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Let's talk multiracial harmony

Seona Smiles
Sunday, December 03, 2017

Back in the day there was the multiracial harmony.

Not a song and dance act, but a much-used phrase to urge all Fiji people to play nice and live harmoniously together. I seem to recall it was particularly popular after independence.

Then we had the coups, four in all, which wasn't harmonious at all.

Our youngest daughter was born in the throes of the 1987 military coup, for which I blame the sort of personality traits that have earned her the nickname of Cuddles the Thug.

During the 2000 coup, when she was 12 years old, she became greatly fond of the uplifting song of peace and unity that a group of young women used to sing nightly on Channel 1 television.

It too was strong on multiracial harmony and ended, if I remember correctly, with a rousing line : "Several races, one nation, and free."

Cuddles would sing equally rousingly: "Several races, one nation, and meeee."

I don't hear the actual phrase "multiracial harmony" being warbled about so much these days, but there are people who take racial discrimination and nation building extremely seriously.

Fiji ratified the International Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination back in 1973, as an important benchmark for the protection and promotion of the human rights of all Fijians, regardless of race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin.

A good start and there have been a number of reforms introduced to address institutionalised racism. But laws and policy changes alone don't cut it, there has to be a real effort from authorities and members of society to make sure good changes work and become stronger and better into the future.

There seems to be an opinion in Fiji that Europeans don't know anything about racial discrimination, and to an extent this must be largely true. For all those born before 1970, the British i.e. Europeans, were the bosses of everything and accorded privilege.

I found out how this worked on the eve of independence.

On my way home from work each evening, I used to call at a tiny shop in which three was crowd to buy dinner supplies. Whenever I arrived, embarrassingly the shopkeeper always called over other customers' heads to ask what I wanted. No matter how much I demurred, I would be served.

The day the Union Jack came down, I was left standing at the back of the queue and wasn't served until everyone else had been.

It was fine with me, but then I had the natural assurance of someone who grew up without feeling second rate — not because of race, anyway.

Mind you, you'd be surprised how difficult life could be for a young person with bands on her teeth, glasses, funny hair and a name like Seona Smiles.

When our first daughter was a babe I was again shopping, this time in a supermarket, with the tot and her Aaji. In the aisle we overhead a couple of women discussing us. Not having noticed me, the baby's fair skin and Indian grandmother had them puzzled. One finally said decisively: "She's a part child."

Aaji and I fell about giggling, wondering what the other part was? Dog? Robot?

Telling this daughter about the incident recently, I said how back in the day, her other grandmother had worried about her being a "half-caste", whether being racially mixed would prove difficult in her life.

She just laughed, and said it was years since she heard anyone say that word. Apparently she's dealing with it.

Race was never a tabu topic in our household. The overall trend was to be respectful of all, and confident and proud of whatever you were, however jumbled. So when I recently received an invitation to a dialogue on ethnic relations, I trotted along to hear what community leaders and academics had to say.

I was only there for the first sessions, but what I heard was well researched and generated some gripping discussion about nation building in a multiracial country.

So I was quite surprised to read a letter to the editor of another newspaper that implied the dialogue was a front for a political party with divisive intent.

The only political element I noticed was the then Acting Prime Minister, Jone Usamate, the Minister for Labour, Industrial Relations and Productivity, who gave an encouraging opening address.

Anyway, the Dialogue people intend to produce a publication of the discussion so you can make up your own minds.

And now young Harry Windsor has become engaged to a part Irish-part Afro-American, divorced, American actress. The Queen is apparently coping splendidly.

* The writer is a regular contributor to this column. Views expressed are hers and not of this newspaper.

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