Why Don’t White People Show Up For Juneteenth The Way They Showed Up For George Floyd?

A woman celebrates Juneteenth in Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington DC. Image: Miki Jourdan/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Another Juneteenth is in the books. With each passing year it becomes clearer no one knows quite what to do with this newest addition to the civic calendar. Since 2020 when Juneteenth was proposed as a federal holiday, I’ve been interested in how this holiday would translate from a regional African American celebration into a mainstream American federal holiday. More importantly I was interested in how Black folks, White folks and others would navigate the issues of race and slavery that reside at the center of the Juneteenth holiday.

One of the most comical aspects to what I have come to call the ‘Juneteenth conundrum’ is who is greeted by whom? In 2021, while at a summer solstice festival that happened to coincide with Juneteenth I recall with sheer amusement as two well-meaning, culturally sensitive White women approached tepidly to ask if they could wish me and my companions (all Black) a “Happy Juneteenth.” Our collective response, “sure,” and to their surprise I uttered with a straight face, “Thank you. You too.” 

This scenario was repeated several more times during that day as White people dressed in faerie wings wished me a “Happy Juneteenth,” to which I always responded, “Thank you. You too!” My point was simple, the Black experience is an American experience, and more importantly a human experience, so if I can endure a yearly dose of “happy Thanksgiving,” “happy Fourth of July,” etc. these White folks were about to get some “Happy Juneteenth.” So perplexing is this politics of recognition that African American Studies scholar LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant jokingly queried on Twitter, “so when White folks wish me happy juneteenth i’m supposed to say…. ?”

However, at the root of Manigault-Bryant’s query lies the problem with a federally recognized holiday to celebrate the end of slavery: Americans still can’t honestly discuss slavery. Even if red state legislatures weren’t aggressively trying to ban meaningful discussions of race and slavery, Americans by and large are woefully incapable of coming to terms with what slavery was and what slavery wrought upon America’s descendants of slaves and slaveholders (and all those in-between). So, the surrealness of people essentially greeting each other “Happy End of Slavery Day” is almost like a skit from Chappelle’s Show.

A second observation from my Juneteenth sojourns is that White people do not attend Juneteenth festivals in any appreciable numbers. This month I attended two Juneteenth festivals in the Columbia, South Carolina metropolitan area and the results were the same: minimum White attendance. Both events were free to the public, with ideal weather and plenty of good food and entertainment. 

Whereas a cross-section of Black America was in attendance, Whites stuck out like rice in chocolate pudding. But those who did attend appeared to share some interesting commonalities: mixed race couples, White (grand)parents with mixed race or perhaps adopted Black children. The ethnographer in me wanted to interview these people but I refrained from intruding into their Juneteenth experience. The small number of White individuals, couples, and families often looked uncomfortable navigating the happy, jubilant, celebratory mass of Black bodies regaled in red, black, green, and gold. Was this a South Carolina anomaly? I doubt it. According to one poll, 51% of Americans had no plan to celebrate (and more than half of those respondents declared that “they would not take part in a Juneteenth celebration even if they were invited to do so.”)

Now, juxtapose this with the White participation in anti-police brutality protests that broke out in 2020 in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. Are Whites simply giving Black folks a “safe space”? How can a federal holiday be a “safe space”? Why do Greek festivals, Oktoberfest, St. Patrick’s Day, and Fourth of July all teem with diverse peoples, while Juneteenth needs to be a “safe space”?

White ethnic festivals and American civil holidays allow for an unconscious honorary ethnic status. It’s possible to see a young Asian American person in a “Kiss Me I’m Irish” t-shirt at a St. Patrick’s Day parade but not at a Juneteenth festival in one that says “Free-ish since 1865.” Again, the issues of race and slavery prevent this level of ethno-racial cosplay that we so frequently witness around White ethnic and patriotic celebrations in this nation. Not to mention the ever-present charge of cultural (mis)appropriation that’s leveled at any display of cross-cultural participation that makes attendance at Juneteenth festivals tricky terrain to navigate.

Because Juneteenth is so fraught with both the morality and memory of American slavery, it’s not surprising that two prominent and public Christians on different sides of the political divide delivered controversial statements on the holiday that stand in contrast to the historical record. While delivering his final address as a congregational pastor, Rev. William J. Barber II, decried the celebratory tone and mood of Juneteenth as improper.They want you jumping around and drinking,” he said. “That’s not what Juneteenth is.”  

With all due respect, Rev. Barber is wrong here. Juneteenth isn’t an African American Yom Kippur, it’s a time of joviality and happiness. Photographs from the turn of the 20th century show African Americans in decorated carriages on the way to church, not for funerary processions but for Jubilee Day, a day filled with “communal barbecues, concerts, prayer services, parades, as well as baseball games, fishing, and rodeos.”

On the other end of the political and religious spectrum stands Missouri senator, Josh Hawley, who took to Twitter to opine, “Today is a good day to remember: Christianity is the faith and America is the place slavery came to die.” Understandably the blowback was swift and fierce at the historical inaccuracy of Hawley’s statement. My intention is not to pile on about the inaccuracies of the statement, but rather to ask why the gentleman from Missouri couldn’t simply tweet “Happy Juneteenth” and keep it moving? He apparently couldn’t even type the word “Juneteenth.” Why is the notion of Americans celebrating the end of slavery such a vexing prospect that he chafes at the notion of placing Black joy at the center of an American holiday? 

Here we have two Christians, one Black and liberal, the other White and conservative, whose Christianity outwardly looks very different, but internally needs Black people to occupy the same position: to be casket-ready for more sacrificial death on the altar of American democracy. It’s why neither perspective can fully embrace the joy of Juneteenth. It’s why liberal Whites stay away from Juneteenth festivals but show up en mass to help “heal and reconcile” after the latest Black death. At Juneteenth parades there are no floats of parents crying over slaughtered sons, daughters (and vice versa). It’s Black folks celebrating freedom… or at least being “free-ish.”

That, I believe, is at the root of the Juneteenth conundrum; the difficulty of seeing and accepting Black Joy, not Black Excellence, not Black Girl Magic, or any other formulation of Blackness that requires Black folks to exhibit superhuman levels of suffering or perseverance in the face of oppression. Simply the human emotion of joy. 

So, when will Juneteenth be officially a part of the American consciousness? When I greet a random White gas station attendant with “Happy Juneteenth” and their response is “Thanks! You too.” But for that to happen the issues of slavery and systemic racism must be addressed honestly and justly which can’t be relegated yearly to feel-good discussions on MLK Day, the month of February or, now, Juneteenth.