White People Should Have to Work on Juneteenth
Illustration: Michael Kennedy

White People Should Have to Work on Juneteenth

America’s newest national holiday deserves exclusive access. Sorry not sorry.

After more than three decades of living in America, I’m rarely surprised by the goings-on in this country. But I must admit, the turn of events of the past 365 have thrown me for a loop.

We’re more than a year removed from the police murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others who were killed due to the color of their skin. We’ve seen the Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately scourge Black and Brown communities nationwide, exposing disparities in the health care system that we’ve long known existed. In January, neo-Confederates invaded the Capitol in a full-on coup attempt and hung a damn noose outside of the building for good measure. And even more recently, conservatives have been pushing to keep curriculum around racism out of public schools.

But don’t worry, America has an ointment for all of this turmoil: Juneteenth.

I thought Juneteenth’s moment in the sun during last spring’s racial reckoning would be fleeting. (Yes, even after Trump claimed he made Juneteenth more famous than a Yankee can.) But a full year later, the annual celebration that began on June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, to commemorate the end of legalized American slavery has been officially recognized as a national holiday after being signed into law yesterday by President Biden.

It’s the latest moral victory in a long history of symbolic but ultimately empty measures that do nothing to counter systemic racism. The first national holiday to be declared since MLK Day was federally recognized in 1983, Juneteenth being institutionalized is basically a Band-Aid made of kente cloth.

Now, just because this legislation is performative as hell doesn’t mean I’m above celebrating a day that pays homage to a crucial moment in African American history, as I have for many years. I can appreciate widespread conversation around the Black experience in this country — especially if that dialogue comes with a day off from work.

Starting this year, my job has declared Juneteenth a company holiday, which shall be observed one day prior since the actual date falls on a Saturday in 2021. That’s all good and well — I’ve already got plans lined up for a dope three-day weekend. And that’s a moral victory I can get behind, one for which I’m appreciative. But still, like Amerie, it’s this one thing that’s got me trippin’.

I do not believe non-Black people should be rewarded with a day off from work for Juneteenth.

For the melanin-deficient among us, do not mistake this for pettiness. I’ve got that in spades, but this ain’t that. I’d wager my GameStop investments that a majority of White Americans had no awareness of Juneteenth prior to its mainstreaming last year. And I can’t knock that — the same could likely be said for many people of color who have not spent a significant amount of time in the South. But I’m not convinced that a lion’s share of those same White people have since done the work of engaging with systemic racism and taking action on tearing it down. I wonder how many even know the significance of the date. Giving them a vacation day for Juneteenth only encourages that apathy or performative wokeness that has become damn near trendy. It’s an unearned pat on the back.

If White people had to work on Juneteenth while Black folks got the day off, there’d be a better understanding of the dynamics that got us here... It’d force them to wrestle with privilege from the perspective of not having it.

The framing of Juneteenth is already getting remixed in the worst way — sanitized and commodified through a filter of red, white, and blue. We’re only a couple of years away from an annual Macy’s sale and Banana Republic hawking Juneteenth tees. Seeing non-Black employees of the corporate world celebrate the holiday serves as reinforcement of that sad truth. I can already anticipate my White co-workers asking each other how they leisurely spent “the long weekend,” as if the spirit of Juneteenth isn’t about rebelling against a country that never wanted to see Black folks like myself be joyful in the first place.

If White people had to work on Juneteenth while Black folks got the day off, there’d be a better understanding of the dynamics that got us here. They just might realize that Black History Month, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Juneteenth are owed to Black people due to the way we’ve been treated historically. It’d force them to wrestle with privilege from the perspective of not having it. Even if for just one day, they’d feel the unfairness and inequity that’s embedded in this country’s DNA.

I know this isn’t a practical proposal — race is an imprecise nonscience, after all, so it’d be impossible to actually enforce. But I hope the White people whose employers are observing the holiday spend at least half of the day doing a different kind of work.

I hope they spend Juneteenth educating themselves about the legacy of oppression that Black Americans have experienced. I hope they speak with their non-melanated friends about the work that still needs to be done to eradicate racism. I hope they buy Black. I hope they donate time or money to organizations pushing to improve conditions for Black people in America.

I’m not counting on it, but if they do, that might be the biggest surprise of all.