On 21st March 1960, protestors in Sharpeville, South Africa were demonstrating against the country’s discriminatory apartheid laws when police opened fire, killing 69 innocent people and wounding 180 more. Information and photos of what we now refer to as “The Sharpeville Massacre” circulated around the world, demonstrating the brutality of racial discrimination and police militarism that is still echoed in every nation across the globe. In 1966, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed that March 21st be observed as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This day commemorates the lives of those who died in the fight for equality during apartheid, but it also calls on the international community to continue doubling down on its efforts to eliminate racial discrimination.
If you’re from Australia, you may not have heard of this day before. It’s not because Australia has solved racial discrimination – far from it. It’s because In Australia, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is patronizingly called “Harmony Day”. During this time of celebration, people across the country are encouraged to wear orange clothing to signify “social communication and encouragement of mutual respect” while schools often have children make art with the celebration’s slogan, “Everybody Belongs”. As you can imagine, this is disingenuous for a plethora of reasons.
When Harmony Day celebrations began in 1999, they purposefully coincided with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination so as to “re-centralize a singular and unifying notion of Australian-ness within multicultural policy”, according to the Howard government. But Prime Minister John Howard was himself an active opponent of multiculturalism. In 1988, he helped develop the “One Australia” policy that called for an end to multiculturalism, and this stance never changed. Although Howard eventually commissioned an anti-racism study to “explore the subtleties and nature of racism in Australia”, he actively rejected its findings. The study revealed that 85% of the study’s respondents recognized that racism was widespread and multi-faceted in Australia. These results did not align with Howard’s belief that Australians were not racist, so he rejected them. Instead of creating Harmony Day to focus on eliminating racism, his administration promoted a “living in harmony” approach and suppressed the study’s findings until 2011.
Referring to March 21st as “Harmony Day” acts as a smokescreen that hides the true extent of racism within this country, and conceals the painful yet important history of the date. According to The Secretary for the New South Wales Fabians, “Rather than focusing on tackling racism and the structural barriers that continue to exist, it is instead a self-congratulatory day about how “harmonious” we apparently are.” It almost serves to gaslight the Australian population. Commercial and technology lawyer Dan Ryan states that, “The problem with the harmonious society is not just the disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality. The truth is, while superficially sweet-sounding, the idea is illusory and utopian.”
The day infers that, in Australia, “Everybody Belongs.” But that simply isn’t true. When we examine how Indigenous Australians and people of colour are treated in this country, we see that peace is a far cry from reality. Research shows that 72% of Indigenous Australians and 70% of the general population believe Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are prejudiced against each other. 27 years since the end of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in Custody, more than 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody. The indigenous population is still massively over-represented in the Australian prison system. In 2017, 27% of inmates were of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, much more than their 3% share of the population. Proclaiming that “Everybody Belongs” only diverts attention from anti-racism action to an illusory concept of harmony.
Harmony Day needs to be rebranded as International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. That way, it can focus on what is really important: decisive action against racism. Instead of dressing children in orange while they draw stick figures standing hand-in-hand, we can teach them cultural competency and the history of racial discrimination. Rather than hold a “Harmony Day Morning Tea”, we can explore the entrenched racism in contemporary society. As opposed to turning away from the past, we can look right at it, finally acknowledge the mistakes made, and the path we must take.
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