• A 2009 Harmony Day artwork created by students. (Flickr)Source: Flickr
As we celebrate cultural diversity and inclusiveness on Harmony Day, there's one common question asked that we need to reconsider.
Pallavi Sinha

21 Mar 2017 - 12:19 PM  UPDATED 3 Apr 2017 - 1:10 PM

The face of Australia has changed considerably over the last few decades, from one that was mostly Anglo-Celtic to one that is now multiracial. When my parents migrated here over 40 years ago, like other Indian migrants, they had to travel from the western suburbs of Sydney to Bondi to buy Indian spices and groceries. Now there are Indian shops out west everywhere, catering for the many migrants living there, particularly in suburbs such as Homebush, Strathfield, Parramatta and Liverpool.

Born in Homebush and raised in Strathfield NSW, I’ve been living in the inner west of Sydney for most of my life. But despite the fact I was born and raised in Sydney, I’m still asked, ‘where are you from?’

I identify as an Australian of Indian origin but people have mistaken me as having South American, Italian, Greek, Persian, Chinese or Anglo-Indian roots. I’ve also travelled to India many times, and whenever I’m there, despite trying to blend in, I’m often regarded as a foreigner because of my Australian accent. And in Australia, sometimes I’m considered a foreigner because I have dark skin. 

But despite the fact I was born and raised in Sydney, I’m still asked, ‘where are you from?’

I’m happy for these misperceptions, as I’m proud to live in multicultural Australia and feel fortunate to have friends from many different culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. I enjoy learning about their traditions and customs and that there are often similarities and common bonds such as family and food.

But does it work both ways? A theme of Harmony Day – held annually on March 21 - is that we all promote inclusiveness, respect and a sense of belonging for everyone. But, as some statistics show, although we are a multicultural society, our Parliament, public institutions and business sector has a long way to go to show that they represent and tap into the diversity of talent in Australia.

Though there has been some progress, coupled with the gender gap, according to a Diversity Council of Australia DCA Report, culturally diverse women experience a 'double jeopardy’: only 2.5 per cent of all 7,491 ASX directors were culturally diverse women, compared to 5.7 per cent who were non-culturally diverse women, 27.8 per cent who were culturally diverse men and 64 per cent who were non-culturally diverse men.

The ‘Leading for Change A blueprint for cultural diversity and inclusive leadership’ report reveals similar figures. Less than five per cent of CEOs of ASX 200, federal and state public service heads and federal Parliament Ministers or Senators were from a non-European background. As at July 2016, zero per cent of federal Ministers and Assistant Ministers were from a non-European background.

Particularly in light of the USA and England moving towards greater national sovereignty, it’s important for Australia to boost its relations with Asia by effectively using the cultural, linguistic and business skills, of Asian Australians.

There are numerous reasons for such disparities, some of which may be within the culture itself. Respect for elders is a positive and integral part of Indian and Asian cultures. The only downside is that it may be conducive to a reluctance for an Indian Australian or Asians to be ‘go-getters’ and to speak up on certain issues.

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There’s a difference between being assertive and pushy and disrespectful. It hasn’t been easy for me to have the courage and conviction to speak up on important issues such as domestic or family violence, racism and the bamboo ceiling. I’m the first Indian Australian or first Indian-Australian woman or one of the few in many realms such as speaking on certain topics on TV, radio, live debates and appearances before Government committees. I have no desire to be the ‘first’ and I hope that the tide changes so that there are more Indian-Australians and Asians in the mainstream, rather than an exception.  

Just as colourful spices create a good Indian curry, it is the mosaic of cultural diversity that enriches Australia. When I cook a curry, I know that the white salt, the yellow turmeric powder, the red paprika and the brown garam masala are all equally important. If all these colourful spices were not included, the curry wouldn’t taste as good.

Similarly, the culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds of almost half the Australian population can enrich Australia, if these resources are adequately tapped into. When I was presented an opal pin as a former People of Australia Ambassador, I appreciated that the different colours of the national gemstone of Australia add to its beauty.

Just as colourful spices create a good Indian curry, it is the mosaic of cultural diversity that enriches Australia.

Australia has a unique melting pot of cultures. In Australia, we identify with about 300 ancestries, many with distinctive cultures, beliefs and languages in Australia.

Harmony Day is a celebration of our cultural diversity – a day of cultural respect for everyone who calls Australia home and it also coincides with the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. If we respect each other’s cultural heritage and customs, we can all have a sense of belonging and enjoy the benefits of being a part of a diverse Australia. The power of diversity is unleashed when we respect, value and harness those differences, and truly try to live in harmony with each other.  

Celebrate cultural diversity on Harmony Day this March 21. For more details, visit harmony.gov.au.

Pallavi Sinha is a Lawyer & Academic. She is on the AFR & Westpac 100 Women of Influence award winner list in the category ‘Diversity’.

Image by Grace Kat (Flickr).

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