This will be the first year that many people will have a paid Juneteenth holiday. 

Since the U.S. and Washington state made Juneteenth an official holiday in 2021, this year a little less than a third of private employers nationwide are giving workers a paid day off, up from 8% in 2020, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. 

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were finally told of the Emancipation Proclamation — over two years after it was issued. It has long been a day when Black Americans in Texas and beyond have celebrated freedom from slavery through community gatherings and festivities.

But now that so many in the wider public are discovering Juneteenth for the first time and those with paid holidays are getting a paid day off, how can those who have not been directly harmed by the legacy of slavery honor the meaning of the day, celebrate it with respect and continue to push for racial justice? How can we avoid Juneteenth becoming just another commercialized holiday, divorced from its history and purpose and disproportionately benefiting those who already benefit the other 364 days a year? Or to borrow the motto from Martin Luther King Jr. Day, how can it be a day on and not a day off?

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The commercialization missteps came fast this year. Walmart, for example, received intense criticism for selling “Celebration Edition: Juneteenth Ice Cream” along with party plates bearing the slogan, “It’s the Freedom for Me.” They apologized and pulled the merchandise from some of their stores.

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One local organization has a suggestion for those not descended from slavery to approach the holiday in a more ethical and intentional way.

Seattle-based Creative Justice is a nonprofit that “​​builds community with youth most impacted by the school-to-prison-(to-deportation) pipeline.” Through their work, they examine the root causes of incarceration, like systemic racism, and create art that shows the power as well as the possibility of communities, in addition to offering material and other support for young people. 

In a social media post June 9, the organization called on those who were excited about the new national holiday and a paid day off, and wondering how to support the Black community, to donate their Juneteenth holiday wages to Creative Justice or another Black-led organization.

They wrote: “While celebrating, it is important to acknowledge the generational economic wealth gap that still exists today. A gap initiated during the transatlantic slave trade and perpetuated through the continuation of anti-Black policies in the United States. The policies have had a compounding effect on the wealth of Black peoples and many still exist today.”

Further, they wrote, “This unpaid labor that Enslaved Africans were forced to perform for centuries generated billions of dollars of generational wealth for white communities and families that still shapes and defines this country today.”

Creative Justice Community Partnerships Director Shelagh Brown said the donation suggestion was a form of redistributing unearned wealth and should not be confused with reparations, which would be an effort from the government.

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As a descendant of the transatlantic slave trade, Brown said that for her it’s important for people to “recognize it’s really not OK for us to be celebrating Juneteenth as a society, while Black people still don’t have reparations.”

Brown said there is a “cognitive dissonance” in people who aren’t Black wanting to celebrate “while there’s just so many inequities, and while people in our communities are dying every day from those inequities.”

These inequities are far-reaching, but some examples include the racial disparities in the criminal legal system, environmental racism and health outcomes, and of course the racial wealth gap.

The holiday also generates complex feelings, Brown said, because the enslaved people of Texas endured an additional two and a half years of unpaid labor and brutality. “That is something to mourn … We get together and celebrate, that’s how we approach a lot of the brutality that we have experienced; in community, cooking together, eating together, playing music, dancing, doing all of these things that bring us joy and community. But it’s more than just a celebration, it’s a very emotional time and experience. And there is mourning involved with the celebration as well.”

For people who consider themselves working for racial justice and Black liberation, Brown said, Juneteenth is an opportunity to think about how you can approach the day in a more ethical, conscious way that redistributes resources to Black people and organizations working to undo the legacy of anti-Black racism.  

“We don’t need people to feel bad for us, we just need resources,” Brown said. “We live under capitalism. And the slave trade really built capitalism. So our communities are purposely under-resourced. So we have everything — all the brilliance that we need to heal ourselves from everything that’s happened in the last 500 years. We just lack resources.”