Today is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Here in Australia, we call it Harmony Day.
Yet, “Harmony” does not reflect the years upon years of racial discrimination that Indigenous Australians have faced. It does not reflect the current racial discrimination that permeates Australian society, institutions, systems and workplaces. This is not a new thought – see this incredible piece by Diversity Council of Australia.
Challenging our systems, and ourselves, to be anti-racist is not a harmonious experience. It requires self-reflection bordering on the raw and exposing, asking questions with uncomfortable answers, and personal ownership of some really hard truths. Today, I wanted to engage with that opportunity for self-reflection, discomfort, and to share some of the organisational reflection and sector learning that has occurred via ACFID’s journey as an organisation in recent memory.
A survey in the United Kingdom showed that 89% of respondents felt their international development workplace was not truly committed to diversity, equality, and inclusion. This doesn’t surprise me in the least. At the moment, it is popular and trendy to be anti-racist, but to truly tackle racism, to truly be anti-racist, is a huge undertaking. So where do we start?
For ACFID and our membership of 130 Australian development NGOs, our commitment to tackle racism was first set out in ACFID Council Resolution 1/2020, where we committed ‘to initiate genuine dialogue about greater representation, participation and access to decision making with peoples of varied cultural and racial origins’ at the Board and Senior Leadership level.
For non-leadership staff, the Racial Justice Community of Practice (RJCOP) was created. The COP is a safe space to discuss racism in Australia, particularly in the NGO and development sector. All ACFID members are welcome to join. Upcoming events include anti-racism training workshops, and an anti-racism resource library launch.
The first RJCOP meeting of the year is being held this Thursday 23 March 2023, 2-3pm AEDT, where we will be joined by speaker Neha Madhok, National Director of Democracy in Colour. Register here – we would be delighted to have you attend (ACFID members only).
Together with La Trobe University’s Institute for Human Security and Social Change, ACFID has since produced the Decolonisation and Locally Led Discussion Paper, a flagship paper in the Australian NGO sector. Uncomfortable, raw, and to be entirely honest, a wake up call for me as a white person, the discussion paper goes through practical ideas for action at an individual, organisational and systemic level for white and black or brown development practitioners on yielding and wielding power. I urge you to read it on your personal journey for anti-racism and then urge your organisation to do the same.
Following on from this, ACFID produced the Yielding and Wielding Power toolkit, a collection of question sets and short ‘how-to’ guidance designed to support discussions about racism, ranging from an individual, organisational, and systemic level. The toolkit prefaces that ‘many of the suggestions are not easy. For black and brown practitioners, stepping into wielding power may require having uncomfortable conversations, breaking cultural protocols, being vulnerable in new ways, and working on painful decolonisation of the mind processes. For white practitioners, yielding power may involve loss of professional identity reckoning with the deep discomfort of being part of and representative of a neo-colonial system which individuals do not personally subscribe to, and losing power, control, and authority.
‘Engaging in a decolonisation process, and supporting genuinely locally led organisations and programs, requires us all to be courageous and bear the discomforts and pain associated with the process, with particular regard for the discomfort and pain of black and brown colleagues who have suffered and lost the most through colonisation.’
This last part is the most important to me – we need to be courageous to be anti-racist because it is hard. It is uncomfortable. It is awkward. I recently attended a workshop on anti-racism, enthusiastic to join a conversation about a topic I feel strongly about, but was perhaps entered into it naively, and underprepared. To be raw and exposed, self-reflecting, and ready to own hard truths and answer uncomfortable questions isn’t something that comes to us naturally without first committing to being vulnerable and honest with ourselves. Rather, our natural reaction is one of self-protection, of defense, or of justifications – because we don’t truly subscribe to what we see as a racist perspective or world view. So how could the points being raised throughout the day, relate to me? By falling into this state of reaction, we are, whether we know it or not, practising white fragility. These reflections weren’t just my own but shared by many fellow workshop participants. I could have taken more away from the workshop if I had leaned into this white fragility and learned to sit with that discomfort and I suspect my fellow participants feel the same way.
To make collective inroads requires a lot of hard work every day, not just today. We can celebrate our harmony and celebrate the leaps and bounds we’ve made from our racist colonial past on days like today, yet we should also be talking about the challenge therein. We are still not a harmonious society. As long as racism is alive, we cannot be a harmonious society. Harmony will require us to confront our racism, to sit with it, to be uncomfortable. There needs to be more work on anti-racism in our systems, and in ourselves, now. And in the words of the incredible Dixie Crawford, ‘it’s not about just doing this sort of thing just once, it’s about consistently leaning into the work, even when no one’s watching’.
Many thanks must go to my friends and colleagues Whitney Yip, Moti Goode, Raewyn Lans and Jocelyn Condon for helping me to edit this piece. Without them, it would be a blithering, navel-gazing mess (though who is to say it is still not?).
 I also suggest ‘White Tears, Brown Scars’ by Ruby Hamad if you are a white woman like myself.
Eva Touzeau is ACFID’s External Relations Coordinator. She apologies for the clickbait title.