Over the past three weeks, the United States has experienced a long overdue, profound shift.
The protests against anti-Black racism have catalyzed international uprisings, necessary conversations around policing, and brought conversations around anti-racism and the systemic oppression of Black people in this country to the forefront of the national conversation.
We have also seen unprecedented responses from organizations in the U.S.: public condemnation of the murders, commitments and corresponding plans for how to do better, and recognition that Black lives do indeed matter (the fact that that needed to be explicitly said is, in itself, a sad commentary around how our nation has approached the realities of racial injustice since its inception).
As two Black women whose careers have focused on helping build more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organizations, seeing this level of response from companies causes a complex set of reactions: anger that it took more members of our communities to lose their lives for some (not all) companies to take action, misgivings that some of this may be performative, and tempered optimism that, finally, a majority of companies are truly committed to creating more just, fair, and inclusive organizations.
It is exciting to finally see this change take place, and yet we know that addressing and overcoming the chasms in our society, and within organizations, will require recognizing and repairing inextricably linked mindsets and practices inculcated over time.
Right now, one of the most powerful steps people can take is investing in active allyship, making the ongoing commitment to use one’s privilege to take actions that create more equitable and inclusive workplaces. In this moment, it means that others—particularly white people—need to show up for their Black colleagues by listening, learning, and amplifying Black voices.
Fortunately, wherever you are in your journey, this week presents an ideal opportunity to practice active allyship by learning more about Juneteenth, recognizing its importance, and reflecting on some very important questions.
The importance of Juneteenth
If you have never heard of Juneteenth, you are not alone. While it is a holiday in 47 of the 50 States, its under-recognized status is, in many ways, indicative of our nation’s complicated relationship with our own history and the painful realities and continued legacies of slavery. Juneteenth celebrated on June 19th commemorates the effective end of slavery in the U.S. In 1865, months after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, federal troops arrived in Texas and told enslaved people that they were free.
While that day certainly did not immediately end slavery—and Black people in the U.S. have continued to face explicit and subtle racism, structures, and legislation that create inequality in many areas of our daily lives—June 19th is a celebration of freedom. By more broadly recognizing it as such, we can bring attention to an essential part of U.S. history and spark important conversations about what work we have left to do to truly realize freedom for Black folks.
How organizations can recognize Juneteenth
As we’ve consulted with leaders over the past few weeks, many have asked how to ensure their statements of solidarity with the Black community and commitments to anti-racism goes beyond this single moment in time. This follow-through is essential, and Juneteenth is an ideal day for those companies and their leaders to help educate employees about this important day. Many organizations do not have a playbook for Juneteenth yet, so here are some tips to getting started.
Give employees a “day on”
Nike, Twitter, Postmates, and our company Paradigm have made Juneteenth a paid company holiday. If your company also decides to take this route, be sure to position it correctly. Just like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this is not a day off—it’s a day away from your job to do work that supports creating a more just and equal society. Encourage employees to volunteer with organizations in their community, or find socially distant ways to support organizations and causes devoted to anti-racism.
With Juneteenth around the corner, you may wonder, “How do I put on an event now?” You might first think to turn to your Black employee resource group (ERG) to put something together but avoid this instinct. For one, they’re (probably) tired, and should not continue to carry the emotional and intellectual burden of educating people around a shared history.
Because part of allyship is amplifying existing conversations, this is an ideal day for non-Black people within your organization to create spaces for others to learn more about Juneteenth. Some simple ways to make an impact include sharing articles on Juneteenth and hosting discussion groups. Host a watch party for 13th (Netflix) or Just Mercy (Amazon). Come together to build the next phase of your plan to become an anti-racist organization.
Share resources for education
Learning about Juneteenth is one way to begin (or continue) the necessary reeducation to ensure Black Americans are included in U.S. history. An important part of education is creating awareness—if you are a leader in your organization, share an email recognizing the day, and include resources for learning. Jamelle Bouie’s piece gives a great overview, or, since it’s Pride, make it intersectional.
What individuals can do on Juneteenth
For many individuals, Juneteeth is as much about gaining proximity to an experience that is not your own as it is about unlearning bad habits and misinformation. On Juneteenth, why not reflect on some important questions?
What structures still exist today that perpetuate racial injustice?
Chances are if you ask the vast majority of Americans today if slavery was wrong, or if Jim Crow was wrong, they would unequivocally say yes. And yet, at the time those things were happening, people justified, if not outright supported, the practices. So, ask yourself, what is happening today—practices, policies, structures, and outcomes that reflect the
legacy of 400 years of slavery—that is wrong? And what is being done to stop it?
How might I be contributing to the problem?
As you consider the structures that exist, it’s also important to examine how you may be complicit in this system. How might you as an individual—either through actions or lack thereof—be building a society or workplace that is not equitable for Black people? It may be recognizing ways in which you perpetuate harmful stereotypes like presuming that organizations have to “lower the bar” to increase diversity. Or maybe you let racist comments that others make in your presence slide. Or, perhaps you were previously apathetic about racism because you felt it does not directly affect you. Reflecting on these questions is the hard, but important, that leads to becoming actively anti-racist.
As many companies—from Square to Twitter to Postmates—move to recognize Juneteenth as a company holiday, it is important to make sure that employees know how to recognize and acknowledge this important day. This change is owed to the activists protesting now, as well as the many others who have worked to get Juneteenth its deserved recognition for a long time.
Now, it’s up to the rest of us to continue the work.
Kiva Wilson is the senior director at Paradigm and the former, Diversity & Inclusion Talent Lead for Facebook. Dr. Evelyn Carter is a director at Paradigm whose research has been funded by the National Science Foundation.