By Jane Salmon
Growing up in bland suburban 50s, 60s and 70s middle-class Australia was all about enforced conservative norms.
You fitted in or were teased. You moved around in private cars where possible and kept to suburbs as uniform as possible. You treated foreign foods like spaghetti as exotic. When travelling, you were blithely ignorant of the benefits of tabouleh while strenuously fearful of being offered eating sheep’s eyes by Arabs. You were even assured you had nothing to personally feel “Sorry” about, whether or not you believe it. You stereotyped yourself by size, height, blondeness, occupation or interests: a Brady Bunch or Womens Weekly style template. You also mentally dismissed “chinks”, “gooks”, “wogs”, Nazis and Jews, “Abos”, males and females. To some extent, you still do. Privately.
These days Harmony Week is supposed to make a dent in the Aussie Anglophile smug. It’s generally a festival of traditional national food, music, costumes and dance.
Does it create change and encourage us to accept the gifts of other civilisations and cultures or does it reinforce difference?
“Harmony” seems needed more than ever.
Many Australians seem only too keen to accept Trump’s or Hanson’s permission to be selfish, angry, ignorant, unaware, fearful and above all, racist.
Despite SBS and the internet, far too many Aussies are opting for a festival of ignorance-fuelled fear and hatred right now. Exploring extreme stereotypes seems so much more satisfying than accepting the ordinariness of peace-loving people who just happen to grow up in different countries.
Refugees and migrants “take” jobs rather than “create” them. Many voters tacitly concur that resources are finite and that any generosity will cost them, that every transaction is part of a zero sum game, that you cannot grow the pie.
The belief that bigger demands on the rich to share wealth will harm the economy is well established. Far better to punish the vulnerable poor.
On Wednesday, IWD, a pro-refugee group of volunteers called “People Just Like Us” solicited members of the public to put messages of welcome to refugees on a sculpted metal tree made to celebrate Harmony Week. The work was sponsored by City of Sydney and completed by refugees.
The group has a level of fellowship. There is artist Jason Koh who came from Singapore 20 years ago. There is Angelika Treichler who was raised in post war Germany. Joyce Fu is from Taiwan. Fabia Claridge is from everywhere.
The sculptor is an Iranian called Majet. I also enjoyed meeting Amir, a smiling and very cultured estate agent whose achievements in Australia began with learning English and then representing his own immigration case in the Federal Court.
Passers-by either seemed to wholeheartedly embrace the concepts represented by leaflets and tree or to passively resent and ignore them. There was very little in between.
Many folk seem to avoid any challenge to their immediate preoccupations, goals and/or prejudices.
Getting past white entitlement is hard to do. We still fear difference. I still bumble and fumble the interactions, emphasising difference.
A phalanx of private school boys paraded past our demonstration yesterday. Their disinterest was polite. The blonde, slim, be-whistles teacher seemed warier of controversy than they.
One tourist sadly told me about the rise of COP18 & extreme National Front groups in poor parts of Britain, of polarisation that seems to grow out of poverty and ignorance. Brexit voters had no idea of the implications, he said. Nostalgia and nationalism are a heady mix. Colonialism and world wars are based on racist stereotypes.
Our government detains vulnerable men, women and children on Nauru. They isolate visa overstayers as hostages offshore in indefinite detention in our name. This seems to be at great expense to taxpayers and to mutual respect, trust and even peace. Australians can somehow afford to bomb Syria and Syrians from the air, to force people to stagnate in camps, but not find positive ways to embrace them when they coming looking for a fresh start.
Every one of us can take a step on the road to Harmony by getting to know a wider range of people. If you have time, wander down to Customs House on Sunday. Enjoy the cultural riches that newcomers bestow upon our country. Hear about the reasons ordinary folk flee extremists in their own homelands. Look a detainee of four years in the eye. See the needless damage and also celebrate all that they have achieved since.
Perhaps they’re not so dangerous after all.
And maybe we can all afford compose a message on a coloured leaf and tie it to an already bristling tree.
I’ll be there to enjoy dance and music, poetry (whether traditional or slam), build bonds and see those leaves of welcome burgeoning on every branch.
Hope you’ll join us.