Harmony and Anti-Racism

Crowd gathers at a multiculturalism event, including women in hijab and children playing drums

I was one of the speakers at an internal corporate event for Harmony Day. This day recognises Australian multiculturalism, but in many workplace and community events, this usually focuses on migrants and not Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Harmony Day actually coincides with the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (a commemoration which does include Indigenous people). The former is a celebration, the latter is a call for anti-racist action and social change. Myself and the other speakers took our cue from the latter. This is what I said.

I was born in Lima, Peru. My family migrated to Australia when I was young. My identity as a migrant-Australian woman has shaped much of my early research career and continues to drive my sense of social justice and my work to this day.

Today I’m going to give you a sociological context for racial diversity in Australia, and how to promote racial harmony in our communities and our workplace.


Half of Australians (49%) are either a first or second generation migrant. We come from over 190 countries and speak over 300 languages. Around 8% of all Australians belong to more 20 non-Christian religions.

Almost 3% of our nation are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They descend from over 200 cultural groups, making First Nations people the most culturally and linguistically diverse group.

And aren’t we lucky to live and work in New South Wales, home to 34% of Australia’s migrant population? This makes us the most diverse state in Australia.

While many Australians values this cultural richness, people don’t always know how to react when something undermines our racial harmony.

Matsuri Japanese Festival. Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos


A recent nationally representative study of 6,000 people showed that 35% of migrant-Australians have experienced racism in public. Another 33% had experienced racism at work, and a further 33% at their place of education. Aboriginal people experience 2.5 times the amount of recurring racism as non-Indigenous people (46% vs 18% in the past six months). This is even higher online considering the racism Indigenous people witness toward their communities (90% of participants in a national study). A United Nations envoy calls the level of racism towards Indigenous people ‘deeply disturbing.’

All that makes racism a very common daily experience for many minorities.

Left is word-based art that reads: 'everday I achieve something because I was born in this skin, everyday I concede something becuase I was born in this skin. Right is a drawing of various crossing lines that suggest the outline of a face that fades in focus in the centre
borninthisskin (left) and Unwritten (right) – Vernon Ah Kee. Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

Research also tells us there are social and psychological reasons why White Australians in particular do not act when they see racism. The behavioural science term bystander bias describes how people have a tendency not to act if other people are also witness to an emergency. This includes when they see racism at work or on public transport.

Luckily, we also know from scientific studies about some practical steps you can take to overcome bystander bias (see Choosing to Act, Resource 4, by VicHealth 2010). I’m going to give you three strategies I hope you might use, should you ever need to step in.


First, ask questions. When someone is saying something racist, ask them, “Why do  you say that?” Researchers show that making a statement may lead to resistance, but a question will demand reflection and an answer.

Second, we know that most people hold an image of themselves as being fair and just. Yes, even racist people. So when you see racism, you might say: “I’m surprised to hear you say that because I always thought you were open-minded.”

Third, and on a similar vein, reinforce that the behaviour is not acceptable to you and others.  You can say something like, “What you just said/ or did, makes me feel uncomfortable.”

But there are other ways to make sure we eliminate the possibility of racism, and that is by strengthening inclusion. A couple of ways to fight for racial harmony is to ensure our work reflects the multiculturalism of the people we serve through our work.

Homeground. Photo: Zuleyka Zevallos

We should all think to ourselves:

  • Who serves on our advisory boards and governance groups?
  • Are Aboriginal people in decision-making roles?
  • Are there other ways to increase multicultural oversight of our projects, of our policy reports, of the other work we are entrusted to create?
  • How can we increase co-design through truly collaborative partnerships? How do we make sure there is representative multicultural leadership at the table not after a new policy has been enacted, not after a new program has been launched, but that racial, religious and cultural minorities are helping up build the decision-making table in the first place?

Like all great things, racial diversity and racial harmony require constant work, vigilance and reinforcement. This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We can honour this history in NSW not by standing by waiting for someone else to jump in, but by promoting respect, unity and compassion with our everyday actions. Let’s commit to asking ourselves and others challenging questions, because racial harmony is everybody’s business.

I delivered this talk on 20 March 2018, on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, otherwise known as Sydney. I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging, and thank them for ther Custodianship of Country.