Juneteenth Is Not Defined By Its Commercialization

The commercialization of Juneteenth may raise awareness but ultimately does a disservice to the holiday by watering down its significance.

On June 19th, 1865 – about two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and about three weeks after the Confederacy’s surrender – the last enslaved people in Texas were liberated. Juneteenth comes from combining “June” and “19th,” but the holiday goes by many names, including Black Independence Day, Emancipation Day, and Jubilee Day. The holiday has been celebrated in Black communities since 1865 and witnessed a resurgence in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. 

President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law two years ago, making it a federal holiday. Juneteenth has recently gained much attention outside of the African American community. The urgency from the general population to make it a federal holiday came in large part because of the murder of George Floyd, which for many people, represented a massive cultural shift in how people view racial injustices. People felt compelled to make an honest effort to learn more about the holiday and Black history, and companies felt the need to show their support. However, some saw this as an opportunity to cash in. 

Companies participate in performative activism around Juneteenth to try and appeal to Black customers.

Companies routinely acknowledge Juneteenth to attract Black consumers but neglect to make an effort to improve the lives of Black people. In some cases, these performances have gone to great lengths even to co-opt the holiday in the name of “representation.” Balchem Corp, a materials company, even applied with the U.S. trademark office to copyright “Juneteenth.” Organizations routinely use performative activism as a crutch to escape social responsibility. Still, these actions not only discredit the importance of social issues but the companies’ integrity as well.

Last year, Walmart discontinued “Juneteenth ice cream” after receiving a backlash for misrepresenting the holiday. This is one of the many instances where corporations attempt to profit off of heritage and identity recognition holidays. Corporations like Walmart should have realized that there are better ways to celebrate a holiday without misappropriating it. Instead of using this holiday to promote and sell their own products, Walmart could’ve used this as an opportunity to highlight Black-owned businesses and brands within the store’s catalog that don’t receive the same level of support or recognition. For example, Uber not only made Juneteenth a paid holiday before it became a federal holiday, but they also partnered with the Juneteenth New York Festival to make rides to and from the event more affordable.

Some might argue that advertising raises awareness of the holiday, but they ultimately do more harm than good.

Perhaps the most prominent example of this year’s incredibly tone-deaf Juneteenth marketing was a banner promoting a Juneteenth celebration in Greenville, SC, that exclusively depicted two white people. Juneteenth GVL, the event that created the poster, apologized, saying, “The error was an attempt at uniting Greeneville and thereby a slight oversight on the individual’s part that prevented us from fully embracing the rich potential and celebrating the depth of black culture through the message and meaning of Juneteenth, and for that, we apologize to you the entire community.” While this feels much more like a genuine effort to celebrate the holiday than that of Walmart, this is no more than a textbook example of whitewashing. 

To acknowledge people of other races celebrating Juneteenth is one thing, but to create promotional materials for a holiday that has been a part of Black culture for a century and a half with exclusively white people is antithetical to what the day represents. These seemingly harmless gaffes matter because, for many outside the African American community, these are the only instances Juneteenth is recognized. If there is a benefit to the constant corporate branding surrounding Juneteenth, it’s that it raises awareness about the holiday and encourages people to educate themselves about its history.

Recognition is, of course, a good thing, but it also comes with the drawback of the holiday being somewhat bulldozed by major corporations run by overwhelmingly white leadership. One might describe this as cultural appropriation adjacent. When these companies don’t actually engage in activism, Juneteenth becomes less about the history of slavery and the celebration of abolition and more about its low, low prices.

Celebrate Juneteenth by supporting the Black community, not by buying from companies that pretend to.

So how do we preserve the significance of Juneteenth as the spirit of the holiday becomes appropriated and commercialized by giant corporations? For starters, let’s focus on what we can control. There will always be some company that participates in ignorant advertising – whether those materials are earnest attempts at activism gone awry or a shameless tactic to market to Black people.

The lingering effects of slavery are still commonplace today and is the root cause of inequities in modern society. Perhaps the most prevalent among them is the persisting racial wealth gap. While Black people comprise 12.4% of America’s population, they only possess 2.5% of the country’s wealth. Supporting Black-owned businesses and nonprofit organizations – not just on Juneteenth, but year-round – is a great way to combat these inequities. Countless organizations are working to benefit Black communities and close the racial income, education, and healthcare gaps in the United States. Rather than buying from a company with an overwhelmingly white board of directors that put a kente cloth pattern on their merchandise, support the Black community itself and buy Black.

It’s incumbent upon individuals to educate themselves and those around them about the history and significance of Juneteenth. We can all choose how we celebrate the holiday. Anyone can use this day as an opportunity to participate in meaningful activism or to simply show their appreciation for a rich tradition and culture.

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