When Munroe Bergdorf was fired this year from a L'Oréal campaign for spotlighting white supremacy in a Facebook post, the social activist and transgender model used the blow to start an important, overdue dialogue about representation in the beauty industry.
The irony was crystal clear, as Bergdorf had been booked for L'Oréal's campaign as the "face of modern diversity," despite the brand ultimately silencing her for publicly voicing concerns about contemporary racism.
Bergdorf's declaration that "all white people are racist" attracted fierce criticism from individuals who deemed the statement too extreme, but instead of softening her stance, she stood her ground and used the backlash to shine an even brighter light on injustices facing people of color today.
Since the L'Oréal explosion, Bergdorf has used her visible platform to call out any ignorance she sees in fashion, from Dove's racist advertisment for body wash to Nivea's shameful glorification of skin whitening cream. She's become the industry's self-appointed watch dog—a role that's not merely beneficial, but absolutely vital.
OUT: As you've pointed out, "Diversity" has become something of a buzz word used throughout every major industry, from media to fashion to film. In all this noise, do you think there's any effective change being made?
Munroe Bergdorf: Absolutely. Representation and visibility of marginalised people within the media is very important, but so are brands not exploiting this need for diversity in exchange for a widening of their target audience. If brands are going to talk about diversity they also need to walk the walk. Tokenism is very different from diversity. Diversity is organic and authentic, and can only be achieved if the people behind the scenes are as diverse as those in front of the camera. The effective change being seen right now, is that people are starting to see through the moves of advertising agencies. Diversity is not skin deep, it's a movement because of deeply entrenched systemic oppression.
What's the biggest problem you see with this industry shift toward greater representation? Biggest opportunity?
The biggest problem is viewing diversity as a trend. Equality is not a trend. A seat at the table is not a trend. People want and deserve to see themselves in advertising, a medium which we often consume unknowingly. So when it comes to aspirational imagery or beauty standards or gender roles, we need to be mindful about the messages that are being put out there. They need to be varied, positive and accurate. The biggest opportunity is that it's giving previously overlooked communities a voice. People are finally getting a chance to share their stories or to see people they can relate to on screen. This can only be a positive thing as we have so much to learn from each other. Our beauty is in our differences.
You've been one of the most vocal, visible critics of the beauty industry. Why is this so important to you?
It's important to me because I have worked so hard to be who I am today. My confidence, my self-worth and how I see myself in the mirror have all improved since rejecting society's unattainable beauty standards. I was constantly being fed a message of what my skin should look like, what my hair should look like, what my body should look like. It's exhausting, especially when you're transgender, as you're expected to adhere to these standards. So when I was given a platform to talk about why things need to change, I spoke up. The beauty industry isn't going anywhere and it doesn't need to. But what it does need to do is become more inclusive and ethical, both in message and practice.
How do you stay positive amidst hate, both online and offline?
Really it all comes down to what you think of yourself. In this society, women especially are subjected to constant criticism. There's a constant pressure to be all things at once and when a woman doesn't live up to that standard, she's either seen as a failure, undesirable or uncontrollable. Unfortunately society loves to put us in boxes, so when you break out of that box or stop making yourself smaller, it's often met with resistance. It is so important that women build a foundation for themselves—a foundation and support network that allows them to thrive as their true selves. This is largely down to who you have around you, who can you lean on when times get tough. I'm lucky to have a great support network, but it's something that I have consciously put in place. You are the company you keep—friendship and sisterhood especially is so important to me.
How do you think conversations that happen online can have a tangible impact offline?
I think online spaces allow people to speak more candidly. Hash tags allow messages and movements to spread quickly and can help grab the attention of the mainstream press. Conversations online have also allowed us to develop the language that we use to speak about certain issues. This allows us to have a greater understanding of the world that we live in. So many amazing things have come out of Internet conversations, from #blacklivesmatter to #metoo. It's a new way for people to come together to highlight injustice.
You're very public about your identity, sexuality and opinions. How do you hope this will contribute to greater conversations about gender, about race, about visibility?
I'm open with all of my intersections because that's the kind of person I've always been. But I don't think that anyone should feel a pressure to disclose their identity unless they feel safe or happy to do so. I speak about what makes me me because I know that it empowers others and I want to be the girl others look up to because I never had that growing up. I'm not perfect, but I'm human and I'm living my authentic self to the fullest. So if I'm open about being a transgender, sexually fluid and a proud black woman, I hope others can find strength in that energy, like I've found from the women who inspire me today.
How can the LGBTQ community better dismantle racism within the community and outside the community?
I think we need to begin having an open and honest conversation about the extent of racism within the LGBTQ community. Especially within the gay community. The fact that "no blacks, no femmes, no Asians" is so widely seen as acceptable to put on dating apps is horrendous. We all have our sexual type and that's fine, but discriminating against an entire race is coming from somewhere else entirely. Race is not a preference. You have not possibly met every black man on the planet to know that you find all black men unattractive. You find all black men unattractive because of your racist ideals. Gay media only up until recently has held up the image of a white, masc, muscular, cis male as the standard of beauty that is most desirable and therefore the most represented. Our community is so varied and diverse, the media needs to reflect that. We also need to stop putting ourselves into such rigid boxes. You can be trans and be butch, you can be a lesbian and be femme, you can be masculine but enjoy the feminine. Our community is so progressive, but subscribing to the confines of these unnecessary gender roles is holding our community back.
This year was incredibly formative for your career. What did you learn from your experiences, and how have they affected your goals moving forward?
I've learned that I'm a lot stronger than I thought I was. Looking back, I'm not sure how I mustered the strength to get out of bed and fight though the storm. But the fact that I did, without representation at first, makes me feel that now I can do anything I set my mind to. It's reminded me to not let others define who I am. It's opened my eyes to a lot, largely to be mindful of what I give my attention and energy to—that human behaviour is highly complex and that events signify deeper social issues. What happened to me wasn't so much about me, it was to do with the fact that so many people do not understand what modern day racism is.
Why do you think it's so difficult for white people to admit they're all inherently racist?
I think it's hard for white people to admit to it because I don't think the majority are aware of it or understand what racism is in a modern context. Racism now is not the same racism in 1950, which is what most white people are taught is what racism still is. Racism is nuanced and insidious—it isn't just walking up to a person and calling them the n-word. Racism thrives in systems and institutions that are built to prioritise the needs of white people above any other race. White people find this difficult to talk about or acknowledge because unless you are a person of color, you will not have ever experienced your race continuously being used against you when it comes to accessing housing, employment, credit or healthcare. There is a great sense of guilt when bringing up racism with white people who are unaware of systemic racism because in saying "white people" they hear it as a personal attack, rather than the acknowledgement of who racism benefits. Once we are all on the same page about where racism comes from and who stands to gain from it, we can start to dismantle it, but it'll take all of us to do that. The white people who continue to push back against this do not realise that they are in turn helping to uphold white supremacy, but they refuse to see it.
For people who don't have as big a platform as you, what advice do you have for them to become more potent activists, even if it's on a smaller scale?
Activism can be as large or small as you feel you are able to take on. It comes with a great amount of emotional labor, so my main advice would be to make sure you are kind to yourself. Take regular small breaks from activism once you get started, you're no use to others if you burn out. Don't lead from the ego, but remember you're a whole person, you are not the movement, you are a cog within a movement.
Photography: Lefteris Primos