SYDNEY – A 9-year-old Australian student 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.
"I think that everyone should be able to express their opinion," Harper said. "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 a family conversation about the treatment of indigenous Australians 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.
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."