Munroe Bergdorf and the L’Oréal controversy highlights a deeper, systemic problem
“I’m not racist. I don’t even see colour. Plus, I have a ton of black friends.”
These are common excuses most white people choose to reiterate whenever the heavy topic of racism arises in conversations. Regardless of the excuses, there is a sense of discomfort that white people feel when discussing racism. It’s a state that’s being labeled as white fragility.
According to the Huffington Post, Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a social justice educator, created the term to describe a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defense moves.”
Some of these moves include fear, guilt, anger, silence and defensiveness. A recent example of white fragility can be seen through the L’Oréal controversy. L’Oréal hired their first black transgender model Munroe Bergdorf, but she was recently fired because of the comments she made condemning racism in response to the events in Charlottesville, Va.
In a now-deleted Facebook post, Bergdorf said: “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 realize or refuse to acknowledge that your existence, privilege and success as a race is built on the backs, bloods and death of people of colour. Your entire existence is drenched in racism […] ”
After this post received a lot of negative attention, L’Oréal fired Bergdorf. In a statement, the company said they support diversity and tolerance towards all people—regardless of their race, background, gender and religion. The company stated: “We believe that the recent comments by Munroe Bergdorf are at odds with those values, and as such, we have taken the decision to end the partnership with her.” Bergdorf’s comments can be understood to mean all white people are inherently racist, which can be considered promoting a negative view of a certain race—ultimately going against L’Oréal’s policy.
In an article in The Guardian, Katherine Craig, a human rights lawyer and social change consultant, wrote: “If you grow up in a racist society, through no fault of your own, some of that racism is bound to stick subconsciously. It’s an unconscious conspiracy in which we are all complicit, unless we fight it.”
In a BBC interview, Bergdorf elaborated on her comments by saying that white people are socialized to be racist, just as men are socialized to be sexist. She emphasized the idea that it is each person’s responsibility to “unlearn” that socialization.
Bergdorf and Craig make similar points: white people can be inherently racist, not because they choose to be, but because they are born into a world that places their lives and wishes above everyone else’s. When we grow up, we are influenced by everything around us and the argument that all white people can be intrinsically racist is a plausible one. Whiteness has long been considered a positive thing, while darkness a negative thing. If one grows up seeing only white dolls and white actors on TV, it’s possible they might grow up with the idea that their race is better, prettier and superior to others. If that’s what our society is promoting, why wouldn’t someone unconsciously believe that?
Speaking from my own experience, growing up enthusiastically following white characters in TV and pop culture, I really believed that my brown skin made me inferior to white people. I barely saw representation of people of colour, which led me to internalize the racism I was surrounded by. If that was my reaction to these messages as someone who isn’t white, isn’t it possible that white people can feel superior due to the same exposure?
Bergdorf explained in the same BBC interview, “white people need to get over the fact that yes, [this socialization is] a really uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. Get over that discomfort. Think about how it makes us feel.”
Bergdorf’s comments were racially charged, but she was calling out white people for their racism. If you find that offensive then you are part of the problem. When Bergdorf said, “Yes, all white people,” she isn’t wrong—white people inherently benefit from the fruits of a society built on white privilege. Systemic racism, which emphasizes how white privilege is built into every level of society—like education, health care, criminal justice and housing—and will always favour white people over people of colour.
White people don’t really have to worry about being victims of violence by law enforcement. No one will ever question how you got a job—it’s assumed you were qualified and right for it. You are able to speak about a certain subject without being expected to represent your entire race. You will never walk with the weight of your skin colour bearing heavy on your shoulders.
A lot of people are arguing if the comments made by Bergdorf were made about black people, they would be considered racist. In my opinion, Bergdorf’s comments shouldn’t be labeled as such.
Racism is more complex and powerful than just discrimination and a feeling of superiority. Sure, a person of colour can feel superior to and discriminate against a white person, which isn’t right. But those are individual acts—not systemic. Racism is ultimately the result of power and prejudice. People of colour do not hold any power against white people—therefore they will never be able to systematically oppress them.
As a white person, you can walk away from prejudice. People of colour cannot walk away from racism. Wherever people of colour go, racism is an inherent part of the society we live in. We can change our hairstyles, our clothing and our mannerisms—but we cannot change the colour of our skin.
Bergdorf’s comments were harsh, yes. But they hold a grain of truth. The response it has garnered is a prime example of white fragility and white privilege. It’s a response to the inconvenient truth. In the same BBC interview, Bergdorf said, “with white privilege, if you are not actually dismantling racism, if you are not going to pull people up from the bottom of the pyramid to the top, then you are participating and benefitting from racism.”
When white people feel defensive or uncomfortable during a conversation about racism, they should ask themselves why they feel that way. What they don’t realize, or refuse to acknowledge, is that their whiteness is a privilege—and that privilege puts people of colour beneath them. But this isn’t to say white people will never be able to help people of colour, combat racism or dispel their own negative ideas about other races.
As Craig explained, “any white person who is serious about racial equality has to be anti-racist. This requires us to actively acknowledge our privilege, because that privilege—even though we never asked for it—is the very cause of the inequity suffered by others […] We have a choice: be offended, or be part of the solution.”
Graphic by ZeZe Le Lin