Munroe Bergdorf has had a whirlwind of a week.
The London-based DJ and activist had just become the first trans woman to be featured in a L’Oréal UK campaign when she was dragged into an ugly tabloid controversy. Bergdorf wasn’t caught doing anything harmful, salacious, or remotely criminal. She had simply written a Facebook post calling out the violence of white supremacy and the realities of white privilege in light of the events in Charlottesville, VA.
The Daily Mail found the post, stripped it of its Charlottesville context and wrote a screeching article about what it deemed Bergdorf’s “extraordinary rant.” On Friday, after a media firestorm, L’Oréal announced it was no longer working with Bergdorf, stating that her comments were “at odds with” its values. Plenty saw through L’Oréal’s shortsighted and disappointing PR move, but the damage was already done.
It is an absolute spectacle to witness a woman who was hired to increase diversity then be fired in the name of diversity for speaking out against white supremacy, largely because a media outlet took parts of her anti-racism post out of context in order to construct a stereotypical “angry black woman” persona, which of course is rooted in racism. Bergdorf’s situation uniquely showed the hollowness of so many corporate diversity pushes and revealed exactly how the media (particularly the British media) really feels about race. She gave us a rare glimpse at how the lives and bodies of people of color and LGBTQ people are consumed by brands and then spat back up by the media when they aren’t palatable enough for the brands. And now she’s giving us an Olivia Pope-style crash course in how to reclaim your narrative.
I can’t imagine how one would deal with this. In a telephone interview from her home in London yesterday, Bergdorf told me she’s not really dealing with it at all. “I’m kind of just living in a bubble, not looking at what anyone’s writing,” she said.
Of course it’s hard to tell that she’s in a bubble given Bergdorf’s numerous media appearances on British media, taking every single opportunity to undo the damage the press has done. She has talked with the Guardian, has appeared on Channel 4 News, and even attempted to have a civil conversation with Piers Morgan, whose career consists of degrading women and people of color.
But Munroe does have an ulterior motive for these appearances aside from demonstrating that she’s not the “angry black woman” the media has lazily made her out to be. She’s trying to use what happened to her as a case study to educate audiences on exactly how white supremacy works. “I don’t want to be a tabloid queen. I don’t want to be all over the Daily Mail,” Bergdorf told me. “I just want to put out there what I think is right, and what I know is right, speaking about things that I’ve learned, books that I’ve read, stuff I’ve researched, and just leaving it out there.”
I chatted with Bergdorf about L’Oréal, whether meaningful corporate allyship is even possible, and dismantling white supremacy. And while she’s certainly in the thick of this whole media cycle, it’s clear she’s making the most of it.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
This past week, it seems like you have been the media’s unofficial critical race theory professor.
It’s so weird because I’m not even getting into the complicated stuff. It’s really quite basic stuff, but they don’t understand that when I say ‘white people’ I don’t mean them as a person. I don’t mean my mother, I don’t mean my flatmate, I don’t mean Britney Spears. I mean white people as a social construct that isn’t real. It’s a power.
I guess also speaking about the same thing, and going over the same points with journalists has clarified a lot in my head in how much people just don’t really get this. I need to balance educating people that don’t get it, and then moving things forward for people who do get it.
Do you think you’re reaching new people? Do you think it’s working?
I think when people read the tabloids they kind of just saw ‘angry black woman,’ or ‘crazy person’ or ‘someone who wants attention.’ The press sort of forced my hand, and I had no choice but to go out and do those interviews because I thought that that’s the only way that people are going to see that I can actually put my arguments together and that it’s not just coming from a random rant. I’m just sick and tired of watching society tear us apart.
It seems very difficult to break out of a role that the media has so easily and quickly cast you in.
The press has been having a field day with this and trying to turn this into tabloid fodder. This is really important. This is people’s lives. It speaks volumes that the right-wing media has turned this into a scandal, they’ve turned it into entertainment. For people who it actually affects, it isn’t entertaining. This is really infuriating, it’s triggering, and it’s causing a conversation within POC communities. We need to think about where to go from here because it’s really highlighted the fact that white people just don’t know what racism is. They’re doing it without realizing it, and this whole situation has proven everything I said to be true.
What have the responses been like?
It’s really fifty-fifty.
You get people that have threatened to kill me. I’m getting people saying that I should be lynched. It’s really quite bad. I cried last night because it made me so upset. It got to me. The other half is parents of kids saying, ‘I’m so thankful that you’re putting this out there, that it’s in pop culture. This is a palatable way to show my children how the media treated people that speak out about race.’ And it’s not only education in race, it’s education in media. It’s really clear to see how the media has been divided by this. I don’t think it’s divided the media, it’s just highlighted the divide.
This week you re-tweeted Lorde, who, after Charlottesville, essentially said the same thing about white people that you did but received a very different response. What does that say about who has access to the conversation about racism?
It all boils down to privilege, doesn’t it? If a white person speaks about race, then they’re woke. If they’re attractive then they’re woke bae. And if it’s a black person speaking about racism, then they’re angry. I have privilege in that this is only a story because I worked with L’Oreal.
There’s this knee-jerk reaction that when you say that someone is being racist, they take it as an insult instead of reflecting on why their behavior is racist. People think that calling them racist is racist in itself.
It’s like identifying the abuse and then saying that you’re the abuser for identifying the abuse. It makes no sense. Whiteness doesn’t exist. Neither does blackness. Blackness only exists because whiteness exists. Whiteness was a conscious creation.
There was a time when Irish people weren’t seen as white, but then they were accepted into whiteness. If you can be accepted into whiteness, then whiteness doesn’t exist. It’s the same with different races such as East Asian and South Asian and how they can be anti-black because they’re trying to be accepted into this concept of whiteness and assimilation. But it’s all just a power structure.
Right, it’s the model minority thing that seeks acknowledgement from whiteness.
If you have a person of color that’s trying to dismantle that power structure, the knee-jerk reaction is to say, no, this is a two-way street, you’re being racist. It’s a complete disregard for the fact that this is not an equal playing field. It doesn’t punch across, it punches downwards.
So what does dismantling white supremacy look like? Or how can we maybe at least make a dent?
It’s difficult because it can be so insidious. I think it can be so little as just checking in with your friends who aren’t white, seeing how they are, seeing what they’re comfortable with. I think on a very basic level, it’s just listening. When someone says they’re not comfortable with something, taking that on board and not participating in that.
When I say dismantling racism, it’s picking apart culture, and it’s realizing where things come from. It’s not just taking things for what they are. You need to look at why we have situations within society, and how can we get past it. It’s dismantling the class divide. We saw that with [the fire at] Grenfell Tower, looking at what we can do within communities, looking what you can do with your neighbors, looking what you can do with your friends. We can all do more, you know, it’s not just white people. It’s black people as well, but the difference is that white people are the ones with the power. When you’ve got this oppressor there’s only so much you can do.
It’s acknowledging that there is a power divide, and recognizing where there’s lack of diversity, giving people of color equal chances, and making sure that you have a diverse workforce, making sure that you aren’t making language that stems from racism.
What does allyship look like at a corporate level? L’Oréal obviously dropped the ball here, but is it even possible for a brand to be a successful ally?
Yeah, can diversity and capitalism coexist? It’s difficult because we’ve all got to eat and fashion and makeup industries are capitalist. But the best thing that I can think of is buying items from black-owned businesses, and not being involved with unethical brands. In retrospect, L’Oreal wasn’t the most ethical brand I could have been involved with. I did it because I wanted to provide visibility to trans women. It was an amazing opportunity, and I did it from that perspective.
At the same time, I thought that L’Oréal knew who I was. It’s not like I changed as a person. I’ve been this person for a very long time, and I’ve had these views for a very long time. I thought they had done their homework, and I guess they hadn’t. It kind of shows that brands are all up for hiring the idea of diversity but actually not following through. You’re not really allowed to speak your mind.
And now you’re paying the price for it.
It makes me really worried about my future as well because there’s so much that people already think before you meet them when you’re a woman of color and obviously when you’re trans as well. I went on every single major news channel just to debunk the idea that I’m not an angry black woman, which is not something I should have to do.
But also I’m transgender, and need to debunk the fact that I’m not crazy. It’s like constantly trying to impress the master. It’s trying to impress your oppressor. It’s really weirdly messed up. Essentially I’m the slave that decided to run away, and it really is that mentality: ‘How dare you speak outside of the cage.’ So I don’t really know how far activism and capitalism can coexist. You only need to look at this campaign and the Pepsi campaign and see that it didn’t work. I don’t really know it will ever really work.
I knew that brands weren’t going to be happy with me being really super loud with my activism, but even that just shows you can’t really say what you want to say when you’ve signed a check.
L’Oréal’s public statement about the situation was that they fired you because they champion diversity and didn’t stand by your comments. What did they tell you?
They basically told me the same thing, that they can’t stand by my words. I was literally saying why we need diversity. But they decided to go with the tabloids. I think they just panicked. They thought there was going to be a backlash and that they were going to lose more money. I think people just saw straight through it.
You have always spread a message of self-empowerment and self-love. How has this whole situation impacted that or recontextualized that message?
It’s forced me to change in the space of a week. Because I need to think outside of just my thoughts. I think this story has resonated with so many people. It’s really made me think, OK, don’t just say what you think, you need to think about a solution. Because so many people feel this way, how can we get past it? What is the next step? It’s really forced me to think about how I can bring about change rather than just call things out.