Here's Why Everyone Is Talking About Transgender Model Munroe Bergdorf
The Debrief: The trans model was fired last week after a Facebook post about institutionalised racism
Last week, with a deservedly big splash, transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf was announced as one of the new faces of L’Oréal’s True Match foundation. Simultaneously, she became the global beauty giant’s first ever transgender model in what was undoubtedly a landmark moment for the beauty industry.
Within days, however, Bergdorf had been dropped by the company after The Daily Mail unearthed a post she wrote in the aftermath of the white supremacist and Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Racism is being aware ... and not doing anything about it.”— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) September 2, 2017
Transgender model Munroe Bergdorf says racism is systemic in modern society. pic.twitter.com/HcRrFDCmmq
In the post she talked about institutionalised racism and how that affects the dynamics of inter-racial relations in our society today. Many of the concepts she dealt with are generally accepted today: white people benefit from racism because society is, inherently, racist. This is known, broadly, as white privilege. Perhaps this line of thinking seems radical to the Daily Mail’s readers, but it is hardly new. It’s the same thing that Peggy McIntosh spoke about in the late 80s when her essay ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’ first appeared in Peace and Freedom Magazine. It is also what a more recently published book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, written by Reni Eddo-Lodge, deals with at length.
Munroe’s now deleted Facebook post was not published in full by The Daily Mail, instead, they selected sections of it in order to present her words as an ‘anti-white’ rant as opposed to rightly contextualising it as a response to the abhorrent and racist events in Charlottesville. The Mail focussed on Munroe’s use of the phrases ‘all white people are racist’, ‘all white people benefit from racism’ in an attempt to cast the model herself as racist.
Bergdorf posted a clarification which explained:
‘…identifying that the success of the British Empire has been at the expense of the people of colour, is not something that should offend ANYONE. It is a fact. It happened. Slavery and colonialism, at the hands of white supremacy, played a huge part in shaping the United Kingdom and much of the west, into the super power that it is today.’
‘Whether aware of it or not, in today's society the lighter your skin tone (people of colour included) the more social privileges you will be afforded. Whether that's access to housing, healthcare, employment or credit. A person's race and skin tone has a HUGE part to play in how they are treated by society as a whole, based on their proximity to whiteness.’
‘When I stated that "all white people are racist", I was addressing that fact that western society as a whole, is a SYSTEM rooted in white supremacy - designed to benefit, prioritise and protect white people before anyone of any other race. Unknowingly, white people are SOCIALISED to be racist from birth onwards. It is not something genetic. No one is born racist.’
L’Oréal’s response so far has been only: ‘L’Oréal champions diversity. Comments by Munroe Bergdorf are at odds with our values and so we have decided to end our partnership with her.’
In the wake of their decision, L’Oréal has been accused of being tone deaf while celebrities, including another L’Oréal representative, Radio One’s Clara Amfo, and media outlets across the world have come out in support of Bergdorf. GalDem ran a piece with the headline ‘Munroe Bergdorf Is Speaking Up For Black People Everywhere’ and the hashtags #boycottloreal and #Istandwithmunroe began appearing across all social media platforms.
Not even a week ago I was proud to announce that I was to be in the same campaign as Munroe. A trans woman of colour who @lorealmakeup hired to sell make up because of who she is. Who she is, a woman who wrote a nuanced post on institutional racism and white supremacy in relation to Charlottesville and how the foundations of those heinous ideals trickle in to every facet of our society. A newspaper took her post out of context and span it as "a rant" □ with the most basic of dog whistle politics to rally people against her. She has now been dropped from the campaign because L'Oreal feel that she is "at odds with our values".....If she's not "worth it" anymore, I guess I'm not either. #IStandWithMunroe
Bergdorf told Chanel 4 News that she has received death threats, abuse and rape threats in the aftermath of The Daily Mail’s decision to publish excerpts from her original post. This isn’t the first incident of this kind. Earlier this year The Mail on Sunday quotes tweets from Jason Osamede Kyndaye, President of Cambridge University’s BME campaign in which he said ‘all white people are racist’. He subsequently received abuse and threats to his life. Nor is it the first time a global multi-national company has been at odds with contemporary thinking on race. It was only very recently that Pepsi faced severe criticism which ended in them being forced to pull an advert featuring Kendall Jenner after they carelessly appropriated imagery from anti-police brutality protests in order to sell their product.
While the L’Oréal/Bergdorf/white privilege debacle is not the same, there are distinct similarities. A company hired a trans model and activist to promote diversity and, ultimately, boost their sales. When it became clear that their new representative held views which were not anodyne and amenable to everyone, they quickly reacted and dropped her for fear of controversy. What this belies, as the Pepsi incident also demonstrated, is a fundamental understanding gap between the experience of racism as people of colour encounter it on a daily basis, championing diversity in advertising and what it’s actually going to take to solve the problem once and for all.
‘I stand for tolerance and acceptance - but neither can be achieved if we are unwilling to discuss WHY intolerance and hate exist in the first place’, Bergdorf wrote in her statement of clarification. You could draw a parallel with sexism in society today. Any woman who has ever been on the receiving end of sexual harassment, sexism at work or in a public place knows when they are on the receiving end of it. However, sexism doesn’t come with signposts and it’s not always easy to highlight it and say ‘you’re being sexist’. If you do, you may be met with resistance or, even, accused of being aggressive and hysterical. We all know that men benefit from sexism and patriarchy while women not only suffer physical and verbal aggression as a result but are penalised financially in a world which still legitimises men earning more than women. The same is true for racism, hence McIntosh’s metaphor of ‘the invisible knapsack’.
Racism is no different. One group benefits, while another suffers. It may be uncomfortable to deal with the statement ‘white people benefit from racism’ but is it any different to acknowledging that men benefit from sexism? Prejudice is always ingrained, institutional and insidious and this is why uncomfortable facts truths have to be acknowledged before progress can be achieved. We should remember that men once campaigned against women being allowed the vote. Nor should we forget that white people fought against the abolition of slavery, indeed America went to war with itself because of it.
Race still determines success in Britain last year the Office for National Statistics found a 23% gap in hourly pay between black and white university graduates. They also released data which shows that black graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts.
But, if you need further proof that racism and sexism are structural, continually upheld by our society then consider this: Johnny Depp can physically abuse his spouse and still appear in adverts but if you are a trans woman of colour a Facebook post about the realities of structural racism will cause you to lose your job.
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