Everyone belongs? Rethinking the value of Harmony Day celebrations in schools

It’s Harmony Week and all over Australia, schools, along with community groups and workplaces are holding their annual multicultural celebrations. Traditional Harmony Days in schools are full of food and fun. Cultural dress ups are the norm. Students get a chance to perform their cultural dance and songs. What could possibly be wrong with that?

The history of Harmony Week

Harmony Week is a “celebration that recognises our diversity and brings together Australians from all different backgrounds”. Mid-March was chosen because it centres around March 21st, the ‘United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’. This day commemorates the killing of 69 people by police at a peaceful anti-apartheid demonstration in 1960 in Sharpeville, South Africa. On this day the UN asks all people to commit to three key strands to the fight against racism:

  • Education: including teaching the history of racism, slavery, colonialism, racism and discrimination
  • Actions: Speaking out against intolerance
  • Becoming agents of change and having the courage and the will to act.

So how did we get from this to fashion parades and food stalls?

Not-for-profit organisation, All Together Now, details the history and the political agendas that led to the creation of Harmony Day in Australia. At the time, the Howard Government made the choice to focus on ‘harmony’, rather than the hard work required to challenge the root causes of discrimination and prejudice. The Harmony Day slogan is now “Everyone Belongs”, and word ‘racism’ isn’t used on the Harmony Day website or in the “Event Planning Guide for Schools”. 

The Problem with Harmony Week

  At Harmony Day celebrations, the food and entertainment are generally provided by migrants, First Nations people and people of colour, while White-Anglo community members are passive recipients of the labour. It’s hard to see how a day of celebrating dress, diet and dancing, is going to do very much to fight racism. 

The Australian Human Rights Commission proposes that Harmony Day hides structural and systemic racism. Harmony Day implies that Australia has achieved a post-race utopia in which racism doesn’t need to be discussed. It celebrates superficial representations of culture without deep engagement with challenging concepts such as unconscious bias, discrimination and colonial legacies, all of which are alive and well today. Harmony Day makes no mention of truth-telling about genocidal acts, stolen generations, the White Australia policy and other racist histories that shaped the nation.

Harmony Day is a comfortable and safe version of multiculturalism, described by some as “lazy multiculturalism”. But by nature, challenging racism must be uncomfortable, brave and accountable work. While we may feel compelled to protect school-aged children from this,   research tells us that it is never too early to talk with children about racism. Children aren’t born racist, but they learn racial identity from the adults around them.  Ideas around race are formed when children are just three, and babies notice racial differences as young as six months old. 

So, what works in anti-racist education?

We propose three ways that conversations about cultural inclusion and racial justice can be made more meaningful for young people.

Avoid the smorgasboard

A single day set aside for diversity celebrations emphasises the ‘otherness’. It sends a message that culture is trivial, not critical to people’s being and ever-evolving identities. If students are encountering a large range of diverse cultures in a single day, it’s unlikely that any meaningful learning is going to take place. All they’ll take in is the food and fun, and fail to recognise the challenges that people from racial minorities face. Targeted activities that engage deeply with cultures avoids the trivialisation of identities and allows us to notice, understand and appreciate difference.

Embed the learning in the classroom

The Australian Curriculum in Humanities and Social Sciences offers a solid model to start. Children in the early years learn about their local community and its history, the people who live there and their histories, and connect this with their own experiences and identities. As they progress through their primary schooling, they begin to explore Australia’s neighbouring countries and then places and cultures that are further afield. Unlike a smorgasbord approach, it allows for meaningful engagement with the cultures being studied.

Talk about race and racism

There is no greater opportunity to shape the values of future generations than by talking with our youngest citizens what racism is and how to stop it. While some argue that teachers and schools have to forego the safety of celebration-focussed events that have limited impact, we suggest that Harmony Day can be part of a larger learning program of anti-racist work.

One of the authors of this article (Rachael Jacobs) runs Deep Harmony, an arts-based anti-racism program in NSW Schools. The program engages primary and high school students in weekly workshops where they use drama and dance as a portal to arrive at deeper understandings about racism. The program was titled Deep Harmony in response to schools’ desire and commitment to keeping Harmony Day events on their school calendar. Jacobs found that it was too challenging for schools to ditch multicultural celebrations, so instead, designed a program that can take place in the lead-up to Harmony Day, ensuring that there is truly something to celebrate.

Make Harmony Day meaningful

Research suggests that teachers and principals understand and share the critique of Harmony Day, but are still reluctant to remove it from the school calendar. If we’re going to keep doing Harmony Day, schools need to consider the goals of the day, and be bold in adding some depth to the celebrations in order to achieve them. What we want is empathy, respect and understanding. Learning about something that is special to another person, understanding their classmates’ family history, and listening to stories from elders and grandparents can be beautiful and meaningful ways to add value to the day. It is essential to remind students that ridding the world of racism is ongoing work that we are all responsible for. Teachers can even try telling them the limitations of the day, then ask them to name what else they can do.

Let’s make this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination a genuine commitment to racial justice. It will require more than celebration, but ultimately it will be more meaningful.  

Rachael Jacobs lectures in arts education Western Sydney University. Her research areas include racial justice education and language development through the arts. She is a community activist, aerial artist, South Asian choreographer and she runs an intercultural dance company. As a community artist, Rachael facilitates projects in community settings, mostly working with migrant and refugee communities. 

Rachael Dwyer (she/her) is a Lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her scholarship is focused on creating social change, through decolonizing, arts-based approaches to teaching, advocacy and research, and sharing her scholarship in ways that impact policy and practice. 

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

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