21 March 2024

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: some personal reflections

By Stephen Lin

Thursday 21 March is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (IDERD).

IDERD was established by the United Nations in 1966, six years after the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa saw police open fire on anti-apartheid protesters. In Australia, the day is perhaps better known as 'Harmony Day' which, since 1999, has been promoted as a celebration of successful multiculturalism. However, in recent years, the emphasis on 'harmony' has been criticised as obscuring the 'structural and systemic racism' that persists even in multicultural communities such as ours.

Until I started conducting research for this post, I was indeed unaware of these underlying tensions around the meaning of Harmony Day, or that it fell on the same date as IDERD. I do remember that Harmony Day was celebrated in primary school with a 'mufti day' where everyone was asked to wear orange to school - I unfortunately didn't have many orange clothes! One year, our school asked us to bring foods reflecting our cultural heritage. I was delighted not only to share in my classmates' diverse cuisines, but also to see my own Taiwanese culture represented. Today, I am lucky to find myself at a workplace that is accepting of all cultures, actively promotes diversity and inclusion and has zero tolerance towards discrimination.

Yet despite an outward appearance of 'harmony', it is undeniable that those from culturally diverse backgrounds still experience discrimination in Australia. Just a few years ago, a bus driver told my family that 'if we spoke English', we would have known that we had boarded an express bus. It is all too easy to turn a blind eye to the discrimination, racial abuse and even violence which continues to take place against people from minority groups, both overtly and more subtly.

To me, IDERD is therefore important as it serves as a reminder that racial discrimination does persist in Australia and globally. It reminds us that we all have a duty, where we can safely do so, to speak out against such acts. In addition, as explained by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, education and engaging in public discussions are critical tools in the fight against racism. All of us should take this opportunity to reflect on and address our own unconscious and conscious biases, to avoid perpetuating discriminatory attitudes or stereotypes.

We should certainly be proud of and celebrate what has been achieved so far in the journey towards ending racial discrimination, but we must also acknowledge that there remains a lot to be done.

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Nathan Kennedy

Nathan Kennedy

Partner, Head of Pro Bono & Community and ESG Co-Lead

Nathan is the firm's Head of Pro Bono & Community. His practice covers employment, administrative law and human rights.