside to talk about anti-racism is actually all about… avoiding talking about racism.
It’s a worrying situation, particularly when we’re seeing a rise in Islamophobic attacks across Australia and growing tensions across our community.
One of the problems with not discussing multiculturalism enough is that when it does get talked about, it’s in broad, sweeping terms that miss much of the nuance. We divide the community into migrants and non-migrants. What this misses is that second-generation migrants often face even more complex challenges than their parents, despite having been born and raised in Australia. Many of us are stuck between two worlds, influenced by the culture of our parents, yet at the same time we were raised in Australia - it’s the only country we know and it’s where we feel at home. In some situations we feel like we don’t belong at all. We don’t fit into our cultural background, because we’re Australian, but we still cop racism in Australia because we aren’t Aussie, or white, enough.
Even if you try to fully embrace your heritage, you can’t ever be from where your parents originated, you are still from Australia even if you don’t feel Australian.
Another second-generation migrant I spoke to explained the tension this way:
“I think a large part of the struggle is that parental cultural heritage often feels like an ‘otherness’ that weighs you down when you’re younger. You want to fit into this idealised Australian culture but the fact is that it can’t be achieved. But even if you try to fully embrace your heritage, you can’t ever be from where your parents originated, you are still from Australia even if you don’t feel Australian. It can feel like you’re stuck between two worlds.”
These internal struggles are hard enough to navigate without the additional overlay of regular experiences of racism, both casual and explicit, that are sadly a common feature of Australian society. While many white Australians are in denial about the prevalence of racism in this country, the response to Adam Goodes last year underscored the issue.
When we discuss multiculturalism in Australia I think we need more than one day a year where we eat falafel, naan and bibimbap and celebrate how great it is that we have a diverse selection of food choices. It’s not just the serious issue of racism we need to deal with, it’s the struggles many migrants, and their children, face when they try to fit in but realise they’re stuck between two worlds. Australia is one of the most culturally diverse countries. This shouldn’t be a discussion we squeeze into one day, attempting to shoehorn “harmony” into the national lingo. It should be something we grapple with and try and resolve constantly, because it affects all of us.
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