A 9-year-old Australian schoolgirl whose refusal to stand for the singing of the national anthem has stirred a nationwide debate said Thursday that she would continue to protest the song she said was racist even if it meant being kicked out of school.
The girl, Harper Nielsen, was sent to detention and threatened with suspension from her Brisbane primary school last week after sitting through a schoolwide rendition of “Advance Australia Fair,” the national anthem, she said.
News of her protest quickly went viral, leading to condemnations by conservative politicians and a national conversation about race and free speech.
The girl’s protest, which echoed those of American football players who have knelt at games during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” made headlines in the same week that a national newspaper printed a cartoon depicting tennis player Serena Williams with exaggerated lips.
That cartoon, like Harper’s protest, further revealed a historic and racially tinged battle line in the country’s culture wars.
“I think that everyone should be able to express their opinion,” Harper said in an interview. “Even if you’re small, you can do big things.”
Harper said she was protesting one word in the anthem’s second line: “young.”
“Australians all let us rejoice,” goes the song, “for we are young and free.”
Many Indigenous Australians say the depiction of the country as new, or a young nation, diminishes the history of their ancestors, who inhabited the continent for tens of thousands of years. Australia’s Aboriginal and Straits Islander communities have routinely argued that many aspects of national civic life erase their history, including the anthem and Australia Day, which celebrates the arrival of the first British settlers.
“I thought about what it would be like to be an Aboriginal person in that situation and I guess that helped me,” Harper, who is white, said of her refusal to stand. “They might feel left out. They might feel upset. Sad.”
Her father, Mark Nielsen, said that a family conversation this year about the treatment of Indigenous Australians first got Harper, a fourth-grader at Kenmore South State School in Brisbane, thinking about the anthem.
“Anyone who knows Harper know she’s not a kid who can be brainwashed. She’s a very strong-minded and strong-willed young person,” said Nielsen, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Queensland.
Some conservative politicians condemned Harper’s parents; others threatened the child with physical violence or resorted to calling her names.
“What the hell is going on? I’m angry about this,” Pauline Hanson, the founder of a right-wing political party, said in a video posted to Twitter. “Here we have a kid is being brainwashed. And I tell you what, I’d give her a kick up the backside.”
Jarrod Bleijie, a state politician from the Liberal National Party, said on Twitter that Harper’s parents were using their child as a political pawn.
“Refusing to stand disrespects our country and our veterans,” he wrote. “Suspension should follow if she continues to act like a brat.”
Members of the Indigenous community, however, applauded the girl and praised her parents.
“Her parents should be congratulated for raising a brilliant, thinking young student who won’t be forced to do something that is against her deeply held beliefs,” Sam Watson, an Aboriginal elder, told The Courier Mail.
The Queensland Department of Education rebutted Harper’s claim that she had been threatened with suspension and said the school allowed for peaceful demonstrations.
“The school has been respectful of the student’s wishes and has provided other alternatives, including remaining outside the hall or not singing during the national anthem,” the department said in a statement. “At no time did the school suggest that the student would be suspended or excluded for refusing to take part in the national anthem.”