At the start of this week, I returned to Melbourne from a lovely weekend away with friends, rested and relaxed. Stopping in at the supermarket on the way home, I happened to walk down the aisle formerly known as the toilet paper aisle. Lost in my own random thoughts, it took me a moment to notice a solid-looking man, maybe 10 years older than myself, staring at me and muttering to himself, apparently frustrated at the lack of product on the shelves.
Our eyes locked. He puffed his chest out and stepped towards me, sneered and spat out the words “f***in’ dogs”.
I had immediate flashbacks of being locked in the fire hose cupboard in school, of being held down and having grass stuffed in my mouth, of being told to “F*** off and go back to where you came from”. My body tensed up slightly, waiting for the blow. But I held his gaze and he stepped back and we went our separate ways.
It took 20-30 minutes of walking around the supermarket to slow my breathing and clear the adrenaline pumping through my veins.
I don’t usually like talking about race issues, largely because it often just looks like whinging when it comes from a person of colour. But today is Harmony Day, and what better a time to discuss them than during this celebration of cultural diversity... designed to be a day of cultural respect for everyone who calls Australia home.
Held every year in March, Harmony Day aims to start a conversation about heritage, culture and community. (The event coincides with the United Nations' International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.) So humour me for a bit - work with me and I promise you this will end well!
The supermarket... I’m not normally impacted to that degree by experiences like this. In this case, I was caught by surprise - because I had just spent the weekend in a safe place, with my guard down. I walked into the supermarket without considering the context of the time and place, and the risk factors associated with it.
In my opinion, this man’s behaviour was clearly unacceptable. But think about it: what else could we expect? He’s just an anxious man whose inability to understand and control his own emotions resulted in him lashing out in anger. And when we lash out, we aim for the most convenient targets that our brains will rationalise.
What surprised me more were the hundreds of responses to my Facebook post about it from kind friends, many of whom expressed genuine shock that I’d had to endure this kind of racism, as if that isn’t the daily reality for many people of colour in Australia.
Racism doesn’t suddenly appear when people start hoarding toilet paper or because a virus starts spreading. Rather, these outbursts are the expression of pre-existing latent prejudice, triggered by current events. It is fed by fear tactics employed by political and community leaders for personal gain, by arts organisations who think it’s still acceptable to use black face, yellow face or other derogatory stereotyping in their productions, by media and educators who twist the narrative to serve their own agendas, by sports stars and celebrities who publicly belittle people different to themselves.
Prejudice is enabled by individuals, religious groups, and activists who vote for their preferred political parties in order to achieve their own agendas, without also calling those leaders to account for the fear campaigns and “othering” of minority groups employed to get elected. Prejudice is enabled by the staff in workplaces and schools who turn a blind eye to toxic cultures and bullying within their own communities. And prejudice is enabled by consumers or art or fashion or media who applaud and financially reward antisocial corporate behaviour.
These actions (or lack of actions) sow the seeds of discord. And the impact is cumulative...
...until suddenly it erupts and then everyone is shocked.
So what's the antidote to this?
According to the dictionary, Harmony is the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce a pleasing effect.
It requires different notes to be played, simultaneously. The traditional approach in Australia has been to focus on people from diverse cultures assimilating or conforming to Australian culture. But that assumes a dominant culture that determines the fates of other cultures. It is a colonising approach, whether intended to be or not. Our (often well-meaning) push towards creating a unison voice makes us look or sound like we are the same... but this achieves unison, not unity. You end up having a monoculture, yet still with wildly unaligned hearts.
Conversely, when you dare to embrace and honour other voices as equal contributors to a culture, you cultivate a unity of heart, amidst a diversity of expressions. Society becomes like a choir, with different cultures singing different notes, creating layers of richness that we call... harmony.
Harmony is about creating belonging, not conformity. It’s about letting people be proud of who they are and where they have come from, and giving them agency without feeling threatened by it. It takes trust, vulnerability, and a whole lot of really good communication.
There have been a few occasions in my life when friends of mine have made really racist comments or sweeping generalisations. When I’ve questioned them on it, their response has been “Oh, we didn’t mean you - you’re different”. At this point I’ve usually invited them to consider that maybe every person is different when you get to know them personally. And maybe if you get to know everyone personally, those generalisations will cease to apply.
It’s so simple, and so easy to begin to implement - all it requires is connecting and being real with other people on a personal level.
And so this Harmony Day, my challenge to all of us is three-pronged:
1. Discover and truly embrace who you are, and commit to walk fully in your own identity, rather than conforming just to fit in.
2. Defend, welcome and seek to honour people who are different to you. Defend them physically, socially, economically, politically.
3. Rise together. Learn how to communicate and collaborate with others, forgiving where misunderstandings have arisen or hurts have been inflicted, and encouraging them towards a common goal.
And as you do so, don’t be surprised when you come across examples of prejudice. Rather, celebrate the reality that for every one person like that, there are literally hundreds of kind people who are horrified by that kind of behaviour. We just need to stir them into action - and together we can make change that will make our world safer for all.
This Harmony Day I invite you to make new harmonies with me. We can use our distinctive voices to create new songs and reshape the current narrative into something richer, more nuanced and more satisfying for all of us. Who’s with me?