The Science Behind Food Sharing on Harmony Day

The Science Behind Food Sharing on Harmony Day

by Felicity Menzies
Harmony Day, held every year on 21 March to coincide with United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, celebrates Australia’s cultural diversity.
The message of Harmony Day is ‘everyone belongs’. The Day aims to engage people to participate in their community, respect cultural and religious diversity and foster sense of belonging for everyone.
Since 1999, more than 70,000 Harmony Day events have been held in childcare centres, schools, community groups, churches, businesses and federal, state and local government agencies across Australia.

Australia’s Cultural Diversity

Australia is the world’s second most multicultural nation, tied with Switzerland behind Luxembourg that sits at the top of the table.
  •     Since 1945, more than 7.5 million people have migrated to Australia
  •     Nearly half (49 per cent) of Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent who was.
  •     We identify with over 300 ancestries.
  •     Apart from English, the most common languages spoken in Australia are Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Tagalog/Filipino, Hindi, Spanish and Punjabi.
  •     More than 70 Indigenous languages are spoken in Australia.

The State of Race Relations in Australia

Although 85 per cent of Australians agree multiculturalism has been good for Australia, many Australians experience racial or ethnic discrimination.
Consider the following findings from the Australia@2015 Scanlon Foundation Survey ‘Australians Today’;
  •     No group reports close to zero experience of discrimination because of skin colour, ethnic origin or religion. The lowest level of experience of discrimination, in the range of 10-15%, is reported by third generation Australians, closely approximated by overseas born of English speaking background at 16%, (a notable outlier being New Zealanders reporting experience of discrimination at 50%). The level of discrimination reported by overseas-born of non-English speaking backgrounds is 29%.
  •     Recent arrivals (residency of 10 years or less) experience higher levels of discrimination – 33% for those with English speaking background and 41% among non-English speaking background. The highest reported experience of discrimination for new arrivals was for those born in Malaysia (45%), India and Sri Lanka (42%), Indonesia, China and Hong Kong (39%), Africa (54%). The highest level of discrimination, at 77%, is reported by the South Sudanese – 43% reporting property damage and physical attack, compared to 6% of third generation Australians.
  •     The reported discrimination by Indigenous Australia respondents is at a very high level of 59%
  •     With respect to religion, the experience of discrimination was reported among 34% of Muslims, 22% of Buddhists, 20% of Roman Catholics, and 19% of those who identified as Christian.
  •     Close to 5% of survey respondents are negative towards Christians and Buddhists, but almost five times that proportion, 24% are negative towards Muslims. The Scanlon report notes, however, that the figure reported might not be a true reflection of public opinion as some respondents may not disclose their feelings when asked by an interviewer because of social desirability bias. Online surveys of third-generation Australians report that 44% of third-generation Australians are negative towards Muslims, a figure consistent with the result of the Essential survey on Muslim immigration that reported almost half of Australians were in favour of a ban on Muslim immigration.
  •     Among all faith groups, 10% more women than men report experiencing discrimination, but among Muslim respondents, 50% more women than report experiencing discrimination.
Overall, the report described heightened experiences of discrimination by three groups: Indigenous Australians, Muslim women and South Sudanese.
The most common forms of discrimination are verbal abuse and actions that make people feel like they do not belong, the next level is workplace discrimination, followed by physical acts involving property damage and assault. Discrimination most often occurs in public places like streets, public transport, shopping malls and workplaces.

The Science Behind Food Sharing

It is not uncommon for workplaces to celebrate Harmony Day by providing an opportunity for culturally diverse employees to share traditional ethnic dishes. While this may appear at first glance to be a simple and perhaps even superficial symbolic gesture, food sharing is actually a powerful inclusion intervention, grounded in the science of prejudice elimination.
Studies show that the formation of intergroup friendships can help to dismantle social categorisations and decrease bias. Activities that encourage individuals from different racial or ethnic group to share information about their unique backgrounds, experiences, and skills promotes individuation of outgroup members such that they come to be considered as individuals rather than as a member of a broader, often negatively stereotyped, social category. Under this approach, the focus moves from “one of them” to “you and me”.
There is another mechanism by which relational-based activities decrease the tendency for bias. Studies have shown that social categories can become more inclusive by inducing a positive mood state. There are a couple of reasons why this occurs. Firstly, we are attracted to people that we associate with feeling good. Secondly, a positive mood enhances our cognitive flexibility and leads to broader and more inclusive categorisations.
Food-sharing and other similar relational-building activities are evidence-based approaches for encouraging dialogue and shared learning among diverse individual, decreasing bias and discrimination, and promoting inclusion.
A word of caution!
The success of food sharing as a tool for driving inclusion requires that members of different cultural groups interact in meaningful ways. If employees take a dish from a buffet and eat it back at their desks, it’s a wasted opportunity for cultural sharing and the formation of intergroup friendships. Successful food sharing for inclusion relies on the creation of settings where members of different groups are encouraged to share stories about their cultural heritage. For this reason, holding food sharing celebrations in small diverse groups at a shared table is preferable to hosting organisational-wide lunches. Unless conscious efforts are made by organisers to encourage intergroup dialogue, ingrained preferences for the company of members of our own cultural group (affinity or ingroup bias) are likely to persist.

Transferring The Science of Food Sharing to Everyday Work Settings

The relational approach to inclusion suggests that organisations should offer individuals from different social and cultural groups frequent opportunities to develop intimate friendships over an extended period.
Relational activities might involve social get-togethers and recreational activities, ensuring there is adequate time for interpersonal dialogue on top of work responsibilities, formal team-building initiatives, and mentoring.
Intergroup friendships can also be encouraged by structuring tasks and rewards to encourage cooperation and collaboration among individuals with different backgrounds. For example, the use of diverse teams with shared goals or rewarding group rather than individual performance.

p.s. Orange The World!

Orange is the colour chosen to represent Harmony Day. Traditionally, orange signifies social communication and meaningful conversations. It also relates to the freedom of ideas and encouragement of mutual respect.

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.