Juneteenth Is an Opportunity To Teach Our Kids How To Listen to Black Folks, Not Commodify or Appropriate It

Let's learn about Juneteenth together and find ways that we can honor the celebration without doing harm.

A Group Of People Celebrating The Juneteenth Holiday In The Park
Photo: Getty

It's June. Kids are out of school, summer camp is in swing. The aisles of the big box store of your choice are bursting with pool noodles and sunscreen and Pride rainbow sunglasses and American flags. There's nothing we Americans love more than free stuff, especially in the months when there are no special-shaped Reese's peanut butter cups.

Americans' penchant for commercializing any holiday is well-documented. Just look at the commercialism surrounding Christmas and Easter. We've also appropriated other cultures' celebrations as our own and commercialized those, too (hello, St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo). Juneteenth is the newest holiday to rise in American consciousness, and we're already making some of the same mistakes.

Look: I'm not here to rain on folks' parades. I, too, enjoy some commercial aspects of holidays. But as a parent, I'm very aware that what I buy, and how our family chooses to celebrate and engage with holidays matters. What we model for our kids has a direct impact on the world they will build. I want to make sure that when it's in my power to get things right, I do just that. So let's learn about Juneteenth together and find ways that we can honor the celebration without doing harm.

Juneteenth: What Is It and When Did It Start?

Many non-Black Americans are still becoming familiar with Juneteenth, though the holiday has been celebrated in many African-American communities since 1866. It is our most recent federal holiday, signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021, amidst the immediate backdrop of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and American societal reckonings on racism and police violence.

Juneteenth is the commemoration of the freeing of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, who were the last enslaved Africansto hear the news of their own freedom. It's said that news of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation traveled slowly, along with advancing Union troops, though just as likely, enslavers were keen to hold the information back as long as they could.

Juneteenth started primarily as a church-centered celebration in Texas, with the addition of a festive meal. Corey Williams, founder of the SAIR collective, which consults individuals and groups on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), explains, "Early Juneteenth celebrations featured picnics, cookouts with brightly colored foods and parades. Fine dresses, pageants, rodeos and car races also became part of some regional celebrations." Honestly, what is not to love? A holiday centered around the celebration of freedom? With great food? In the summer?

Juneteenth Is Already Being Commercialized and It's Yucky

Enter the stampede of retailers seeking to fulfill Americans' curiosity for novelty, and our tradition of overstepping bounds, especially when it comes to our most marginalized and targeted populations. Recently, brands and organizations have made headlines because of their "well-meaning" desire to cash in on Juneteenth.

Walmart had to issue an apology for their Celebration Edition Juneteenth ice cream, which took a flavor developed by Creamalicious, a Black-owned brand, without attribution or compensation. The storied Indianapolis Children's Museum, known as one of the best children's museums in the world, also felt backlash after a picture of their canteen's Juneteenth Watermelon Salad ended up on social media. The salad did not have any explanation of how it may have related to Juneteenth, and worse, recalled a long history of watermelon eating as a racist stereotype of Black Americans.

Laura Morse, an individual and couples psychotherapist from Atlanta, says, "I sometimes see that Black cultural experiences are maximally co-opted and the creators minimized or ignored altogether. That is very frustrating... It is important to SEE who is responsible for wonderfully creative content and learn what inspires that content. When doing so—you can feel more connected to Black communities in a more humanizing way."

There Isn't Just One Juneteenth Experience

Some Black Americans (especially those with family roots from Texas) have long family and communal traditions around Juneteenth. Others discovered the holiday later in life. Often when outsiders observe communities not their own, it's easy to flatten individual experiences and variations.

Corey Williams, the DEI consultant, didn't grow up celebrating Juneteenth. "Like many other Black and Black biracial kids, I didn't know this holiday until I was in college. There, I met people who had a wide variety of Black experiences, and I was first exposed to the holiday. Juneteenth and I didn't cross paths again until the Blackish episode three years ago. It moved me because it was so frank and honest. It dealt with our estrangement from the past as well as reconnected me to it."

Morse has, "mixed emotions about Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday when it did. Following the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor (to ONLY name a few) I believe there was a placating effort in the federalization of Juneteenth. However, I can appreciate that Juneteenth is now marked on the 'collective calendar' as a reminder of freedom for all. Better late than never."

She continued, "There is irony in this celebration—one that takes place before the 4th of July—the primary celebration of our Nation's Independence—an independence celebration that did not originally include Blacks in America for many years."

What Can Non-Black Families Do To Mark Juneteenth?

Juneteenth isn't for everyone, and that's ok. Here are some great recommendations of things that non-Black and non-biracial parents can easily and respectfully do to mark Juneteenth:

  • Talk to your kids (yes even young kids) about African enslavement.
  • Read a book together about Juneteenth. Williams has compiled an awesome list of titles of many different ages and stages. She also suggests you buy from your local, independent bookseller, or a Black-owned bookstore, like Mahogany Books.
  • Watch the Blackish episode together. Williams suggests, "If you're looking for a place to start this year, start with that episode which you can find on Hulu—season 4, episode 1. It's appropriate for kids in later elementary school."
  • Support locally-owned Black businesses. Not just around Juneteenth, but all year long. Many of the your family's shopping needs can be substituted for goods and services from Black-owned companies. Make yourself a challenge to research at least one a week.

What Non-Black Caregivers of Black or Biracial Children Can Do

If you are the parent or foster parent of a Black or biracial child, Williams has these words of wisdom: "Black children and Black biracial children of white parents can miss out on socialization that leaves them feeling isolated from Black peers if they don't know the histories and cultural elements of the Black community."

Williams thinks it's good to include a Juneteenth celebration as part of their child's racial socialization, but hopes these parents are already spending time in Black spaces. "But I'd advise parents against showing up once a year for Juneteenth only. Racial socialization needs to be an intentional and deliberate process for white parents of Black and Black biracial children."

What Not To Do

Don't attend celebrations uninvited. Williams suggests: "If you're part of a church, community center or group having a Juneteenth celebration, it's appropriate to go to that. But if you're showing up in a community you've never been involved with before, it does make the space feel significantly less safe for Black folks." White folks should ask themselves these questions before showing up at a Juneteenth celebration:

  1. Was I explicitly invited and welcomed in?
  2. Is this an intentional multi-racial space for observing Juneteenth?
  3. Is this a community that I am already a regular part of that is celebrating?

Don't dress in a way that appropriates culture or identity.

Don't throw a Juneteenth celebration.

Don't buy corporate Juneteenth "branded" goods.

Don't post about anything you do to mark Juneteenth on social media. You shouldn't be marking Juneteenth as a way to get likes or kudos for yourself or your kids.

Acknowledge the Trauma and the Hope

Laura Morse sees awareness of Juneteenth as an opportunity for acknowledgement and growth. "For many of my clients (myself and my family), the Social Justice Movement and Uprising of 2020 was so incredibly traumatic and painful. It wasn't only about George Floyd's murder but so many murders before his. Many of my clients (myself and my family) felt incredibly unsafe. Experiencing this on top of living through and losing others during a pandemic was very heavy."

Morse goes on to say that for many Black Americans, mental health became the focus and conversations were being had in collective ways she had not seen before. "I've been advocating for mental health for over 20 years and I have never felt more needed or respected in my community than I have these last 2.5 years. Having a holiday such as Juneteenth to celebrate allows for a brief respite—a pause—to recall how necessary Black Americans are to the very existence and survival of this country—then and now."

All of us have a role to play in healing the wounds of racial injustice in America on Juneteenth and every other day on the calendar. That work happens without commemorative t-shirts and with very little fanfare.

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