I love holidays and celebrations as much as the next person. Any time for happiness, joy, togetherness, food, and activities are times that should be treasured and valued; they are the times that feed our spirits. But the only holiday that I dislike deeply is Groundhog Day.
It's not necessarily the day itself but the concept of Groundhog Day as made fmous by the '90's movie In the film, the protagonist, the hilarious Bill Murry finds himself trapped in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over. And when I reflect on many of the "steps towards progress" made over the last couple of years, I can't help but think that I'm trapped in my own Groundhog Day story.
When it comes to furthering practices around anti-racism, oppression, diversity, equity, and inclusivity, I keep having the same conversations to no avail, to no understanding, and little resolution.
Last June of 2021, President Biden signed a bill to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Juneteenth is a special day celebrated on June 19th and commemorates the end of chattel slavery in the United States. Although slavery was abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, it wasn't until two years later that the news of freedom made its way to Galveston, Texas.
Though Juneteenth becoming a nationally recognized holiday is an achievement for representation, it doesn't stand as a testament to progress as some may wish.
A holiday seems like a step in the right direction, but ask yourself, "what does it solve?" Questioning its utility or benefit may appear harsh initially, but, simply put, a holiday wasn't on the list of demands.
Imagine this: you rent an apartment with a laundry list of issues. The water is brown, the heat doesn't work, the locks on the front doors and windows are broken, and the refrigerator doesn't keep food cold. Now, you take this list to your landlord, and they promise you they will fix the issues - or at least attempt to fix the problems. A week later, they come back and say they will declare the second Sunday of August as "Special Tenant Day" and have a party and pot luck in your favor in the communal room.
On the surface, it seems like a gracious gesture - they are celebrating you and throwing you a fabulous party. You should feel special, right? But when you go back home after the confetti is swept up and the Instapot has been put away, you still can't drink the water, store your food, or feel safe in your home.
Can you still look at that gesture as meaningful?
That's what making Juneteenth a national holiday was- that's what the majority of the "steps towards process" has been over the last few years. The Black/ African American community has had several urgent matters they've needed addressing, but they've been given nothing more than lip service - the same lip service - a Groundhogs Day of full words but hollow actions.
Over the last several years, these have been some of the most pressing topics:
- Police violence
- Food deserts (food insecurity)
- Bias in employment and housing
- A Grand Canyon of income and wealth disparity
But this is what the African American community has received:
- A holiday
- Taking Aunt Jemima off the pancake syrup bottle
- An attempt to stop referring to the master bedroom as the "master bedroom"
- A plethora of other hallow gestures
The activists and communities that voice their dissatisfaction with these gestures are not ungrateful, unappreciative, or insatiable; they just recognize a superficiality when they see it. They know that this supermarket sheet cake isn't going to clean their drinking water, assuage their fears and anxieties of law enforcement, or provide an education for their children in an environment that doesn't view them as aggressive, or incapable. Constructing a brighter, equitable, and fair future takes concrete and steel, plans of action, and strategy implementation. Not another date on the calendar.
The goal of our work is to create a better society, replace broken structures, disassemble and reconstruct defective systems, and heal those who have been harmed. "Doing DEI” does not mean creating a more comprehensive list of holidays to recognize; it means that we are actively moving from symbolic and programmatic activities to embedded, prioritized, measurable, and sustainable practices that touch every aspect of our organizations.
The impassioned response to these symbolic gestures is because these impactful concessions display an unwillingness to do the work that is necessary to truly dismantle oppressive systems and destructive norms. The crashing echo from emptiness in the words, words so full but lacking action, speaks volumes.
Every one of our American heroes, activists, leaders, and social movements has their memories saved in the halls of history because they created substantial, significant changes - changes that improved individual lives and our society as a whole. If Martin Luther King Jr. was content with and accepted a holiday or removing an image from a consumer good, where would we be? We could never have the civil rights act, which led to the voting rights act, which led to the immigration and nationality act.
So when we see these gestures in the media and from the companies and corporations looking for ways to become more inclusive, that seem well-intended and like a sizable progressive leap, ask yourself the utility and benefit of that gesture. Was this gesture asked for? Will this gesture affect the future in the most substantial and reformative way? Does this gesture lead to systemic action?
If the gesture isn't improving life, evolving our norms, or reconstructing an actual system then; it isn't enough. It’s time we put our heads back down and get to work.