A Juneteenth celebration in Newport News, Virginia, in June 2021.
Federal recognition of Juneteenth came more than 150 years after the holiday began in the Black community — and yet only the second year into official, nationwide status, and a slew of businesses have already tried to capitalize while others have even insulted the community with stereotype-laden offerings.
Walmart led the pack in exploitative marketing this year with its “Celebration Edition” Juneteenth-themed ice cream. The corporation — which is majority-owned by a family of white billionaires — even went so far as to put a trademark logo on the package after the word Juneteenth.
TriplePundit asked DEI expert Kimberly Lee Minor to comment on the fiasco. Her response: “The Walmart Juneteenth ice cream debacle was the latest example of lack of cultural competence as well as lack of diverse power in the room where it happens. Do we think that the slaves had red velvet cake on June 19th, 1865, and is that why they thought it was a great idea to make artificially flavored red velvet ice cream and label it for Juneteenth? It was not only culturally incompetent, but it was also offensive. The problem could have definitely been avoided with more diverse leadership weighing in, but not just weighing in, having authority to make a decision. Being in the room without agency isn’t enough.”
HerSuiteSpot founder Marsha Guerrier broke the issue of leadership and authority down for TriplePundit last March when she described how part of her motivation to start her own company came from the unshakeable feeling that corporate America was just using her to tick a diversity box and wasn’t really utilizing her full set of leadership skills. In a way, such corporate DEI failures mimic what is happening when businesses try to make a quick buck off of Juneteenth as it is an attempt to profit off of Black people and culture while simultaneously failing to create real equity and inclusion at the C-Suite level.
While Walmart has since removed the exploitative ice cream from its freezers, the apology falls flat considering the retailer should have known better to begin with. TriplePundit asked Minor about the appropriateness of non-Black-owned businesses creating products or services with Juneteenth in mind, as in — “Is it ever okay?”
“I believe commercially benefitting from the holiday that celebrates another culture’s recognition of legal freedom is inappropriate. I can’t think of a situation where this would feel right. The savagery and de-humanizing nature of slavery is a dark stain on America that was based on making profits off the backs of a race of human beings,” said Minor.
So, what should businesses interested in recognizing Juneteenth do instead? Minor encourages honoring the holiday instead of exploiting it. “The best way for businesses to approach Juneteenth is to allow their employees to observe the holiday. Provide educational materials to the team to explain the significance of the holiday.”
An Amazon facility could have benefited from such advice in 2020 when it offered its majority-Black employees chicken and waffles in celebration, though the educational piece certainly would have been reversed had management listened to and learned from its workers. Sybil R. Williams, the director of African American and African diaspora studies at American University encourages employers to avoid such culturally insensitive mistakes by having conversations with their Black employees. She is quoted in HR Dive with this advice for starting the discussion: “What is it that you would like to see that furthers actual Black engagement at this company? How can we incorporate Black history in a given subject area or at a given time?”
The Indianapolis Children’s Museum set a horrifying example of a non-profit serving up stereotypes instead of conversation and education. The museum recently sold a watermelon salad as a part of its Juneteenth-themed food court offerings. The non-profit places the blame for the offensive salad on their food court vendor, which suggests that neither entity has taken DEI seriously. Both would do well to take the rest of Minor’s advice personally — “They can also use Juneteenth as a catalyst, if necessary, to make the work culture more inclusive.”
Image credit: Derek Lamar via Unsplash
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.