As a white person, it isn’t my place to say what Juneteenth is.
Black people created Juneteenth, gave it meaning, and continue to define it today.
As a white person, it is my place to point out a few things Juneteenth isn’t.
Juneteenth isn’t an opportunity for white people to make money. It isn’t an opportunity for white people to feel good about themselves. And it isn’t an opportunity to pretend our society has reconciled with its racist past, let alone its racist present.
Juneteenth isn’t an opportunity for white people to do anything except support Black people. In that way, the holiday is no different than any other day.
Yet our society will market Juneteenth to white people as a product for white people. The goal is a whitewashed, milquetoast, watered-down Juneteenth, no more threatening or subversive than Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Cinco de Mayo. This goal unites Democrats and Republicans because it makes Juneteenth accessible to white people and thus more profitable.
This goal is a form of recuperation: the process of isolating ideas that challenge power hierarchies and rendering them supportive of those hierarchies. Recuperation is in religion, politics, what we buy, what we listen to, and what we watch. It is how white people can consume products and experiences that provide an association with Blackness but do not convey any demand for the liberation of Black people. It is how we seem to have more Black representation in leadership and entertainment but no change in Black poverty and incarceration. Moreover, it is how politicians across the political spectrum quote King with a straight face while erasing his message of resistance and radical transformative justice.
Capitalism, with its remaking of identity and thought into commodities suitable for mass consumption, is a powerful recuperative tool. Melding ideas with products robs the ideas of their subversiveness while providing the illusion of change. The corporations that tell us what products to consume and what to think. They are telling us what to think about Juneteenth as they market the holiday for the masses.
Because Juneteenth is new to white consciousness on a mass scale, its marketing is still unrefined. Sometimes it comes on too strong. Walmart pulled Juneteenth ice cream because it made the desire to monetize Juneteenth too obvious.
Yet the desire remains.
It will manifest in Juneteenth colors, slogans, and imagery on products. Tucked into the value of Juneteenth merchandise will be the false sense of supporting Black people. In reality, consumers will be buying branded party favors from corporations uninterested in Black people except as a source of labor and profit.
Juneteenth isn’t an excuse to believe in a post-racial society because you can buy themed napkins. That Party City has a Juneteenth section does not mean racism is dead. The commoditizing of Juneteenth means its ideas remain dangerous to authority, which seeks to render them inert.
Juneteenth isn’t something you buy into. Shopping for Juneteenth merchandise that doesn’t put money directly in the hands of Black people is performative. White people who want to spend money in connection with Juneteenth should give their cash straight to Black people. That means paying Black people who educate white people about Juneteenth, provide artistic and cultural content for white people, or simply need money.
Rather than buy into Juneteenth, white people should listen into it. Black voices tell the story of Juneteenth. The harder that story is to hear, the more important it is for white people to listen – always with the willingness to pay Black people for their labor. That is the way toward justice and not recuperation.
Jeremy M. Sher is a civil litigation attorney. Originally from New Jersey, he moved with his family from New York City to Perinton in 2012.