Munroe Bergdorf: “Empowerment and inclusivity are not trends; these are people’s lives and experiences”

Photograph supplied by Munroe Bergdorf.

Munroe Bergdorf is shortlisted for our inaugural Gay Times Honours as a Future Fighter, precisely because of her no-holds-barred approach to calling out racism and prejudice, and for being an unapologetic voice for the trans community.

This week, The Daily Mail ran a story about comments Munroe made under the headline: “L’Oreal’s first transgender model claims ‘ALL white people’ are racist in extraordinary Facebook rant that could see her lose lucrative cosmetic campaign.”

Munroe, in her own words, would like to respond exclusively via Gay Times

First, let’s put my words in context, as the Daily Mail failed to do so. This ‘rant’ was a direct response to the violence of white supremacists in Charlottesville. It was not written this week.

Secondly, 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 you’re 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 – all 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.

We also live in a society where men are socialised to be sexist, women are socialised to be submissive, and gay people are socialised to be ashamed of their sexuality due to heterosexual people’s homophobia. Cisgender people are socialised to be transphobic. We do not need to be this way. We are not born this way and we can learn to reject it. We are socially conditioned to think this way from an early age. With the right education, empathy and open-mindedness we can unlearn these socialisations, appreciate the lived experiences of others and live a life free from oppression.

Related: US Defense Secretary stalls Donald Trump’s trans military ban

Photograph supplied by Munroe Bergdorf.

So, when a transgender woman of colour, who has been selected to front up a big brand’s campaign to combat discrimination and lack of diversity in the beauty industry speaks on her actual lived experience of being discriminated against because of her race and identifies the root of where that discrimination lies – white supremacy and systemic racism – that big brand cannot simply state that her thoughts are not “in line with the ethics of the brand”.

If you truly want equality and diversity, you need to actively work to dismantle the source of what created this discrimination and division in the first place. You cannot just simply cash in because you’ve realised there’s a hole in the market and that there is money to be made from people of colour who have darker skin tones.

The irony of all this is that L’Oréal Paris invited me to be part of a beauty campaign that “stands for diversity”. The fact that up until very recently, there has been next to no mainstream brands offering makeup for black women and ethnic minorities, is in itself due to racism within the industry. Most big brands did not want to sell to black women. Most big brands did not want to acknowledge that there was an entire demographic that was being ignored because they did not believe that there was money to be made in selling beauty products to ethnic minorities.

If L’Oréal Paris truly wants to offer empowerment to underrepresented women, then they need to acknowledge the reason why these women are underrepresented within the industry in the first place. This reason is discrimination – an action which punches down from a place of social privilege. We need to talk about why women of colour were and still are discriminated against within the industry, not just see them as a source of revenue.

Racism may be a jagged pill to swallow, but I suggest you force it down quickly if you want to be part of the solution. Doing nothing, does nothing and solves nothing. Empowerment and inclusivity are not trends, these are people’s lives and experiences. If brands are going to use empowerment as a tool to push product to people of colour, then the least they can do is actually work us to dismantle the source, not throw us under the bus when it comes to the crunch. At times like this, it becomes blindly obvious what is genuine allyship and what is performative.

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.



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