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On June 19, 1865, Black folks in Galveston, Texas, were approached by 2,000 Union soldiers with good news: Slavery had been abolished. For the first time in 300 years, their families would finally know freedom. After the news of the abolishment of slavery had been heard in several other parts of the United States, people in Galveston were the last to know. It marked a new holiday where people all over the country could celebrate the turning of a page in American history: The end of slavery as they knew it.
Fast forward to today, educating ourselves on historical markers that represented a shift in American culture is under attack. Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a prime example. By definition, CRT is a “set of ideas holding that racial bias is inherent in many parts of western society, especially in its legal and social institutions, based on their having been primarily designed for and implemented by white people.”
In 2023, we would sum up CRT to mean simply “privilege” or “advantage” on the part of the dominant group in society. CRT asks us to look critically at the ways Juneteenth and other moments in American history came to be and why we should acknowledge the past so as not to replicate it in the present or future.
Talking about Black history is the first step toward our national healing. When we acknowledge the impact history has had on our collective experience, we can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel and work towards ending the inequality and injustice that’s plagued our nation.
This Juneteenth, let’s take baby steps towards that national healing and focus on just having the conversation — the conversation that slavery was abolished not too long ago and that schools, workplaces, and other institutions should be talking about it in order for us to learn from the past and create a more equitable future.
Here are 6 do’s and don’ts for engaging in conversations about Juneteenth.
Do: Educate yourself on the holiday ahead of time
When it comes to conversations on historical topics, not everyone knows every detail of how historical events came to pass. The first thing to do when planning to engage in a conversation about Juneteenth is to educate yourself on the facts. When did Juneteenth happen? How did it happen? Why did it happen? Who authorized the abolishment of slavery? Why did it take so long for the slaves in Galveston, Texas, to hear about it?
Acquiring answers to these foundational questions ahead of time will arm you with a baseline of information that will inform more thoughtful conversations.
Do: Allow Black colleagues to speak on their Juneteenth perspectives but don’t put the burden on them to educate everyone
In 2023, it’s likely you work with a Black American or know one in your personal life. In the case of Juneteenth, don’t make the conversation a teacher-to-pupil dynamic. If a Black person in your life wishes to share their perspective or thoughts on Juneteenth, listen to them. Allow them to talk about their family traditions or how they choose to celebrate the day. You might even attend a Juneteenth celebration in your city and witness how Black folks express joy on the holiday. However, avoid targeting Black colleagues and acquaintances by asking them to educate you or expend mental energy to bring you up to speed. That’s your responsibility, not theirs. Strive for a friend-to-friend or colleague-to-colleague relationship on the topic of Juneteenth, not a teacher-to-pupil relationship.
Do: Create a safer space for the conversation
As I’ve shared in other posts, I don’t believe fully “safe” spaces exist. I do believe there are safer spaces where folks walk into a conversation with the best intentions and an open mind. If you choose to discuss Juneteenth in your workplace or institution, consider holding it in an intentional space with thoughtful touches.
For example, if you’re hosting an in-person conversation, have you thought about including a facilitator or someone who can set some ground rules to maintain a cordial atmosphere while the conversation ensues? In addition, are you aware of the literal temperature of the room? Will it be a physically comfortable space, or will it be too hot or cold for the number of attendees in the space? Are there soothing beverages available like coffee or tea for moments when people could use a sip of something warm? Think about the seating arrangement. Is the room set up in a hierarchical way where all chairs are pointed in one direction in the teacher-to-pupil dynamic that I referred to earlier, or are the chairs set up in a circle so all attendees can be seen and heard?
If you are choosing to send an email to your colleagues about Juneteenth, have you included a TL;DR or warning at the top of the email informing the recipients that the message they are about to receive contains information about Juneteenth and the history of slavery? As you can see, there are several ways to create a safer space that sets the foundation for a conversation that’s rich and enlightening as opposed to tense and uncomfortable.
Do: Propose to make Juneteenth a company holiday
After your in-person or online conversations, consider making a case for why Juneteenth should be a company holiday. Perhaps you have several Black colleagues who would appreciate the day off or, if there is a multicultural coalition of people who also support the idea, come prepared to discuss with leadership or HR to request the holiday be a part of the company’s paid time off roster. Like Labor Day, the 4th of July, and other national holidays, Juneteenth marks a turning point in American history that affected not only Black folx but every American in the U.S. Why not make the case for Juneteenth to be celebrated in the workplace like other national holidays?
Don’t: Make Juneteenth a one-day event
Like other days involving Black history, companies, and individuals make the mistake of treating Juneteenth like a one-day event. The day comes and then it goes. But holidays like the 4th of July are celebrated over three or four days with an emphasis on pride and celebration. Juneteenth deserves the same acknowledgment. To enhance and elongate the holiday, give colleagues a runway of days during which to absorb historical information. For example, send an email about the history of Juneteenth one week ahead so people have time to absorb the content. You can also set up a small art exhibit or feature books and other historical information in a common space in the preceding month so people have time to reflect on the information. Host a book club featuring a Juneteenth-centered book so colleagues have a meaningful opportunity to be engaged in the history. In essence, preparing colleagues ahead of time will make the day that much richer–not just for your Black colleagues but for everyone involved.
Don’t: Wear performative clothing to show that you’re “down” with the cause
A common mistake companies and individuals make during Juneteenth is thinking that performative allyship is the way to celebrate and honor the holiday. That’s not true. Please avoid wearing dashikis or dawning red, green, and black colors on or around Juneteenth. For many Black people, it’s considered offensive and disingenuous. Avoid performative allyship at all costs, whether that’s your personal style choices or your company’s newest product promotion. The way to show Black folks and others who care about Juneteenth that you are engaged and want to pay your respects is by educating yourself, participating in meaningful conversations where you’re truly listening, and sharing this information with others in your life who may not know the history of Juneteenth. Those are steps towards allyship far more meaningful than wearing a dashiki.
While the celebration of Black history is, in general, condensed into one month in February, Black History Month, we often forget that Black history is American history and that we should be celebrating it year-round. Not everyone does and that’s okay. What we can do is inspire more people to engage by having meaningful conversations about what happened on June 19, 1865, and the historical context in which the event occurred. Only when we can pull the veil off of Black history and see that these events are significant for all Americans do we begin to let down our guard and welcome the truth about our country: That we did some awful things, but we’re learning from them. This Juneteeth, make meaningful conversations a priority.