As I write this, it is ‘Harmony Day’ in Australia – a day set aside to recognise the diverse backgrounds, cultures and races that make up this fine country.
For most school-aged kids, that has meant dressing up in multicultural wear and consuming lots of foreign food.
I think it’s great. Australia has always been a nation of immigrants – even the first Australians – and that is something to be celebrated. Sadly, it seems that more recently it is also a fault line that gets exploited for political gains, especially when one group feels that it has the monopoly on what an Australian is.
It’s interesting – or ironic, depending on your point of view – that on the same day the government has signalled that it will make changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. There have been a few people that have been sued under the Act after being found to have said or done something in public that is “reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” on the basis of race, colour or national or ethnic origin.”
The proposed changes will see the words “offend, insulte, humuliate” changed to “harassed”. The government argues that this allows for freedom of speech, while also protecting people against racial harassment.
I’m not about to get up on a soapbox about 18C, but sadly Australia has a legacy of racism and white cultural imperialism since it was settled by the British in 1788. Our history is littered with massacres of the indigenous people who, incidentally, were only recognised as people in the 1960s. Throughout most of the 1900s there was a formal ‘White Australia Policy’ that actively discriminated against people not from an Anglo-Celt background.
Nowadays, the white Australia still permeates the mindset in a number of ways. I was reminded of this when I read a series of tweets from Malaysian-Australian MasterChef winner and television personality Adam Liaw. Here is the main nib:
I’ve had my accent (do I have one?) mocked THOUSANDS of times. I’ve been told to go back to where I came from THOUSANDS of times.
I’ve been called a ‘gook’, ‘nip’, ‘ching-chong’ or any number of racist names THOUSANDS of times.
My beautiful, adorable kids will be called those names. I KNOW that because it’s happened to every single Asian person I know in Australia.
They’ll be physically abused for their race, too. I KNOW that because it’s happened to every single Asian person I know in Australia.
I cried a bit typing that, but that’s life.
The odds of me, or them, bringing legal action around it are next to nil. Amend 18C or don’t. I truly don’t feel strongly about it.
But don’t pretend it solves the problems we have in this country with race either way.
The racism I worry about isn’t getting abused on a bus while someone films it on their phone. Or running into “a racist” in a dark alley.
Most Australians aren’t racists. Neither are the kids who will one day tease my kids for their race. The racism I worry about is systemic.
It’s under-representation media, boardrooms, or the slightest inkling that kids with brown skin are less Australian than if they were white.
I’m lucky to do what I do. Maybe for it Asian-Australians of my kids’ generation won’t grow up thinking they need to be somebody’s sidekick.
I don’t mean to come across as preachy or anything, but thanks for listening. Happy #HarmonyDay!
I think that shows that, as much as we have made good progress, there are areas that race is still an issue in this country. And I find that sad, and sincerely hope that it improves as my little girl grows up.
It hits me personally, as I straddle racial lines. My Dad is from a Celtic background, and my Mum is a brown-skinned Guyanese with a mixed background that includes Spanish, native American Indian and African races. As a child, I was a little brown boy, and it wasn’t until I started taking medication for my terrible acne as a teenager that my skin lightened considerably.
Nonetheless, I still have a number of dark features, so much so that I often get mistaken for being at least partly Indonesian, Malaysian, Latino, Arabic, Jewish or Persian. Or, as I like to think of myself, ‘not quite white.’
And with those genes, I’ve managed to pass on some of my naturally darker skin colour to our little girl, even though she has inherited the blue eyes and lighter hair of her Aryan super-race mother.
So far, that has led to some funny situations, such as when the child health nurse gave my wife strong recommendations to keeping the baby out of the sun, only to undress her for weighing and exclaim, “Oh, she’s brown all over!”
Even in spite of that, I am aware that my default mindset is that of a white, middle-class male – with all the privilege that brings. It means, at some level, I exist within systems that can reinforce racist stereotypes.
But I sense that things are changing. While you could dismiss it as tokenistic, days like Harmony Day play a role in celebrating the diversity that is in Australia, which I am convinced makes it a much better place.
I hope that my little girl grows up firmly embracing all of her roots, which stretch around various parts of the world. I hope that as she grows up, she makes friends with other kids from a diverse range of backgrounds, and sees that we’re all equal, no matter what our skin colour or ethnic background, and celebrates that.
So, on this Harmony day, it’s a good day to consider how far we’ve come, how far we still have to go, but also to look forward to a brighter future ahead together.