Last year, companies across the country started closing for Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. Like with any big event, retailers soon jumped at the opportunity to sell holiday goods: Juneteenth party supplies and “Juneteenth” ice cream sold at Walmart. But Walmart soon apologized and pulled the ice cream from its shelves after critics lambasted the company online: Juneteenth commemorates the end of the most troubling chapter in our history, they said, and shouldn’t become yet another commodified holiday.
So how should corporate America — and the rest of the country — observe Juneteenth? Grid spoke to Hank Boyd, clinical professor of marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, who has consulted for companies like the NFL and ExxonMobil.
“We have a new federal holiday, but given its unique nature, I’m not surprised there are some growing pains,” Boyd told Grid.
“It’s tricky for companies,” he said. “I understand where people get scared. You mention race and there’s a chilling effect.”
Boyd spoke about how Juneteenth has gained new prominence and how it can evolve into a national recognition of the past.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: What types of missteps have you seen in Juneteenth marketing campaigns?
Hank Boyd: Obviously, we have a new federal holiday, but given its unique nature I’m not surprised there are some growing pains. We hear “holiday,” and we think, “Oh, that’s fun to take it off and relax.” But Juneteenth is kind of special. You have to look at the history.
Some of the stories that have bubbled up about Juneteenth involved ice cream or napkins. They had a theme where it’s like, “We’re going to have this picnic, and we’re all going to go out and celebrate.” But is that the right phraseology? Because you’re celebrating the end of something really tragic. The other day, my mom showed me a photo in her photo album and said, “OK, this is your great-great grandmother Anne. She was born a slave and she died a slave.” In our community, it’s something that you have to treat with reverence and deference.
If you look to Martin Luther King Day, it’s not [a day] to go out and have a picnic. It’s a day to serve food, clean up a park, do something for the greater good of the community. That’s got to be an undercurrent — that whatever you do doesn’t come across as crass or commercial.
G: Why are we seeing some companies flounder?
HB: With a lot of things in corporations, you often have decision by committee. It can be a little dangerous. The person in that committee who is really the expert, and might be African American, might try to say something but can easily be drowned out.
These companies made a decision and probably checked in with some of the “right” target market consumers. But if they had gone and checked in with African Americans and they said — “No child, don’t do that” — that would probably have been helpful. Going forward, I think that’s the key.
It would be nice for large organizations to say, “We don’t know everything — and when it comes to these topics, we can form groups to vet our ideas. And it’s OK.” If you want to avoid [missteps], the best way to do that is to get honest with people, fast.
G: What examples have we seen of companies coming up with appropriate ways to observe Juneteenth?
HB: JCPenney got it right. They said, “Who is the grandmother of Juneteenth? Who said we need to recognize this as a federal holiday?” Opal Lee. She also built a nonprofit foundation.
They put a video together saying, “We’re going to introduce you to this person who is a trailblazer in our community, and we’re going to give a donation in her cause.” When you think about how you can be a good actor and take on social responsibility — that’s a way to do it.
You have so many good platforms as a company. You can do something that involves a donation or something that has a sense of positivity and uplift. You can make a donation to an African American history museum.
We as a people were chattel, we came over and were the property of another. We worked the fields and got no compensation for that. But that also speaks to what is wonderful about America — think of African Americans who have done so well and have gone on to really change the world.
G: What should companies do to try to help educate their employees?
HB: It’s tricky for companies. They’ll try to have days where they talk about race, diversity and inclusion, and all that. If you foist that on folks, you’ll get resistance.
It is in the literature that companies have experienced backlash [from D&I training].
And yet it’s something where, if you gave the employee a little wiggle room and said, “When you’re ready, you can start to explore and learn about this” — that could help.
I understand where people get scared. You mention race, and there’s a chilling effect. This cancel culture is kind of scary. I look and see, and if a person is actually trying to understand a group and they say something wrong or untoward, then we should give them a little forgiveness, right? That person is on a journey, and the last thing I want to do is shut them down.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.