The Problem with Harmony Day

While the rest of the world refers to 21st March as the International Day for the Elimination of Racism, here in Australia, it is known as Harmony Day. It is the date that kicks off Harmony Week, which is all about belonging, inclusion, and respect - all things that should be celebrated. On the surface, Harmony Week seems like a wonderful initiative. Social harmony, is of course, an admirable thing to strive for. What then, is the problem with Harmony Day?

As many Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander leaders have pointed out, avoiding the word ‘racism’ is problematic and dangerous. Language matters, and the erasure of ‘racism’ is not only symbolic, but can lead to very real and harmful outcomes. Language has the potential to rewrite and even erase histories, shape present-day narratives about who we are as a society, and inform policies and practices.

Migrant and refugee communities have also expressed their discomfort with the practices that surround Harmony Week. Racism is a serious public health issue, which significantly impacts on migrant and refugee women’s mental health.

In the week prior to Harmony Week, the third Islamophobia Report 2018-19, was released with staggering accounts of attacks on Muslim women, often in very public settings. Reports of anti-Muslim abuse have risen in areas with security guards and surveillance cameras – from 37% in the first 2014 report to 75% in the 2018-19 report. Racism, in all its forms, cannot be addressed through a workplace pot-luck lunch, or show and tell of cultural artifacts and costumes. As racism is not a one-off event, eliminating racism requires long term, structural solutions.

So instead of talking about harmony, let's talk about equitable health outcomes. We need to dismantle racism in social hierarchies, in our government’s migration policies, and in our legal and policing institutions. We need culturally competent and financially accessible mental health services, with professionals who are willing to embed a sense of intersectional wellbeing into their everyday practice. We need to use evidence-based organisational frameworks for anti-racism action in Australian workplaces, as discussed in the Diversity Council Australia Racism at Work report released earlier this week.

While Harmony Week may have some good intentions, there is no doubt that it has a long way to go in creating long-lasting and transformative change. We can use it a starting point to look inwards and challenge the myths and stereotypes that we all hold. We can use it to confront the legacies of colonialism and racism in this country, to learn from the past, and create change for the better.

First published in edition #107 of The WRAP on 31st March 2022.