Juneteenth: It’s about freedom. Not merch.

The story of Juneteenth is an important part of American history: On January 1, 1863, in the United States, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet enslaved Texans did not know that they had been set free until two and a half years later. On June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order Number 3. This document declared what the rest of America knew: Under the law, enslaved Texans were liberated. Since that day, African Americans have been celebrating their ancestors’ freedom. And on June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday in the United States.

This year, various companies marketed Juneteenth products to consumers. But some of their items were more well-received than others.

Efforts such as Walmart’s Juneteenth Ice Cream didn’t fare very well with consumers. People criticized the company and questioned their sincerity.

Truly, there’s a rift between how some organizations depict Juneteenth, and the way the Black community celebrates it. When a company’s efforts insult their audience, they risk alienating them.   

Recently I discussed Juneteenth’s commercialization with Black business and communications experts. They offered me insights into what companies can do if they want to genuinely show their support for this revered holiday. The key lies in understanding the true meaning of Juneteenth: To Black Americans, the day is not about merchandise.  

My Juneteenth series begins with part one of my discussion with Mr. Jason Greer.

Jason Greer is an internationally recognized Employee/Labor Relations and Diversity Management Consultant who is known as the “Employee Whisperer.” His tremendous ability to get in on the ground in any business allows him to immediately form relationships and improve morale and employer-employee relations. Greer has had incredible success due his background in Labor Relations, counselling psychology, and organizational development. He has more than 17 years in this industry and his company, Greer Consulting, Inc., ranks in the top 5% of labor and employee relations consulting companies in America.

I started by asking Mr. Greer my signature question.

Claire Francis Question number one: In the years before Juneteenth became a federal holiday, what did it mean to you?

Jason Greer – Freedom. And I’ll tell you why.

Before Juneteenth became Juneteenth, what I was taught was that there’s the Fourth of July, which is America’s day to shoot fireworks, etc. And then there was actually Juneteenth which—[according to] how I was brought up—Juneteenth actually should be America’s holiday, because that’s when everybody was theoretically free.

When you look at July 4, in terms of it being Independence Day, it meant independence for some, not independence for all. But when you look at Juneteenth, it’s [for] you. It’s right there. It’s factual, its historical. That’s when the slaves were officially free, two years later than when they were theoretically freed in terms of the law. So that’s what it means to me. It’s been interesting to see the evolution of Juneteenth, because it’s sort of taken on a different flavor.

CFAfter Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act last year, did you have any concerns about how the day would be perceived, or anything that would change?

JG – I don’t know that I had any concerns. I just remember thinking, “This is interesting…” because it was right on the heels of instances of voting rights being under attack. And it sort of felt like “We [the government] won’t give you this, but we’ll give you this…”

Does that make sense?

CF It does.

JG – So, I don’t know that I had any concerns. But I found that the timing was interesting. And my hope was, “Well, no one said that life is fair. So maybe there are still opportunities here for learning, for growth, for an appreciation of a very dark history.” And when I say appreciation, acknowledgement is appreciation. And there was not a formal acknowledgement prior to that moment.

CF In a sense I guess, it felt like the least officials could do. With Juneteenth becoming an official holiday, I suppose it’s hard not to feel a little bit hopeful when something like that happens.

JG – And I live in this life: I call it the glass half full, right? Because, on one hand, I’ve heard some people say it was just a consolation prize, but then on the other hand, a consolation prize, historically, was nothing. So from this perspective, Juneteenth’s change in status represents the start of something. And especially within corporate America, I’ve seen some wonderful conversations that have happened as a result of this occasion. Conversations that would not have happened or may not have happened within the next five to 10 years. So for companies and organizations across the board, who are honoring Juneteenth, I think it’s really cool that the government is actually putting some action behind their promises.

CF Now, I’m going to turn my attention to the commercialization of Juneteenth. Taking a look at retailers, for example, there was that recent controversy over Walmart’s Juneteenth Ice Cream. Considering the issue of commercialization and corporate-based influences, and maybe media influences as well—what are your overall concerns regarding retailers understanding of the holiday?

JG – Well, what I’ll say is that I wonder if they understand Juneteenth. [Especially] when you see retailers that are doing these Juneteenth displays, and part of their display is watermelon and Kool Aid, and some of the stereotypical food items that are associated with African Americans. I think that’s when we start to run into some issues. But what I would like to see is this: If you’re going to honor Juneteenth, then honor Juneteenth.

Memorial Day happens every year. And so, because this is America, you can’t get away from the commercialization of anything.

CF Absolutely.

JG If there’s an opportunity to make a buck, it’s going to make a buck. But even when you look at Memorial Day sales for furniture stores, or other places, even in their graphics, there’s an acknowledgement of the people who died in defense of our country. So, it’s sort of one of those things where, if you’re going to commercialize it, add some context to it.

CF Concerning retailers’ attitudes towards Juneteenth, what are some of the things that you think they have done well, or have gotten right?

JG – I’ll tell you what. I know that Target has caught a lot of flak for some of the items that they put out, in respect to African Americans, especially in respect to Juneteenth. But when you look at their approach to inclusion, they literally have gone to Black designers and brands, giving them opportunities at a high level, that they maybe they would not have received otherwise. So even though maybe some of the delivery was not as favorable as people would have liked it to be, or as culturally sensitive as people would have liked, I think that Target is leading in terms of their approach.

The fact is that when they get it wrong, they get it wrong, and they acknowledge that they get it wrong. So they fail fast. I think that some organizations that I’m seeing as a whole, again, are really taking Juneteenth seriously.

And they are going out of their way to bring in speakers. They’re going out of their way to bring in informed subject matter experts. As much [of a] subject matter expert as you can be on the human condition. And they are actively engaging in dialogue about how we can become a more diverse and inclusive workspace.

CF You mentioned Target and the fact that they use Black designers for their goods and different items that they offer the public. What else do you think people could or should do if they want to celebrate Juneteenth, or show that their company cares about the holiday?

JG – The first thing is, begin. Just do it. And understand that in doing it, you’re not going to get it right 100% of the time. Because they always say race and politics are those two topics that you generally don’t talk about around the water cooler. But I think at the same time, especially when you consider our country’s complex relationship with race, and class, as well as other social structures, what I would encourage organizations to do is to begin to have conversations. Be open and reflective about what is shared, but also create as non-judgmental of a space as you possibly can.

Because for all the people who are on board with Juneteenth, there are others who are not on board because maybe it goes against what they personally believe, or maybe they don’t understand it. I read something the other day that said that nearly 30% of white Americans had heard of Juneteenth. Well, that number was over 60% for African Americans.

According to a Gallup poll, “More than two in three Black Americans (69%) say they have a lot or some knowledge about Juneteenth, compared with 40% of Hispanic Americans and 31% of White Americans.”

So I think there’s a lot of teaching that can go on as a result of this conversation.

CF – You’ve brought up a really important point about wanting to have staff informed because you’re trying to educate the public and make customers feel welcome. Regarding Juneteenth, you want to make sure that your company supports those initiatives and objectives from the beginning. And employees need to understand why Juneteenth is important to your customers. But then you also brought up the idea of people who might not understand Juneteenth, or might not be interested, etc.

I was thinking about how you can start if, say, you’re at a company where only one person is interested in a Juneteenth initiative, and everyone else is saying no. When you talk about beginning, how can people begin? Do you think they should hire diversity consultants?

JG – Great question. First, do a critical assessment as to whether or not this is something that you want to take on. I think any organization that’s doing diversity just for the sake of diversity, without understanding the responsibility that they have when they introduce diversity into their corporation or organization, is doing themselves a disservice. So understanding that it’s a Federal holiday, we get that part. But if you’re going to introduce conversation around Juneteenth, get subject matter experts.

Also make sure that if you happen to have African Americans that work for you, that you’re not automatically putting them on the spot to be the subject matter expert on all things Juneteenth. Because the reality is, they might be accountants, they might work in human resources, they might work wherever—they didn’t sign on to be your diversity trainer. Does that make sense?

CF – Yes. I think sometimes people might be overly eager, or presumptuous, and think, “Oh, you’re Black, you can talk about diversity…” Well, can they? And that brings up the issue that you mentioned: Are they skilled in the area of expertise that’s required?

JG You know, I was watching this movie called Emergency, on Amazon Prime. I haven’t finished it, so I can’t tell you what it’s all about. But in the beginning of the movie, two young brothers were in a college class. And their white professor walks in, and she says, “Okay, as you might have seen on the syllabus, today might be a bit triggering for many of you, because we’re going to talk about hate speech.” And she introduces the n-word. And she has it spelled out on the board. You see everyone kind of getting uncomfortable. And she continues to say the word but she’s not saying “the n-word”. She’s saying it plainly and using variations of it. And you see the two Black students being uncomfortable. You see the white students around them that are uncomfortable. And then, she finally looks at them and she goes, (paraphrasing) “you know, not to put you two on the spot. But can you argue some clarification as to the [use of the] n-word?” Everybody turned around to look at them.

I’m bringing that up as an example: Unless your African American employees volunteer for something like this, don’t just automatically assume that they are going to be your Juneteenth spokespeople.

CF Absolutely. [Note: Discussing racism can be exhausting, traumatizing, and stressful. This is something that needs to be considered when approaching people of color.]

In your dealings as a labor relations person, regarding employees who want to honor Juneteenth: What, if any, common issues have you noticed across industries, and even companies, related to the recognition of Juneteenth, or other holidays, such as Cinco de Mayo—that are connected to diverse communities?

JG – What I’ll say is that I remember when MLK Day was introduced. There was this understanding of Dr. King, because he was such a strong historical figure. From a kid’s perspective, because I was in college, there was this idea that, “It’s about time!”. Right?

I think when you look at a Juneteenth, there’s so little understanding across the board as to what it is. Although there’s acceptance because it’s a federal holiday, there’s still this idea of, “I don’t know exactly what Juneteenth is”. Now, that’s not everybody. But I think there’s still a lot of learning that’s going on.

And you brought up Cinco de Mayo. You have these historical holidays for groups of people, that mean something to so many folks. I think where people are sometimes disappointed is when something that means so much to them is just theoretical to other people, and there’s not as strong of an embrace as you would have hoped.

CF So, what do you think can be done to remedy the situation and keep employers informed? Do you think we should have education programs?

JG – Definitely education. Whether you’re bringing somebody in to speak on Juneteenth… Or, how about this? Google is a powerful tool. And if you can find the details of the Johnny Depp, Amber Heard trial [*laughter*], you can find the details of what goes into Juneteenth. I think there has to be a willingness though.

CF Willingness, how, though? What do you think people can do about willingness in the workplace looking at not only employees, but of course, whether you’re in a school dealing with administrators, or a corporation with executives: What do you think can be done in order to encourage interest in awareness—getting employers to understand that when you are moving towards understanding and appreciating your diverse employees, you will appreciate their traditions as well?

JG – I think you just honestly said it, right.

CF I was also going to ask you about what steps can be taken. You mentioned things like having a speaker come and talk. Yet it’s hard to support the idea of changing hearts and minds, because it’s up to the individual—whether or not they want to be informed about Juneteenth.

JG – Can I say something? Sometimes it comes down to employees actually going to their employers and saying, “This is what we would like to happen”. Because when you consider Amazon, Amazon makes a big deal of Juneteenth now. They bring in speakers, they bring in entertainers, it’s really, it’s a rockstar-level celebration. But that came from employees saying to Amazon, you don’t honor Juneteenth and we want you to.

CF Well, that’s good. I’m very glad that that Amazon is accepting of their employees’ desires in that way. On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, it made me wonder what employees might want to do if their employers are resistant to the idea of celebrating Juneteenth.

JG – The easy answer is to be patient. And continue to sow the seeds internally as to why Juneteenth is important to you, why Juneteenth would be important to the organization. Continue to raise your voice, but be mindful of who you’re raising your voice to. And be consistent. I mean, life is more than just a hashtag that comes and goes. If you believe that this is something that would be good in terms of honoring Juneteenth for the people that you work with, really consider what it says about your organization. Because these days, you have people who they will let you know what they think about your corporate stance based on their willingness to do business with you. Or on the other side of that, their unwillingness to do business with you. 

And understand that there are going to be consumers who want to do business with companies that honor Juneteenth and make a big deal of it. And there are going to be people on the other side of the equation that who don’t want to do business with you because you honor Juneteenth.

CF Yes. Now, when you’re looking at Juneteenth and retailers, we can look at two things: There’s the way they treat their employees. And there’s the way they arrange their businesses to serve, or not serve, their customers. So if you have retailers who are set against celebrating Juneteenth, or just haven’t considered it, where do you think retailers misunderstanding of Juneteenth comes from?

JG – I would say a lack of knowledge, and a general lack of understanding of what Juneteenth means to America. I think that’s one of the aspects of the Juneteenth discussion that we have to be careful of. It’s far too easy to say that it’s a Black holiday, or holiday for Black people, when the reality is that Juneteenth is a holiday for all people. Because, we’re not talking about the abolishment of, you know, yellow Starburst, right?

I’d say that because I don’t like them. [*laughter*]

We’re talking about the abolishment of slavery—of human beings, who happen to be Black.  I think that if we can honor [all of] the things that we honor in our country, why wouldn’t we honor something that was a positive step toward human rights?

CF Yes. Thank you very much. In your answer you made the point about people needing to understand that this is not just a Black holiday. And that made me think of Blackness, and in particular people’s resistance to the idea of it. I couldn’t help but think of how sometimes people think that when something is somehow connected to Black folks, that automatically means that it ought to be disregarded. “Oh, this is [traditionally celebrated by] Black people?” “Oh, no, thank you!”

That’s certainly something that I think needs to change across the board.

Looking at my questions… Did we discuss how Juneteenth has been received thus far? What have you noticed?

JG – I think that there’s some quarters that are very accepting of it. The moment that it was signed into law, they’re like, let’s roll. Right? Let’s, let’s dig into this. I think there are others who are actively resisting it, because of the perception that it’s a Black holiday. And then there are probably a large swath of people who have absolutely no idea what it is. And so there’s not an act of resistance as much as they’re just in the dark as to what it means.

For the Fourth of July, on social media, we see posts featuring people who are, grilling, they’re doing fireworks, and so on. It’s very a celebratory atmosphere for Fourth of July. It’d be an interesting thing, maybe 20 years from now to see people across the board who are grilling and shooting off fireworks, in that same celebratory mood for Juneteenth. That’s my hope.

To be continued.



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