Lead With Inclusion

Rethinking Juneteenth: symbolism vs. action

June 12, 2024

I don’t celebrate Juneteenth.

That may surprise those who don’t know me well, so let me explain: My parents are from Guyana and I grew up in London. My family didn’t move to the United States until I was twelve years old. I didn’t even know what Juneteenth was until a few years ago when I researched it.

The other reason I don’t celebrate Juneteenth is that, frankly, it’s an ambiguous holiday for me. What exactly are we celebrating? The day a white community was strong-armed into adhering to the Emancipation Proclamation? My cynical side can’t help but wonder if Juneteenth was made a federal holiday in 2021 to placate Black Americans.

Be an Inclusive Leader

I understand that Juneteenth is deeply meaningful to many people in the African American community, and to be clear, my issue with Juneteenth isn’t with Juneteenth itself. It’s that making Juneteenth a federal holiday hasn’t done anything to improve diversity, equity, inclusion, or belonging.

Instead, companies are spending energy and marketing dollars on performative allyship with themed products, services, sales, and the like.

And even organizations that try to go beyond the superficial sometimes miss the mark. I still remember being invited to give a Juneteenth talk by a client (I’m guessing they assumed that, because I’m Black, I would be an ideal speaker). I said no because I don’t believe I’m the right person to speak on the topic.

You can probably relate to this if you have one or more underestimated identities yourself: because you’re Black/queer/disabled/female/trans/Asian/etc, other people think you’re qualified to speak on any and all topics related to those identities. Let me remind us all: no group of people is a monolith, and not all Black Americans share the same history or cultural background.

But I digress. The point I want to make is that we don’t need themed plates and napkins and we most certainly don’t need leaders making it the responsibility of their already marginalized team members to educate others about a holiday.

What we need is useful, sustainable, long-term action that changes lives.

Lead with Inclusion

If you’d like to shift your actions around Juneteenth—or any time of year—from symbolic to substantive but have no idea where to start, here are a few ideas:

  • Audit your data: What does your employee data tell you about who’s on performance improvement plans? What are the demographics of employees who were laid off over the last few years? How does compensation compare between different groups? Who’s getting promoted? Once you audit your data, you’ll know exactly where your company needs to make meaningful DEI improvements.
  • Spend money on pay equity: When companies squawk about not having the money or resources to equalize pay across their employees, I want to roll my eyes. Somehow, you can afford Juneteenth or Pride-themed advertising. Put that money towards making your pay equitable. Bonus: it’ll attract more valuable talent, business, and respect than performative marketing.
  • Buy Black: The only capitalist take on Juneteenth that I can stand is the reminder to buy from minority-owned businesses. This Black-owned business guide is a place to start, but not to end. How diverse is your supply chain? Your contractors?
  • Educate yourself: My course Unconscious Inclusionis a foundational education resource backed by neuroscience that will ensure you take committed – not performative – action that is not only impactful but sustainable.

Are holidays and history important? YES! But they don’t mean much if we’re not taking committed, inclusive action every day. I’d be impressed by a company that devoted the month of June to revamping their recruiting and hiring practices or doing a pay equity audit. But a company that strong-armed their only Black employee to organize a Juneteenth-themed pizza lunch in the breakroom? Not so much.

Has your company implemented any sustainable, meaningful actions to support employees? How did these changes impact you and your colleagues? Share your experiences in the comments—I’d love to hear about them.

Scroll to Top