For many Black people in the U.S., “Juneteenth,” or June 19th, has been a date that acknowledges the compound cultural trauma of generational Black enslavement in America and its extension well beyond the Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1863. More than 250,000 Black people remained captive for another two-and-a-half years, until June 19, 1865.
Signed into law in June last year, Juneteenth became a federal holiday and one more American commercial enterprise.
Corporate initiatives or products decked in pan-africanist red, yellow, green and black hues — which, since 1900, have carried the message of solidarity across the African diaspora — illustrate this new reality of prioritized retail value. Walmart’s recently released “Celebration Edition: Juneteenth Ice Cream” and party favors met immediate resistance, much like the tribal-esque product packaging marketed earlier this year by Bath & Body Works for Black History Month — which one individual described as “pandering and embarrassing.”
In Juneteenth being made a federal holiday, Sybil R. Williams, director of African American and African diaspora studies at American University, said she has observed a symbolic acknowledgement being celebrated through cultural appropriation, commodification and commercial consumption. Because the federal holiday is “not a furtherance of the African American call toward reparation, it rings hollow,” she said.
What is cultural appropriation?
Williams said cultural appropriation is essentially about power. “It allows the majority or dominant group to say ‘look at what we’ve done for you,’ while it takes characteristics of language, fashion, artistic and spiritual practice — all markers of culture — and lends prominent visibility while, at the same time, folding that culture into its own power structure.”
This kind of product marketing, Kim Kardashian’s cornrows, and the rise and normalization of the “blaccent,” even in workplace settings, are textbook examples of cultural appropriation, Williams said.
Instead, business leaders can take steps to reinforce existing organizational DEI and ESG initiatives, Williams said.
Invest resources to learn original history
Employers can invest in contextual historical exploration of cultures, Williams said. Invest in the community that created that culture. Know the particular cultural nuances of original histories and how that group treats its history, and then reflect on the message in this moment of that history to your organization, she suggested. She said this is where a speaker series can expand cultural awareness.
Practice appreciation without consumption
Once something is decontextualized, it’s exploited, Williams explained. Cultural appropriation monetized for commercial consumption is not a way to celebrate Juneteenth, or anything of cultural significance.
It’s possible to appreciate and explore cultural identities, like patterns of speech and patterns of fashion, for example, within their natural, original context, and with permission from originating groups, and it’s critical to ensure this occurs, because this is where power is transferred, Williams said. Employers can consider ways to understand and respect that.
"Nothing about us, without us."
For Juneteenth 2020, an Amazon facility offered chicken and waffles, “a meal redolent with stereotypes,” the New York Daily News reported. Employers can avoid similar missteps by gathering input from the most affected groups, which are generally those farthest from equity.
Speak with Black employees, Williams said; ask “What is it that you would like to see that furthers actual Black engagement at this company? How can we incorporate Black history in a given subject area or at a given time?”