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There’s much more to ‘Harmony Day’ than it appears

By Alison Coelho, Stream Leader of Multicultural Health Improvement & Manager of the Multicultural Health and Support Service.

In March we celebrated Harmony Day in Australia. Harmony Day is an attempt to acknowledge the contributions of multicultural communities to Australian society. It is celebrated with many community festivals and local events with global food and music and traditional dress. So what’s the problem? One day alone, (or week) to come together to indulge our senses, does little more than placate individual and well-connected ethnic communities.

It ticks the diversity box for organisations, while leaving the rest of us feeling ‘nice’. From where I stand, as an immigrant myself, Harmony Day seems to equate the sounds and tastes of the ‘other’ with multiculturalism. On so many levels I find this both tokenistic and insulting. No other nation across the world calls this day, Harmony Day, instead they choose to use the correct term, The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

In changing the name of the day from the rest of the world, it would seem that here in Australia we are brushing over the causes of inequities that are still evident in our society. We are choosing to focus on the obvious positives of living in a multicultural society and disregarding ongoing race-based discrimination in everyday life. The Australian experience of Harmony Day designates an assumption that we all somehow dance to the same beat. A ‘one size fits all’ concept where the expectation is we all fall into line. Implicit in this idea is that those that don’t meld are in danger of being marginalized and excluded.

So what becomes of the International Day for the Elimination of Racism? Sampling global cuisines and admiring traditional dress and dance does not address racism or discrimination and the fundamental inequity that exists in contemporary Australia. These inequities perpetuate our society’s social injustice and health inequalities. So along with celebrating the best that cultural diversity has to offer, we should actively work through and acknowledge issues that are being faced in areas such as in our health care system, to better increase the outcomes and experiences of people from refugee and immigrant backgrounds.

Our health care services need to be culturally competent. 

When it comes to our health, we have a system that is hierarchical, individually focused, institutionalised and modeled on a past white Australia. At times, engaging with our health system can be daunting and confusing, especially for people from refugee and migrant backgrounds, asylum seekers and mobile populations. Unfortunately, it can also be an exercise in humiliation and admonishment, as one’s health beliefs, socio/cultural needs are either ignored or dismissed.

For this very reason the implementation of policies and readily available resources by executive staff is important for frontline workers from doctors, nurses and counsellors through to reception staff “to recognize the importance of cultural issues. To be truly clinically competent, they need to be culturally competent. All patients are influenced by culture, no matter what the ethnic background- be they minorities or majorities. (Tseng and Streltzer 2008) Cultural competence in health practices is key in ensuring that a health care system such as ours is able to achieve success in its attempts to meet the needs of the whole community.

This can only be done if we shift our gaze to the needs of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. We can create a healthier Australia by constructing a system that is holistic and inclusive. If we had a system that was culturally competent, culturally safe and health literate that also understood the fundamentals of collectivist communities, the role of health beliefs and social disadvantage, we would no longer require a Closing the Gap framework, nor endure pockets of chronic disease epidemics affecting particular cohorts. I believe our system could be more inclusive and representative of the diverse needs of our entire community.

I suggest that next Harmony Day we spend some time reflecting on what we actually mean and hope to achieve with the current concept of ‘harmony’. Could we maximise what we achieve with a more open look at issues that Australians of immigrant and refugee backgrounds face in their daily lives?Why is it that we have lost the core elements of the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination? This March as with all others to follow, I will reflect and work towards improving health outcomes for those in greatest need and hope that you join me. March on.


Tseng, Wen-Shing, and Jon Streltzer. Cultural Competence In Health Care. New York: Springer, 2008. Print.

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