Spokesmodel, not silenced model, Munroe Bergdorf spoke her piece
Sit. Pose. Look pretty. Keep mum about systemic racism and colonial rule. Collect your coins. Rinse. Repeat. If L’Oreal Paris’s leadership expected Black transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf to blindly follow brand messaging without blasting whiteness and its effects on people of color, they learned quickly Bergdorf was not going out like that.
They also learned one firm’s presumptively seen-but-not-heard model is another company’s warmly embraced spokesmodel. British company, and L’Oreal competitor, Illamasqua, made Bergdorf the face of its gender fluidity campaign after L’Oreal Paris fired Bergdorf for critiquing white violence and complicity in systems of oppression. She called out white supremacy after the horrific unite-the-right gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia.
According to Daily Mail, in a now-deleted post Bergdorf wrote: “Honestly I don’t have energy to talk about the racial violence of white people any more. Yes ALL white people. ‘Because most of ya’ll don’t even realise or refuse to acknowledge that your existence, privilege and success as a race is built on the backs, blood and death of people of colour. Your entire existence is drenched in racism.”
Her remarks gained both positive and negative traction.
However when the Daily Mail chronicled Bergdorf’s rise to L’Oreal fame and subsequent dismissal, the call for her own clarification became clearer. In response, the model wrote a different post, in which she discussed ways whiteness, and nearness to it, affords access to some people and oppresses other people outside of its confines. Specifically, she discussed racial disparities in health care, housing, employment and credit.
“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,” she wrote.
L’Oreal did not meaningfully engage Bergdorf’s discussion of how history, current events and whiteness as global currency commingle. Yet, Illamasqua’s timely hiring of Bergdorf sent a message about deeper socio-political engagement in the beauty industry. Models, with varied experiences, can publicly advance their communities’ interests when brands support the models’ personal depth and their aesthetics.
Bait-and-switch controversies like this remind people that multi-billion dollar companies routinely monetize Black and Brown faces with little investment in Black and Brown liberation. Often, these companies operate with fairly homogenous executive boards. And people “in the room” (whether of-color or not) frequently err on the side of de-politicizing people whose existences are inherently political. This tactic also reinforces the false idea that whiteness is passive, neutral, and normative.
L’Oreal expected consumers to demonize Bergdorf, as if the spokesmodel created the systems she critiqued. L’Oreal expected consumers to be so happy for a face with visible melanin and a transgender identity that her messages became muted. Instead, Bergdorf established herself before a broader audience as a person who does her job, speaks her truth and remains commendable for it.