Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Juneteenth, and the politics of erasure

This past Saturday was a holiday called Juneteenth, a holiday I hadn't heard of until this year. Juneteenth celebrates union soldiers arriving in Texas to enforce the emancipation proclamation on June 19th, 1865. It has become a celebration of emancipation and African American culture more broadly, and is celebrated all across the United States, Canada, and other areas of the African slave diaspora.

Readers of the feminist blogosphere might not know it was Juneteenth, however, because many bloggers decided to celebrate a different holiday: Helen Keller Mythbusting Day. June 19th is Helen Keller day is Second Life, and since many people with disabilities use Second Life, disabled and disabled ally feminist bloggers thought it would be nice to dovetail with that day and promote a more complete view of Helen Keller's life, namely that she was not simply a pseudo-saint who "overcame" a disability, but rather a person with a disability who was an activist, feminist, and fascinating individual.

It's a good idea, but in promoting this "day" on Juneteenth, without at least at the same time acknowledging the existing Juneteenth celebration, these bloggers sent a message that white readers and white readers with disabilities were a more important audience than black readers (disabled or not). I would have understood the oversight on the basis of not being aware of Juneteenth, as I was not (although one would think a little googling would be in order before declaring it a new holiday), but the woman who planned the event admitted she knew about Juneteenth beforehand, but thought the holidays could "share." Moreover, when confronted with this oversight, most of the bloggers reacted with defensiveness or silence, as opposed to admitting the mistake and acknowledging Juneteenth in their posts or comments on Helen Keller Mythbusting.

Being Jewish, I've dealt with more than my fair share of holiday erasure in my life, and I know how much it stings. These erasures have ranged from school events being scheduled on Yom Kippur, to having school breaks arranged around Christian holidays while I had to get a note to miss school on Jewish holidays, to people celebrating the "holidays" with red and green even when hosting a party during Chanukah (note: fine if your friends do it. Not so cool when your college does it). Each time people say "oh, we were optimizing for the majority of people," or "we can't accommodate everyone," or "it was a simple oversight," when what they mean is "you're not welcome here," or, "we didn't think you were important."

I'm not trying to make the case that events can be arranged around every holiday that people celebrate, or that celebrations can't overlap without eroding the meaning of one another. However, what I am saying is that co-scheduling with holidays without acknowledging it or considering the consequences sends the message that you don't believe the group being excluded to be part of your audience. If that's not the message you want to send, you might want to rethink things.

A little accommodation could range from saying, "We're sorry some people will not be able to attend due to x holiday, and an alternative activity will be scheduled for x date," mentioning the holiday and suggesting a co-celebration with a discussion of each topic, or asking someone, "Will you be able to attend if I plan this for x holiday?" since many holidays don't exclude other celebrations (such as Passover).

Have you experienced holiday erasure? Do you have any thoughts on avoiding while also accommodating the reality that there are only 365 days in the year?


  1. I used to be shy about telling people "happy holiday" on religious holidays that I didn't celebrate (e.g. Yom Kippur, Eid al Fitr, even Ghanian Independence Day). More lately I've decided people like it when their holiday gets noticed, so (as long as it's not awkward) I say happy everything.

    Thanks for the note on Juneteenth. Next year it's going in my facebook status.

  2. Thanks for the perspective. I think someone should note that the historic event commemorated took place on June 19th, 1865--not 1965.

  3. Thanks for the catch GH! I'll make the edit.


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