5 Things Black Employees *Actually* Want this Juneteenth

Byline: Written by Jessica Regan, Sr. DEI Advisor at Bloom

Image Description: Illustration of yellow flowers against a light green background. On top of the flowers is the hand of a Black person clenched into a first, breaking a chain link. Red text overlays the hands with the word “Juneteenth”.

Slavery may have legally ended in 1863 in the United States, but it wasn’t until 1865 that federal troops actually ended slavery in Texas, the last state to hold out. That day — June 19th, 1865, or “Juneteenth” for short — became a day for Black folks to celebrate not only the end of slavery but a reminder that the Proclamation alone was not enough; it took action to make the Proclamation real.

In response to the murder of George Floyd, the US government has finally acknowledged Juneteenth as a federal holiday, even though this holiday has been collectively celebrated by Black folks for over a hundred years. This day provides an opportunity for reflection, activism, and collective healing. However, like Pride month, it has been co-opted by folks who aren’t aligned with the cause. Much like the rainbow-washing we observe during Pride month, many corporations want to get in on the celebration, some for genuine reasons and others to boost sales and their brand.

For businesses wanting to take part in Juneteenth, here is a brief history of the day and five things your Black employees might actually want this year.

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”) honours the date when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to take control of the state and free enslaved people. In modern understanding, this historic event also serves to debunk a common misconception that all enslaved Black people were suddenly “free” after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863. While some enslaved people accessed freedom from the Proclamation in 1863, many still experienced bondage for years leading up to Juneteenth in 1865.

Depending on who you spoke with in Texas, the justifications for not adhering to the Emancipation Proclamation varied. Some felt the Proclamation only applied to places under Confederate control and not to slave-holding border states or rebel areas already under Union control. Many other slaveholders knew about the Proclamation, but simply withheld this information from enslaved folks until after crop season so they could benefit from slave labour as long as possible.

It’s also worth noting that this “freedom” granted to Black people from the Proclamation was made a farce time and again. The 19th and early 20th-century history of Black Americans is littered with broken promises of land to help people start a new life, Jim Crow laws that forced segregation, and later mass incarceration and police brutality.

What does Juneteenth mean for workplaces?

On June 17, 2021, Juneteenth officially became a federal holiday in the United States.

While many government agencies were closed to honour this day, other businesses and not-for-profit organizations remained open.

Some prominent examples include Nike, which observed Juneteenth by actually closing their retail establishments. Other companies like Starbucks remained open and folks who worked received extra pay. But some tech giants, like Google, maintained regular working hours and stated they’re “recognizing” Juneteenth by hosting a virtual two-hour event celebrating Black culture and storytelling. Google did not give employees the day off but instead encouraged folks to cancel their meetings (which doesn’t feel much like a genuine observance of the holiday, if you want my opinion).

Other corporations took a decidedly different route. AT&T, for instance, told people to take a vacation day if they wanted to celebrate Juneteenth. An IKEA location in Atlanta chose to serve fried chicken, watermelon, mac and cheese and collard greens for their lunch menu, rather than traditional Swedish fare, ostensibly to show solidarity with the Black community. And then there’s Tesla. After a number of folks had already started their shifts on Juneteenth in 2020, Tesla sent a message to their employees stating that they could take the day off… but it would be unpaid.

As a Black person, all of the above sounds like a very emotionally draining work day, not a day of celebration or rest. So, where does this leave us?

Creating equitable and inclusive vacation days can be challenging, especially when people have good intentions (and, despite some of the flops, I do believe most people had good intentions to start).

Last year, the collective team at Bloom observed many things Black folks didn’t love about how corporations approached this federal holiday. Here are some of the major takeaways we gathered from our initial observations — and some tips for any businesses looking to authentically honour Juneteenth in 2022 and beyond.

5 more authentic ways to celebrate Juneteenth

1. Keep consumerism and capitalism out of our holiday

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was not only rooted in racism and dehumanization but also in capitalism. Therefore, when corporations try to capitalize on Black trauma, it feels extra disrespectful. The liberation of enslaved folks doesn’t need to be rebranded and put onto party favours or made into an ice cream flavour. If you choose to host an event this Juneteenth, such as a company-wide BBQ, please don’t purchase cringy Juneteenth plates and napkins (like these ones that say “it’s the freedom for me” on them).

2. Give folks space today.

Black folks are bombarded with performative discussions around anti-racism or allyship. Being forced to discuss your oppression (or even explain it) is exhausting. Aday of no meetings is great, but Black people (often Black women) still have to bear the brunt of educating their colleagues on why we need this holiday. Besides, you can have days with no meetings any week of the year (no-meeting days are actually shown to increase productivity!).

3. Don’t make Black folks do all the work

Unfortunately, the responsibility of anti-racism initiatives usually falls on the shoulders of Black and other racialized folks at work. Non-Black folks need to leverage their privilege, join the conversation, and prioritize anti-racist practices. We’re not saying that only non-Black folks should be working to dismantle oppressive organizational systems, but rather that the burden of developing these initiatives shouldn’t fall only on Black folks.

Further, contributions to broader anti-racism or DEI initiatives should be considered as part of people’s performance evaluations (and their additional time and labour towards these initiatives should be compensated).

4. Make anti-racism training a year-long commitment

When organizations choose guest speakers who share their experiences with anti-Black racism without providing things like content and trigger warnings or actionable takeaways and skills to practice at work, Black folks often leave these experiences feeling triggered, emotionally exhausted, or with a sense of hypervigilance and stress.

After these types of sessions, non-Black folks are often left with the feelings of “now what?”. This is a valid feeling for any training session that is heavily emotional and gives no takeaways. The problem is that non-Black folks tend to follow up with their Black colleagues for guidance. Comprehensive anti-racism training led by professionals who understand workplace-specific contexts can help prevent that. And remember, anti-Black racism training is important year-round, not just during Black History Month or to honour Juneteenth.

5. Be Transparent

Acknowledge any of your organization’s past anti-Black transgressions and commit to doing better. Unsure where to start? Research your history. Does your organization have any ties to oppressive roots such as the slave trade or has it used racist stereotypes in marketing?

Here are two examples of prominent companies doing just this:

  • Aunt Jemima: The famous pancake and syrup brand heavily relied on stereotypes around Black domestic kitchen service (always performed by women) to imply food quality and home comfort. It wasn’t until 2020 that the company publicly acknowledged its racist past and rebranded to Pearl Milling Company.
  • Harvard University: The university publicly shared its own legacy of slavery and was transparent about how the school was built upon the backs of enslaved folks. The ensuing report also offered seven recommendations to guide the university’s journey toward reconciliation and repairing the damage done.

Bonus

Leave AAVE (African American Vernacular English) out of your Juneteenth messaging. When people try to honour Black heritage, liberation, and history, they often miss the mark by confusing appropriation with celebration. There is power in recognizing Black liberation without the misuse of Black culture and language systems.

This means dropping the “yasss sis” and the “it’s the freedom for me” types of language.

PS: Juneteenth is an American holiday — Canadians, we have Emancipation Day

On March 24, 2021, Canada’s House of Commons voted to designate August 1st as Emancipation Day.

The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 ended slavery in the British Empire on August 1st, 1834. This act started the process toward freedom for over 800,000 enslaved Africans and their descendants in parts of Canada, the Caribbean, Africa, and South America.

Unfortunately, like Juneteenth, this Act only resulted in partial liberation. The Slavery Abolition Act only freed children under six, meaning many children were forced to continue serving their former owners for four to six years as apprentices. That said, the Act confirmed Canada as a free territory for enslaved African Americans. After this, thousands of African Americans migrated to Canada between 1834 and the early 1860s.

So while many American companies with offices in Canada might celebrate Juneteenth, Canadian companies can — and should — celebrate Emancipation Day on August 1st.

Interested in learning more about Canada’s history of enslavement and anti-Black racism? Bloom has specific training that discusses Canada’s unique relationship with anti-Blackness, enslavement, and reconciliation. Learn more here.

What Bloom is doing to honour Juneteenth

Bloom’s Right to Rest Policy

When folks from historically marginalized communities have to show up at work and participate in half-baked “celebrations” (such as guest speakers that don’t provide trigger warnings), folks often leave feeling triggered, tokenized, or exhausted. This is the opposite feeling folks should have when honouring their communities. We want our team members to feel liberated and rested. In response, Bloom has created a new policy to honour events such as Juneteenth, Pride, or Asian Heritage Month with intention and sustainability in mind. Instead of a guest speaker series, Bloom is giving folks time back into their calendars to take care of themselves. Bloom’s Right to Rest Policy means once a month, team members at Bloom can block off one hour of paid rest time to do whatever they want, as long as it isn’t work-related. This means one paid hour per month to invest in rest, whether that be booking a massage, taking a nap, or engaging in any other kind of healing or reinvigorating activity.

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