White FiltersTech Companies Are Butchering Juneteenth

(Photo credit: Thought Catalog/Unsplash)

“Facebook has a problem with Black people,” Jessica Guynn wrote in USA Today in 2018. “That’s the assessment of Mark Luckie, a former employee who says racial discrimination is real, both on the company’s Silicon Valley campus and on the social media giant’s platform.” Fast forward two years, and Facebook is celebrating Juneteeth, which commemorates June 19, 1865, the day that enslaved people in Texas were informed that the Civil War was over, the Emancipation Proclamation had passed, and slavery was over. “To honor #Juneteenth, we’re taking time to become better listeners and greater-informed individuals, so we’re more equipped to take action. This won’t be a conversation reserved for one day, it’s one we’ll continue having until racial injustice is no longer a reality,” a tweet from Facebook read. They also shared that they’re offering a Lift Black Voices hub on the Facebook app, as well as a Racial Justice Guide on Instagram.

But this celebration doesn’t mean that racism and anti-Blackness is over within the realm of Facebook or in similar tech companies. According to its 2019 diversity report, Facebook is 44 percent white and 63 percent male. Like other tech companies, Facebook has a whiteness problem, but it’s still electing to celebrate the holiday, which, until today, flew under the radar for non-Black communities. Though Black communities, especially in Oklahoma and Texas, have long held Juneteenth celebrations and parades, a CNN Business article notes that for the first time, dozens of companies, ranging from Nike to Twitter, observed June 19 as a holiday and offered it as a paid day off.

In a memo, Snapchat’s chief executive officer Evan Spiegel said, “I am heartbroken and enraged by the treatment of Black people and people of color in America.” Then, Snapchat offered the “Juneteenth filter” in which users, standing in front of a Pan-African flag, must smile to break the chains that appear onscreen. Snapchat quickly removed the filter as users complained across social media about the insensitivity of the offering; Spiegel later called it a “mistake” that wasn’t meant to go live. Though Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced on June 9 that the company’s employees would be off on Junteenth, he’s also failed to remove Nazis from Twitter, choosing to blame users who don’t report them instead.

And, on June 18, when Trump shared a video of a fake CNN segment about a “racist baby,” all Twitter did was mark it with a “misinformation” tag. Twitter is still aiming to have a 5 percent Black and Latinx workforce, though they haven’t yet achieved this goal. So, what’s the end game? In 2018, Snapchat and Instagram removed Giphy from their platforms due to gifs having racial slurs; the 2018 Google Walkout was fueled by systemic sexual harassment and racism; in 2019, WeWork employees formed a coalition that demanded diversity and inclusion training. Tech companies are trying to offer their own take on celebrating the holiday, but given tech’s entrenched whiteness and their seeming inability to commemorate the date in appropriate ways, it’s worth asking: Why are tech companies celebrating Juneteenth?

Tech isn’t hopeless, but fixing its problems will take more than a simple Snapchat filter or offering a day off.

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“It has proven difficult for the industry to break from its roots, and a history of products made by a certain kind of person for a certain kind of person,” Aarian Marshall and Arielle Pardes wrote in a June 1 piece for Wired. The tech bubble is as real as it is white—Silicon Valley has been called “Segregated Valley”—and deciding to tackle anti-Blackness in a moment where racial tensions are extremely heightened is a bold move, even as consumers increasingly demand that companies publicly state their stance on white supremacy, systemic racism, and police brutality. In 2019, Leslie Miley, who’s Black and was formerly Google’s engineering director, raised awareness about  racism in tech with #BiasInBadging, which started a conversation about the ways that employees and security officers deny tech workers the right to enter their place of employment because of the assumption that they couldn’t possibly work there.

At the 2016 Tech Inclusion Conference in San Francisco, Miley explained, “If [diversity] were any other product in tech, it would be killed by now.” Celebrating Juneteenth doesn’t undo all of the harm tech inflicts on Black people and people of color, both inside and outside of their companies. Given this, anything less than structural and cultural change isn’t enough. Giving largely white companies a day off just means that white people are able to take a day to relax while Black people continue to face violence via the very platforms they create. “Recognition of such a historic day is good,” Megan Rose Dickey wrote in Tech Crunch. “But the way these companies are publicly announcing their plans, seeking press as they do, suggests their need for some affirmative pat on the back. It’s perfectly acceptable to do the right thing and not get credit for it. It shows humility. It shows that a company is more interested in doing right by its workers than it is in saving face.” Tech isn’t hopeless, but fixing its problems will take more than a simple Snapchat filter or offering a day off. If tech companies are going to step up and attempt to navigate their own anti-Blackness and the racism built into their products, culture, and physical locations, they need to commit to it for the long haul—not just for the next week or so while their consumers are watching.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.