Activism Gone Wrong
by BRANDON TIETZ
In September, the nation witnessed neo-Nazis and white supremacists march through Charlottesville, Virginia. Signs were waved. Chants were chanted. There was all matter of violence and ire, especially when Trump didn’t immediately and definitively denounce the white nationalists. It was a disgusting display, and pretty much everyone walked away from the situation more pissed off than when they arrived. Polarization increased. Nothing got resolved. That’s the thing about free speech. Everyone gets to say whatever they want with no obligation to be decent, humane, or even logical (there are literally people who still believe the Earth is flat).
As everyone was tossing their two cents into the social media fountain, bi-racial transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf chimed in via Facebook. Here is her original post in its entirety:
“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. From micro-aggressions to terrorism, you guys built the blueprint for this s***.
“Come see me when you realise that racism isn’t learned, it’s inherited and consciously or unconsciously passed down through privilege.
“Once white people begin to admit that their race is the most violent and oppressive force of nature on Earth…then we can talk.
“Until then stay acting shocked about how the world continues to stay f***** at the hands of your ancestors and your heads that remain buried in the sand with hands over your ears.’”
Originally, her posts didn’t gain too much attention. It wasn’t until L’Oréal Paris UK hired her as a spokesperson—making her their first transgender model—did the media find her interesting enough to look into. Nowadays, that means combing through a person’s social media until they find something controversial enough to repost, either in whole or in part (refer to: Trevor Noah’s old potentially offensive Twitter jokes being republished right after he was tapped as the new “Daily Show” host). That’s exactly what “The Daily Mail UK” did, and the negative reaction it got caused L’Oréal to rethink their hiring of Bergdorf, ultimately firing her from the campaign.
So, where did all this go wrong?
For starters, L’Oréal proved they’re willing to fire anyone that causes controversy, (i.e. – threatens sales.) It’s no big secret that a lot of white women buy their products. It’s also no big secret that a lot of white women didn’t care for what was said in Bergdorf’s post, especially when presented in the out-of-context way that it was. It was an aggressive, accusatory post that, unfortunately, made no mention of Charlottesville or neo-Nazis, and thus felt directed at everyone white, no exclusions. Big blanket statements like that tend to not go over well, so when L’Oréal decided to cut and run, it didn’t really surprise me.
I was confused, more than anything. If L’Oréal didn’t want a model who spoke their mind, then why hire Bergdorf? Why not hire a transgender model who is simply a model and doesn’t play the activist role? It’s as if they didn’t anticipate the media doing what the media does so well: presenting things out of context and blowing them out of proportion for traffic. They should’ve seen it coming.
Now to Bergdorf—and before I even start—I already know what I am. You don’t have to remind me that as a cis-gendered straight mostly-white male that my opinion doesn’t count in matters such as these. I’ve heard it before. That’s why I’m going to attempt to lay this out objectively.
The mistake that Bergdorf made is that she didn’t advocate; she accused. She pointed her finger at a very large demographic of people and deemed them all guilty in one fell swoop. Millions of people equally to blame for social injustice rooted in racism. There’s shades of truth but it’s not absolute truth. You can’t say all white people are racist the same way you can’t say all overweight people are unhealthy or the same way you can’t say all Catholic priests are pious. Examples to the contrary can be dug up on each. That’s what makes Bergdorf’s blanket statement (in or out of context) so dangerous. She lumped in the neo-Nazis of Charlottesville with the left-leaning liberals of Portland with the little white girls of Wisconsin. Background, age, and political/social leanings didn’t matter. Bergdorf was calling all whites out. People tend to get defensive when they feel unjustly called out.
Another example of Bergdorf’s inability to advocate is contained in this excerpt of her post: “Once white people begin to admit that their race is the most violent and oppressive force of nature on Earth…then we can talk.”
I’m not going to get into a whole thing about how much of our historical kill-count is religion-based. You can look that up yourself. I am intrigued though that Bergdorf sets the condition that a certain group of a certain color has to admit they’re scum before she’ll speak with them. Setting a condition based on race seems counterintuitive when advocating for racial equality.
Finally, Bergdorf advocates in ultimatums. From her interview with Piers Morgan on “Good Morning Britain.” Bergdorf said, “If you are not dismantling racism or helping to dismantle racism, then you are part of the problem.”
In her eyes, there’s only for or against. Ally or enemy. Blue team or red team. It’s fuzzy logic that I can’t quite wrap my head around. It’d be like saying if you’re not trying to stop Kim Jong Un from building nuclear weapons then you’re helping arm him by default. Being complicit would make you part of the problem. Obviously, that’s not always the case, and a major shortcoming of categorizing people via non-participation/non-advocacy.
By taking the “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” route, Bergdorf is more or less saying that if you don’t support her agenda, by default, you have made yourself an enemy. In a sense, Bergdorf is creating her own opposition by turning all zeros in the equation to -1’s. Not exactly the smartest move for an activist to make.
This article was difficult for me. Not because I disagree with Bergdorf’s views. I don’t. It’s her methods that rub me the wrong way. The blanket statements and labeling and finger-pointing isn’t going to get us anywhere. I know this because I’ve seen it play out before. And I know this because—even as an ally to the cause—I feel pushed away and wrongly categorized based on how I was born.
If I had any advice to give Bergdorf, it would be: your campaign to end racism can’t have racist overtones. You can’t promote gay rights by calling non-gays homophobes, the same way you can’t promote trans rights by calling non-trans people transphobic. Same with racism. All this method will lead to is a further divide, and we’ve already seen how nasty things can get when two divided groups clash. Inspiring positive change needs to come from a positive place, and I hope Bergdorf discovers that before too many people tune her out. Activism only works if people are willing to listen.