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Your “Juneteenth” is Not Welcome

Dear Ted Harris: Black folks don’t want your culturally-appropriated ice cream. If you want to promote real emancipation, there’s something else you can do.

There is no “great value” in appropriating culture, Ted Harris. It’s just another supremacist power play.

Social media was swift in expressing its outrage over the cultural appropriation of a “Juneteenth” ice cream popping up in WalMart (blech!) stores this week — its red velvet and cheesecake swirled flavors billed as a celebration of “African American culture, emancipation and enduring hope.”

How can it possibly be any of those things when the word “Juneteenth” was being trademarked (read: co-opted, stolen) by some white dude named Ted Harris, the board chairman & chief executive officer of the multi-billion-dollar Balchem corporation. Ain’t nothing celebratory about white folks yet again taking something that belongs to or was created by Black people (Read: rock n’ roll, hair styles, hair products, our cultural clothing styles and foods; our land, our lips, our hips…hip hop!) and profiting from it.

Harris, according to Atlanta trademark attorney LaDawn Blackett Jones (@lbjtok), applied to trademark “Juneteenth” on September 2, 2021 several months after Joe Biden instituted June 19th as a national holiday — the date commemorating the emancipation of African-Americans from enslavement — to be used as “Flavor enhancers used in food and beverage products; Bakery goods and dessert items, namely cakes, cookies, pastries, and frozen confections for retail and wholesale distribution and consumption on or off the premises.”

After some further digging, it doesn’t appear that Harris or Balchem has attempted to trademark Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Halloween, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, or the 4th of July.

So, why Juneteenth?

Because it’s a Black thing…and it’s now in fashion.

The application from Balchem Corporation to trademark “Juneteenth.”

Although Black people have been celebrating Juneteenth for generations, the majority of Americans had never heard of the holiday until 2020 following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others, and the protests that raged throughout the summer of 2020 seeking racial justice and prompting racial reckonings within institutions, organizations and companies across the country. The call for change was loud and clear.

Yet, it is not “hope” but rather more of the same bullshit when we see, once again, what is ours used to advance the wealth and regard of white folks. Of course, part of the American experiment has always been dependent on crushing the bodies and souls of Black people.

As a republic founded on the self-evident truths that “all men are created equal; endowed by their creator with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” this powerful philosophically and moral foundation was authored by — and for — rich, white land-owning, slave-owning men who never considered people of color or women to be privy to those constitutional freedoms…and women still aren’t until the ERA becomes law.

But I digress.

In her 2020 essay for The Helm, Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, this supremist “power play” is how white people have long capitalized on Black culture: “There is a saying that goes “Ghetto until proven fashionable.” From gold hoop earrings to long acrylic nails and cornrow braids, various aspects of everyday Black culture often start with derogatory criticism until the white gaze finds value in and ultimately capitalizes on it,” she writes.

In 2014, there was Khloe Kardashian putting bantu knots in her hair, meanwhile, a nine-year-old student was told her own afro puffs were “unacceptable” and violated the school dress code. In 2016 there was Marc Jacobs sending white models down the runway in dreadlocks, despite Black women being discriminated against for the same “unprofessional” hairstyle. In 2017, there was the Gucci vs. Dapper Dan controversy, where the conversation of appropriation was jolted into the mainstream after several fans of the Harlem designer recognized his style of clothing walking down the Gucci runway. Eventually, Gucci partnered directly with Dapper Dan and many viewed this as a “gift” from the Italian fashion house, but in reality, it was what was owed to him for the value that Gucci reaped from his intellectual property and unofficial creative consultation. And then in 2019, there was the Sephora and Moschino collaboration for an office supply-themed makeup line that was a direct replication of The Crayon Case beauty brand founded by Raynell “Supa Cent” Steward.

Cargle, in her instruction to entrepreneurs on their role preserving another’s culture, sheds light on how corporations can also show up in partnership and as allies in business:

Consider the bigger picture. Alongside customary “product-market fit” research, invest your time and money into cultural considerations of your product or service. Ask yourself: How did this particular thing I want to sell (or “reinvent”) even come into existence? Whose culture developed — and has depended on — this product or service before me? Do I or others on my team hold any privileges over that specific group (i.e. race, class, ability, etc.)? Should I be the one to honor what they already introduced to the world? How can I ensure that I share profit with the ones who set the stage for this product in the first place? How can I give credit where credit is due?

While I’ll bet a billion dollars that Harris never asked himself any of these questions, there was also no one among Harris’s leadership team who could have suggested that branding and attempting to trademark a “Juneteenth” ice cream was not only a super bad idea, but is racially inflammatory, culturally bigoted and highly insensitive and an incredibly tone-deaf business move.

Among the five corporate leaders listed on Balchem’s website, all — including Harris’ general counsel — are like Harris: white and male (and likely very wealthy). The Board of Directors for the company is equally white, and male with the exception of two women, one of whom, is Asian American.

It’s this lack of accountability that is at the root of the appropriation problem. Cargle writes: “Patriarchal and racist systems that were put into place centuries ago continue to affect how all of us live; these systems give some people a leg-up in opportunity (think men and the gender gap) and others a barriered pathway (think inner-city kids and underfunded school systems).”

There is a need for us to demand more from corporations and entrepreneurs, but also to be faithful consumers of brands that uplift and support Black creators and causes; that provide fair-trade and ethically sourced products from African countries. Could we drive a little further or dig a little deeper into our wallets to support small Black business owners, as I was discussing the other day with Gail Hawkins of Cultural Interiors, my neighborhood gift and interior design shop.

Her business, which has been around for more than 20 years, was thriving during the height of the pandemic and racial unrests in 2020 by those wanting to show their support for Black businesses. Two years later, as things are “getting back to normal,” she sits alone in her quiet, beautiful shop wondering where’s the love gone?

African Americans own approximately 124,551 of U.S. businesses (including a heap of new ice cream shops like All Chill in Leimert Park) according to the latest census data. But that represents about three percent of all businesses in nationwide.

The problem with the capitalism is the belief that resources are scarce. Cooperation allows for abundance. So, I challenge Balchem’s Ted Harris — and the other Ted Harris’ out there: Rather than continuing to take from Black folks, put some real investment into small Black businesses and communities. Partner in communities of color. Get to know the people you’re appropriating from and spread that wealth around — you might learn something even more valuable than a dollar. At least, that’s my “enduring hope.”

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