Munroe Bergdorf this week made history, becoming L'Oréal's first transgender model. Now they have fired her, for speaking out about racism. It's a disgrace.
Munroe Bergdorf this week made history, becoming L'Oréal's first transgender model. Now they have fired her simply for speaking out about racism, and it's a disgrace, explains Travis Alabanza.
This past week, I have had glimpses of Black joy. I’ve seen moments of sisterly solidarity as I danced around, looking at my iPhone screen. I saw Munroe Berdgorf make history by becoming the first openly transgender model for L’Oréal cosmetics.
As a black trans person, watching and seeing a friend and inspiration be celebrated, centred and highlighted is an affirming feeling that is all too rare today. Although I know these campaigns will not get us our liberation, it’s these moments of celebration that can often bring respite and smiles to a community which is often left feeling so low. The news is so often morbid, hard to read – a depressing reality that faces so many trans people of colour.
This explains the disgust, horror and anger I felt when I logged into Facebook this morning and saw the Daily Mail headline: “First Transgender Model claims ALL white people are racist.” I felt a familiar sinking feeling in my stomach. We had seen this before, and it was about to happen again.
I didn’t need to read the article to know what it would be saying. The Daily Mail has a history of smearing activists, public figures and artists of colour, using dug up screenshots from their personal Facebook profiles – often taken out of context – to create bullshit claims intended to smear their character.
I knew that this article from the Daily Mail wouldn’t care about Munroe’s intelligent, well-constructed (and true) analysis of white supremacy: how all of us are born into it, how ALL white people need to unlearn it, and how being racist is something we have to consciously unlearn rather than something we opt into. No, nuance is always lost on the Daily Mail. They don’t care about context or actual journalism. They gleefully and grotesquely champion a product that is made to slander outspoken people of colour.
What we need to talk about, though, are the material and real effects this has on people of colour within the public eye. How (particularly when you’re also queer, trans, and a women) this creates an impossible tightrope of trying to stay true to yourself while avoiding media backlashes, loss of work, and hateful online trolling.
Constantly we watch on as activists and public figures of colour are sent death threats and abuse on social media as they talk about racism openly. Racism they experience. Racism they understand.
We watch figures from Dianne Abbot to Jason Osamede Okundaye to Chardine Taylor-Stone, in all different spheres of work and public life, constantly having to negotiate the difficult task of speaking out and then facing the backlash. What we fail to realise is that this is a real effect of white supremacy, and white privilege enacting on people of colour. The effects this has on the mental health of people of colour in the public eye is draining, but it also leads them to lose work (and therefore finances and future opportunities).
L’Oréal posted a tweet this morning in response to the Daily Mail’s article, saying that “they champion diversity” and that Munroe’s comments are at odds with “their values.” They have now stopped working with her.
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.
— L'Oréal Paris UK (@LOrealParisUK) September 1, 2017
With this, we see the devastating effects of white fragility, white censorship and the white media. It makes it clear that these brands, who are so quick to jump on the “diversity” bandwagon, are only happy when the conversation happens in a way they command [read: find palatable]. It is not diversity that they are championing – just an easily packaged version of our real identities. When we show any deviance from their model, they are happy to discard us.
Instead of L’Oréal using this moment to address, talk about and actually champion the voices of trans women of colour, they buckle and crumble under the pressure of white tears. This is a reminder to us of the reality of these brands. They do not really care about us, they do not really care about our liberation, our freedom or our safety. We are only “in vogue” with them when we pander to their rules, silence our voices, and remain polite.
I end with words from Munroe, summing up painfully but perfectly the blinding irony of both the Daily Mail, the supporters of the article, and L’Oréal too:
“If L’Oréal truly wants to offer empowerment to underrepresented women, they need to acknowledge the reason why these women are underrepresented within the industry in the first place. The 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.”