LIFE
21/03/2020 5:17 PM AEDT | Updated 21/03/2020 8:51 PM AEDT

Harmony Day 2020: What These Young Australians Are Doing To Unite Cultures

The day celebrating cultural diversity is particularly important this year as some communities face racism amid the coronavirus crisis.

If there’s anything the past few months have taught us about community, it’s that harmony amongst cultures is more important than ever.

Harmony Day falls on March 21 every year, coinciding with the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

This Harmony Day, several young Australians speak about the inspiring work they’ve been doing to help unite cultures, before shedding light on why racism amidst the coronavirus crisis is detrimental to the world’s Asian communities and beyond.

Phillip Kuoch and Thomas Tan – Hosts, Lemon Podcast

Phillip and Thomas are the brains behind Lemon Podcast, which focuses on entertainment, social and cultural topics from a queer Asian perspective.

“We decided to start Lemon because there weren’t any podcast or mainstream programmes aimed at tackling issues that are faced by Asian millennials, like how Asians can’t break the ‘bamboo ceiling’ at work because of a lifetime of being told to be submissive and respecting the work place. This results in us never putting ourselves forward for tasks or leadership roles,” the duo said.

Explaining Harmony Day allows him to celebrate his Chinese and Cambodian identity, Phillip said his younger years were tough, because “kids at school to used to make fun of me and Asians were never portrayed positively in the media without being the satirical comical character”.

“As I get older, I’ve loved learning and visiting the rich history and culture of China and Cambodia and I’m super proud to be an Australian-born Chinese-Cambodian.”

Phillip and Thomas believe further representation of cultures is needed in the media, as well as a better example being set by political leaders. “It’s problematic when you have the certain world leaders calling COVID-19 the ‘Chinese Virus’,” they said, referring to US President Donald Trump’s recent comments. “It allows people to be xenophobic and racist towards the Asian community around the world.

“We’ve seen Asian businesses everywhere impacted since coronavirus emerged, regardless of their business category, and Asian people getting physically and verbally abused. It’s the stigma that is carelessly associated with our culture that leads to the catastrophic impact on businesses and people. People need to remember that we’re all in this together and be careful to not misplace their anger.” 

Anisa Ismail – Member, Muslim Empowerment Collective

Anisa Ismail
Anisa Ismail

Anisa is a member of a grassroots organisation that aims to empower Muslims in Australia to become more politically engaged and build capacity in all facets of our community. She was involved in Democracy In Colour’s Create Change Fellowship.

“I joined the fellowship so that I could better serve my community. Muslims in Australia need to be engaged politically given the increasing Islamophobia that we experience, the Christchurch terror attacks being one of the latest examples,” she told HuffPost Australia.

Describing Harmony Day as “a nice way to start celebrating the cultural diversity in Australia”, Anisa said “long-term structural change is needed beyond that if we want to build a truly inclusive society”.

“I don’t think we can move forward as a nation until we address the fact that Australia was built on racism, which has obviously shaped the way it has developed since. This racism not only affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but also manifests over time into different forms towards other minorities.”

Commenting on the increased wave of racism towards Asian people amid the coronavirus crisis, Anisa said, “there’s a difference between taking safe precautions and using fear to justify racism in your everyday interactions”. She added “the idea that Asians are ‘dirty’ or ‘unclean’” has also been adopted by bigots.

“People need to stay informed and stop looking for convenient scapegoats. Also support your local Chinese and Asian-owned businesses. They’ve been hit especially hard because of this misinformation.”  

Khushaal Vyas – 2017 NSW Premier’s Harmony Youth Medal Recipient

Since being recognised by Multicultural NSW for his involvement in the development of the Fairfield Youth & Community Centre in 2017, Khushaal has gone on to combine his passion for social justice with his budding as a lawyer.

“I’ve been really fortunate that the legal world presents a lot of opportunities to get involved in pro bono and community projects,” he said.

“Previously I was involved in setting up a community outreach and mentoring program through university based in the Dubbo and Trangie areas, with a focus on mentoring Indigenous youth and getting involved with local community centres and schools. I was stoked when that project was taken up by my workplace, with one of the community centres becoming one of the firm’s nominated charities for 2020.”

Reflecting on what Harmony Day means to him, Khushaal said it “presents an opportunity to set the record straight” during a time when “powerful world leaders can often succumb to the temptation of division”.

“Each year it represents a reminder of the strength of Australia’s diversity, the benefits of it and the contributions of our multicultural community,” he explained.

As for the “negative rhetoric directed toward people of an Asian background” during the coronavirus outbreak, Khushaal said “we all have a pretty big onus to call out unfair commentary in our day to day lives and conversations”.

“That doesn’t mean labelling and shouting down people who may be making unfair comments, but to hold them accountable and question their viewpoints,” he explained. “I often think that the mere fact that someone is willing to disagree and call out unfair commentary makes people realise that there are other viewpoints to consider and at the very least, may make them reconsider making divisive comments in the future. Staying silent when someone spreads misinformation is one more small battle lost to fear.”

Eunice Andrada and Anisa Nandaula – Poets

Michel Pinault
Eunice Andrada

Harmony Day has been particularly special for Eunice and Anisa, both poets involved in T2’s campaign addressing micro ignorances and inspiring meaningful conversations through slam poetry.

“As poets, we reflect the truth of the time we’re living in. And the reality is that the discrimination older generations of immigrants and ‘othered’ peoples have faced is still happening now,” said Eunice, a proud Filipina woman. “Having poets like myself use our art to talk about the micro ignorances we’ve experienced opens up another way to understand the issues we face.”

Anisa only need refer to her personal experiences when writing poems. “Growing up in Rockhampton, my family was the only African family I knew, we emigrated from Uganda when I was seven, so I feel like I’ve always had one foot in each world,” she said.

“Even now, I am constantly dealing with strangers wanting to touch my afro hair. Women who looked like me used to be put in zoos and in museums, people used to pay to come and see us and touch us and view us as animals. So even though people may think it’s harmless, it actually represents centuries of mistreatment.”

As the world faces the coronavirus crisis, Eunice said “now more than ever is the time to pause, reflect and really think about the way we interact with one another.

“My heart is with the East Asian communities who are experiencing even more racist abuse right now. In this challenging time, it’s necessary to continue to see the humanity in each other. There’s no excuse for harmful behaviour. As a community, we have to recognise that if one of us is hurting, we are all hurting.”

Aakanksha Manjunath and Annelise Lecordier – Co-founders, It’s Not A Compliment

It's Not A Compliment
Aakanksha Manjunath
It's Not A Compliment
Annelise Lecordier

As the co-founders of the It’s Not A Compliment campaign, Aakanksha and Annelise campaign against street harassment, working to achieve street justice for all through the community (of thousands) they have formed.  

“We’re a campaign that’s tackling street harassment by combating its normalisation, disrupting common narratives around it and advocating for community-led solutions that centre prevention through education and cultural change rather than criminalisation,” said Annelise.

The women launched the campaign after participating in Democracy In Colour’s Create Change fellowship. “The fellowship introduced me to other people of colour who are just as passionate as I am about social justice and it was refreshing, because while the development sector in Australia advertises diversity, it doesn’t always practice it,” claimed Aakanksha.

Moving to Australia after growing up in Mauritius, Annelise said she’s been confronted with people asking questions “where the message behind it is that they might not know exactly what I am but they definitely know that I’m not white”.

“Because of that and the fact that I’m quite light-skinned, I’m also often put in a position where I’m privy to some of the pretty awful comments people make about other cultural groups or people from a similar background to mine,” she explained. “Emotionally, that’s always a very complicated moment for me – I’ll feel angry at the discrimination but also really isolated and frustrated at the implicit erasure of my own background in that moment, along with guilt about being somehow complicit in this because they felt comfortable making these kinds of comments in front of me.”

Referring to the current landscape amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Aakanksha said the heavy circulation of “false information” is “highly problematic”.

Annelise said Australians should “go support smaller businesses owned by people of colour rather than the obvious supermarket chains or restaurants. They need the financial support more than ever.”

Sarah Liu, Founder, The Dream Collective

Meagan Harding
Sarah Liu

Sarah is the founder and director of a global diversity and inclusion consultancy agency, which “helps organisations attract, retain and advance diverse talent, with a niche focus on emerging female leaders, particularly in technology”.

“The world has so much diversity, and I think Harmony Day shines a light on being inclusive of those differences. It’s not just about having a seat at the table, but having diverse voices heard at the table,” she said.

“I think as we mature, we face less blatant discrimination. Although in light of recent events around panic-buying, just last weekend I found myself on the other-end of a snarky comment at the supermarket. Crises bring out our true colours. We see extreme generosity and kindness, as well as amplified insecurities and racially-charged hostility.”

Sarah explained that given this situation, “there’s no better time to promote cultural harmony”.

“I encourage Australians to educate themselves and stay informed, be mindful of their language, and remember the power we all have to influence those around us – use it wisely.”