Munroe Bergdorf: “I’m a part of the movement, not the movement itself”

Emma Simkin

cw// transphobia, racism, internet hate, death threats, suicide

Munroe Bergdorf, the black, trans activist and model, was fired from L’Oreal after making comments about systemic racism on social media. She received a great deal of publicity, including trolling on social media. As someone who has received hate comments, ranging from offensive remarks to death threats, Munroe knows a great deal about how to stay safe as an activist. Setting clear boundaries is an essential part of her self care. “I am very mindful about things that I don’t want to do and being vocal about things that I don’t want to do”, says Munroe. “There’s the very definite stuff of what I don’t want to do and what zaps my energy. I’ve found that, in identifying what zaps my energy, I’m able to do those things that I want to do, like writing and things that take a lot more of my brain power.”

“I am very mindful about things that I don’t want to do and being vocal about things that I don’t want to do”

Rather than using self care methods when times get tough, Munroe makes self care a daily feature of her life. “Even right down to the apps that I’ve got on my phone, to the people that take up a lot of my energy, identifying situations before they happen is much easier than, you know, being put in situations that drain all my energy. I try not to let my life get too overwhelming so that I need to stop and self care.” With an uncharacteristically sheepish smile, she describes one of her unusual self care tips. “When I go over to a friends to watch a movie, I bring a candle with me!” She explains her need to incorporate comforting items that make her feel safe in her social life – mainly sensory objects like candles and burning sticks. “I’m a very sensual person. I think all humans are, but I think some people are unplugged from it.” Why are sensual experiences such an important part of self care? “I think that things like smell and touch and sex, everything that makes us connect with someone or our surroundings, is a reminder that you’re human and it grounds you. Also, anything that reminds me of the fact that this is bigger than me – that I’m a cog in the activism machine; that I’m a part of the movement, not the movement itself. It takes the pressure off me, that there’s other people in my community – if I need to take a day off they can do that as well.”

Munroe has turned down TV applications for various shows, turning Good Morning Britain two times before going on the show at a later date. Being an activist sometimes requires being in uncomfortable situations – is this something that she needs to learn to handle, if she wants to keep campaigning? “Good question!” Pondering for a while, she admits that sometimes she judges wrong, but those situations are not just uncomfortable, but also futile. “I did a panel with Andre Neil and the panel was just completely unbalanced, with me talking about racism with three middle class white men. I was just like, this isn’t beneficial to them because they’re not listening, and to me because I’m just speaking to a brick wall”, she sighs. “I’ve been involved in panels that are frustrating, but ultimately it’s about the debate. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me and I’m all for debating with people who don’t agree with me, so long as they are respectful, but it needs to be a balanced discussion.”

munroe w

JEFF SPICER AT GETTY IMAGES

In the past, Munroe had to turn down more shows because she did not have the resources to cope with the media storm following her comments on systemic racism. Not only did she lack good representation, the criticism was almost unbearable. “With Good Morning Britain, I did turn it down two times because I wasn’t ready. That was when all the news broke”, her usually even and composed speaking voice faltering slightly. “I had everyone yelling at me over social media, friends not knowing what I meant, saying “What’s going on?”, so I just needed a moment to get back to myself”

Being black and trans, Munroe’s voice isn’t well represented in the LGBT+ community, which is very white-centric and focuses on gayness. How can the community do more to combat racism and transphobia? Munroe explains that the LGBT+ could do more to tackle these issues – it needs to acknowledge that we have a problem, and understand that voices in LGBT+ communities aren’t very diverse. “For years and years and years, it has been a very singular voice in the LGBT+ media”. The LGBT+ community has only just begun to shift away from centring certain voices, but only slightly so. “From white feminism to everything being labelled as gay, rather than LGBT, and denouncing of the femme – you know, that men are lesser if they’re feminine. Or thinking that non-binary is a hugely confusing issue, when the only bit of the non-binary discussion, just because it’s a change in the language that we are used to, is the they/them thing. But, if you understand that gender is on a spectrum, then I don’t understand why the non-binary discussion is such a hot topic”. Going onto racism, Munroe explains there is a huge lack of representation because race is viewed as a “black and white issue”, ignoring certain races. “You know, I mean racism isn’t just…” – she briefly pauses. Making a divide with her hands, “There’s more than two races. Where’s the Asian point of view in this? Where’s the Indigenous point of view in this?” Acknowledging the problem will mark an important step forward.

“For years and years and years, it has been a very singular voice in the LGBT+ media”

After all her activism with regards to racism, and the activism of others, Munroe has seen a marked change in the beauty industry and outside of it. “Even within pop culture, you can see how black pop artists were encouraged to tone down their blackness or to be more appealing to a white audience. I think it’s really well seen in the progression of Beyoncé’s career. From Destiny’s Child where they were appealing to black girls, basically, as a black R&B group that was kind of known but not really. Then, they started to appeal to a wider audience so Independent Women and Survivor – it was still black but around that time, all the black girls had dead straight hair and weaves and in photos they looked much lighter than they did in person”. Munroe thinks good progress has been made. “Black artists are now very much more expressing their blackness.” She attributes this to progression of society in general. “I think we are much more conscious as a society and I think the the population and the media is definitely reflecting that.” Is there a danger that activism might become tokenistic when used in advertisements? Not necessarily, thinks Munroe. “I think it all comes down to ethics. Brands are getting campaigns out that are centred around activism and essentially its just ethical as long as behind that message they continue that [activism] and are not just using it as a tokenistic thing.”

Moving on to transgender rights, Munroe talks about the need for government support, especially for transgender kids. “I feel like the negative press out there is so discouraging and the reports of the level of trans kids that have thought about suicide, or attempted suicide, is 85%. You might want to check on that.” (The figures are 41% attempting suicide and 77% seriously considering suicide). So that’s an incredibly awful statistic. The government needs to be doing more to support these kids because obviously they are going to be the future world leaders!” Said with pride, “Trans kids are not zoo animals. These are hidden gems that we need to be nurturing and supporting, rather than alienating from society”.

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