No doubt, Walmart was earnest, if misguided, in its attempts to affirm the value of its Black customers with its “Celebration Edition: Juneteenth Ice Cream,” party decorations, T-shirts and other products covered with images of the African continent and the colors — red, black and green — long associated with the Black Liberation Movement in the U.S.
After receiving backlash on social media, where many called out the company for appropriating Black culture, having a white woman model Juneteenth T-shirts and failing to acknowledge Black-owned ice cream brands, the company issued an apology and recalled several items. Of course, what happened wasn’t entirely surprising. Last year, when Juneteenth became a federal holiday many in Black communities predicted that it would turn into another moment for large corporations to make money. But when you look at the packaging of the company’s Juneteenth items, it highlights just how out of touch white-owned corporations continue to be when it comes to the nuances of Black people’s life experiences.
While there have been generations of Black Americans organizing efforts to establish a Juneteenth holiday, Walmart’s products are not what many of us had in mind.
On the surface, Walmart’s ice cream and other items seem an innocuous highlighting of global Blackness or, more specifically, Pan-Africanism, an important and historically popular strain of Black thought that has sought to align the struggles of Black Americans with those throughout the diaspora. Leading Black intellectuals and activists of the early 20th century, like W.E.B Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, promoted Pan-Africanism as part of the Black Liberation Movement in a concerted effort to link the fates of Black folk around the globe.
But Juneteenth is not a Pan-African holiday, and for the record, neither is Kwanzaa, however the latter might signal an intended affinity for West African culture. Juneteenth has long been a meaningful celebration that marks the moment when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, found out they were freed in 1865 — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation. Like the practice of “jumping the broom,” a gesture that enslaved Black Americans in the South did to symbolize their marriages, Juneteenth is an example of a Black American tradition that existed well before it was “legitimized” by white American society.
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While many in the African American community choose to incorporate the colors red, black and green in their celebrations of the annual holiday, the colors of the Juneteenth flag are red, white and blue on purpose. It is meant to signify the belonging of Black Americans in the fabric of the U.S.
To be sure, while there have been generations of Black Americans organizing efforts to establish a Juneteenth holiday, Walmart’s products are not what many of us had in mind.
The reality is that it is simply easier for white Americans to conflate aspects of the Black community than to do the hard work of specificity.
But in the aftermath of international protests following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020, and calls for companies to be more racially equitable, this year’s federally recognized Juneteenth was low-hanging fruit for companies to flex how racially aware they’ve become. Yet, two years after the deaths of Floyd and Taylor, the momentum to implement meaningful changes has slowed.
Part of what meaningful changes look like is hiring more people of color at the top level. Usually, when a racially insensitive gaffe like Walmart’s happens, one of the first questions to come up is, “Was there not one Black person in the room to say this was a bad idea?” But perhaps a better question is, “How many Black people were in the room when this decision was made?” After all, we are not monolithic. What may seem like a good idea to one of us could be seen as clearly bad to another. But it’s hard to have those types of discussions if you’re the only one or just one of a very few in the decision-making process.
The reality is that it is simply easier for white Americans to conflate aspects of the Black community than to do the hard work of specificity. The whole debacle reminded me of what has become a bit of an inside joke for some Black folk: the number of times that Black celebrities have been mistaken for each other in mainstream media. Innocent as such gaffes may be, the long-held belief that “they all look alike” reveals a worldview in which Black people and Black things are interchangeable.