Harmony Day and Racism in Australia

An important national conversation about racism happened on 21 March 2017. It started with celebrity chef Adam Liaw on Twitter, who said: “It’s #HarmonyDay so I want to be a bit frank about race.” Australia celebrates multiculturalism on Harmony Day annually; it coincides with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This year, Harmony Day was marred by a callous but calculated symbolic gesture: the Government chose this day to strip away protections from the Racial Discrimination Act (sections 18C and 18D). The Act now uses the less precise language of “harassment” but it has removed protections against racial “offence”, “insult” and “humiliation.” Essentially, it will be even harder for Indigenous and migrant-background Australians to be protected against racial abuse.

Section 18C of The Racial Discrimination Act has been under threat for years; most recently due to a case against xenophobic cartoonist Bill Leak and another case involving two university students who targeted Indigenous colleagues. The former was infamously dropped amidst great public pressure in defence of the beloved artist whose racist and sexist cartoons delight millions of Australians. You can see a sample of Leak’s work below, in which he mocks Indigenous fatherhood on the 2016 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day. The second case cost $20 million in court and was eventually dismissed. Cindy Prior, the Indigenous woman who exposed racist online messages by White male students, has suffered mental health problems and cannot find employment.

Opponents to the 18C law include right wing personality Andrew Bolt, who lost a racial discrimination suit led by Dr Anita Heiss.

Image: cartoon of an Indigenous policeman holding a young Black boy by the back of the neck in front of his father, who holds a beer. The police says: “You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility.” The father says: “Yeah righto. What’s his name then?”
Cartoon by Bill Leak. Via ABC News



Liaw shared various examples of racism he experienced throughout his life. He identified how racism is about everyday interactions that expose structural processes that enable racial discrimination.

“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…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.”

Resharing Liaw’s thread, writer, Dr Benjamin Law, shared his own stories of racism, and encouraged other minority Australians to do the same using #FreedomOfSpeech – referencing the democratic cloak under which 18C is being undermined.

“At the age of 10, I was at the local pool as a group of white boys held my head underwater, laughing at me for being Asian… Last week a White Australian said about a speech I gave, “You speak better English than me and I’ve been here all my life.”

Racism memories

I shared only a few incidents I’ve suffered, beginning with this:

Being followed home every day when I was in Grade 5 and 6, while kids yelled “wog,”* “Black” “go back to your own country” (Note: I’m of Latin background and I identify as a Brown woman of colour. When my family first moved to a predominantly White suburb, I was the first dark-skinned person many children my age had ever met. Irrespective of getting my “race” wrong, the insult was still about the colour of my skin.)

Being made to stand up in class while the teacher made fun of my name during a project on the origins of our names.

Being surrounded while White boys made jokes about me being poor and Indian like a case study from social studies. (Again: I’m not that it would be less offensive otherwise, but I am Latin.)

Being sexually and racially harassed throughout my life, walking to school, home and work, including a few weeks ago, when I was called “a Black c**t” and “slut” by a White man as I walked through Sydney to catch the train.

I was the only Honours student taken aside by faculty and told not to apply for a PhD because I’d never get an academic job. (By the way: my Honours and PhD theses have since used as teaching tools year after year at my university.)

Endured a 30 minute verbal attack at work by a supervisor who called me a “wog.” I argued he should not call me that. Five colleagues sitting beside us stayed quiet.

Refused to laugh at racist jokes and made a complaint to our Executive that the entire office needed equity and diversity training. The office manager yelled at me one day, out of the blue. “Why don’t you smile more?!” 

I pointed out all the racist issues at work (plus all the sexism, homophobia, and other equity problems). My White male manager reminds me that I’m on a short-term contract.

Daily online abuse across my social media and blog, where I receive racist and sexist abuse because I write and fight against inequality. Here’s an example from this past week, where a White male journalist wrote two long racist comments on my blog (which I did not allow to be published here, as per my commenting policy, but did share on Twitter). Sadly for him, he referenced elements of conversations from earlier in the day and I was able to work out his identity and subsequently confronted him.

I’ve got a billion other experiences to share about racism (inextricably linked to sexism). I left it there but you can see it everyday on my Twitter, where I’m especially under siege at the moment for writing about the diversity issues with the March for Science.

The #FreedomOfSpeech conversations were incredibly painful and moving, with most people of colour who posted or who commented reflecting on the familiarity of the experiences being shared.

Weakening the Racial Discrimination Act is a dangerous ploy by the Government, which cuddles up to White supremacist ideals that founded this nation, and which clearly live on in the modern day.

[Image: cartoon of an Indigenous policeman holding a young Black boy by the back of the neck in front of his father, who holds a beer. The police says: “You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility.” The father says: “Yeah righto. What’s his name then?” ]

*Wog is a derogatory term used on many people of colour, especially those from European backgrounds. See my early work on this racialised term.