In the United States, June 19 is celebrated as Juneteenth – the country’s “second Independence Day,” or the day when the last enslaved Black people in America were alerted to the fact they were freed. Since 2021, Juneteenth has been a federal holiday in the United States, and many companies are joining the celebrations.
Unfortunately, some organizations are commemorating Juneteenth in a way that’s performative and even offensive. How can your organization truly show up for Black people, not only on Juneteenth but the rest of the year as well?
What is Juneteenth?
On June 16, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Gavelston, Texas – over two years after Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation – to let the over 250,000 Black residents of the state know that the Civil War was over and that they were no longer enslaved. Although the decree was undoubtedly belated, it marked the end of legalized slavery in the United States.
In many ways, Juneteenth is the country’s true Independence Day.
Many Black Americans, especially Black Texans, have commemorated this momentous date for over 150 years. After George Floyd was murdered by Minnesota police in 2020, people all over the country fought to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, and President Biden signed an order making this a reality in 2021.
Now that non-Black communities and large corporations are starting to recognize and commemorate Juneteenth, it’s critical to do so in a way that honors the Black American ancestors who fought for freedom. This isn’t just a bank holiday, and the fight for racial equality in the U.S. is far from over.
Companies should recognize Juneteenth as the historically important day it is, but celebrations shouldn’t be performative or meaningless. Holding a party or distributing Juneteenth merchandise may be inappropriate and even offensive if your company isn’t doing the deeper work.
As an HR professional or workplace leader, use this day to reflect on how your company can promote racial equality both internally and externally. Understand that this work needs to happen year-round – not only on Juneteenth.
Yes, employees should get the day off for Juneteenth (just like they do for other federal holidays) – but understand that this may not be enough.
Here are some meaningful ways that everyone can observe this holiday.
Meaningful Ways to Observe Juneteenth
Although Juneteenth is a celebration for many Black Americans, it’s also a day that brings us face-to-face with our nation’s painful history. Any celebration or observation of Juneteenth that you hold should enhance the deeper DEI and anti-racism work that you are doing year-round to support the Black community.
Here’s how to observe this day in a way that’s meaningful and not appropriative.
Center Black Americans
Understand that this is a holiday to celebrate and uplift Black Americans specifically – their hope, their strength, and their fight. Make sure you center Black Americans in any celebration you take part in. White people and non-Black people of color should not speak over Black people or take away from their celebrations in any way.
Pledge Money Toward Black-led Organizations
Many corporations pledge money toward the fight for racial equity, and your company may want to consider doing the same – especially if you lead any sort of philanthropy efforts. For example, Target has pledged $2 billion to help Black entrepreneurs succeed. Even if your company’s budget isn’t as large as these mega-corporations’, there are meaningful financial efforts you can make to show your dedication and support for equality.
Start and Support Black Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)
If you don’t have one already, start an employee resource group for your Black employees. ERGs are communities in which Black employees can be authentically themselves, feel psychologically safe, openly talk about microaggressions and other hostilities, and more. If you do already have a Black ERG, consider asking if members would be willing to plan a meaningful Juneteenth celebration.
Keep in mind that this should be in place of, and not in addition to, existing work – and employees should always be provided overtime pay.
On top of planning a possible commemoration, Black ERG members can also work closely with HR and DEI professionals (if they choose to do so) to continuously fight to make the workplace more diverse and equitable.
Hire a Speaker
Education is one of the most powerful ways to observe Juneteenth. Especially if you’re giving non-Black employees the day off for Juneteenth, it should be a priority that they understand exactly what they are celebrating – otherwise, this important day becomes just another day off of work.
One great way to educate employees is to hire a Black speaker to talk about the meaning behind Juneteenth as well as the devastating legacy of slavery on Americans, particularly Black Americans.
You can also use videos, books, and other digital tools to teach employees about the significance of Juneteenth. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has an excellent digital toolkit.
Examine your DEI Policies and Practices
Lastly, and most importantly, take a good and honest look at your DEI policies and practices. Legal slavery may have ended on that day in 1865, but we are far from achieving true racial equality in the United States. And this is largely due to the income and opportunity disparity that exists.
You may not be able to change the entire world, or even the entire country – but you can certainly change your workplace.
Examine your teams, especially executive leadership teams, closely. Are Black employees appropriately represented? If not, what is the root cause – and what can you do about it? What changes can you make in your hiring and promotion practices, and how willing are you to take action?
A stated commitment to diversity isn’t enough, and often actually lulls organizations into misbelieving that they don’t have a problem with racism. Take a look at policies, but also examine what these policies actually look like in practice. Make a commitment to show up for Black employees and prospects.
Happy Juneteenth from the MINES Team!