The Strange History of Harmony Day and Australia’s Racism Discussion

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Yan Zhuang, a reporter with the Australia bureau.

Two weeks ago, four local councilors of Asian heritage across Sydney received letters calling for death to “all Chinese people.” On Wednesday night, one of them proposed a motion for his council to take part in a campaign called “Racism Not Welcome.”

The motion was narrowly defeated. Some councilors said it was unnecessary because the problem didn’t exist in the local community. Others took issue with one word in the campaign’s name: Racism.

“It’s a terrible word, and I don’t want to see it in any fashion or form in our community,” said one councilor who voted against the motion.

“I don’t agree with using those particular words,” said another. “I think we should be using more encouraging words. More inclusive words. More belonging words. More words of togetherness, rather than words of separation or segregation.”

That urge — to address racism by talking about its opposite — appears to be one ingrained in Australian culture.

Every year around this time, children go to school in orange while companies and universities hold multicultural morning teas as part of Australia’s Harmony Week, an annual day-turned-week, which aims to celebrate cultural diversity.

Critics note that it occurs on the same day as the more explicitly named International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, sponsored by the United Nations, but Australia’s version reflects its very particular approach.

It has an interesting history. Harmony Day was first proposed by the conservative Liberal opposition in the 1990s as an educational campaign and an alternative to the Labor government’s bid to criminalize hate speech — to combat racism by restricting anyone from publicly inciting hatred based on race or ethnicity.

Labor essentially wanted to fight racism by outlawing racist speech; the Liberals aimed to combat racism by promoting multicultural unity.

The Liberals got their way after they won the 1996 election. As the first step of an educational campaign, it commissioned the first national survey on Australian attitudes about race, and the results weren’t flattering. It concluded that “a substantial proportion of respondents, and hence, the Australian population, hold very negative views toward segments of our society, views that need to be addressed.”

It also warned that focusing the campaign on racism would be ineffective because many Australians had a hard time admitting that their country could be racist. Those who support racist views see their attitudes as justified. In addition, the report said, those who felt they rarely saw or experienced racist incidents would “question the credibility of any message that paints a picture of the Australian community as one rife with disharmony and racist acts.”

Andrew Jakubowicz, a emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney and an expert on Australian race relations, said in an interview that the survey showed that “even to talk about racism made people incredibly uncomfortable, because it challenged their self-delusions about their own beliefs and practices.”

He believes it was for a similar reason that the government declined to publicly release the research findings until 2011 despite multiple inquiries, including his own public records requests.

Instead of talking explicitly about racism, the report recommended a subtle approach centered around shared values. Start with something positive that most people could agree with and get on board with, the thinking went, and then build up to talking about more contentious antiracism messages.

The argument that people respond better to positive than negative messaging is supported by psychologists when it comes to other campaigns, like climate change.

Finding a new value that everyone could gather around might also lift concerns some Australians held about a loss of national identity as the country gradually moved from a primarily Anglo culture to a more diverse one as new migrants arrived, the report said. That in itself could help in reducing racism.

And the shared value most likely to resonate with Australians? Harmony.

But one of the problems with the harmony approach, said Professor Jakubowicz, is that it discourages people from speaking up because that can be seen as unharmonious. It “put the onus on the minorities not to raise a stink about their minority status and marginalization,” he said.

At a time of when there has been an increase in racist attacks both in Australia, where a recent survey showed that one in five Chinese-Australians had been threatened or attacked during the pandemic, and in places like the United States, where shootings in Atlanta killed eight people, six of them Asian women, critics say the focus on harmony become a disincentive to candor and addressing the problem.

What appeared at the local council goes back decades. There’s a much wider awareness now that racism is a significant problem, Professor Jakubowicz said, but the unwillingness to talk about race, reflected in the history of Harmony Day, continues.

“The majority position, that Australians would like not to be disturbed by reflecting on these facts, is very much there. And Harmony Day says you don’t have to be disturbed,” he said.

Now here are our stories of the week:


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