Munroe Bergdorf’s firing shows the futility of workplace diversity campaigns

Companies will cash in on the trend of corporate diversity awareness until it means doing anything to remedy the underlying issue of white supremacy

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 26: Munroe Bergdorf attends Absolut's #KissWithPride event at the Houses of Parliament in celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Sexual Offences Act on July 26, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Absolut Vodka)

Munroe Bergdorf, July 26, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Absolut Vodka)

Just under three years ago, cosmetics giant L’Oreal announced the latest purchase in its long line of acquisitions across the beauty industry. Carol’s Daughter, a hair and skin care brand launched by entrepreneur Lisa Price, was wildly popular on the Home Shopping network, as well as a staple of Target’s “ethnic” cosmetic section. Carol’s Daughter offered something that L’Oreal and most of the beauty industry had been missing—an inroads with Black women. As a market segment, Black women reportedly spend $7.5 billion annually on beauty products, yet have historically been under-served by the industry. But many customers of Carol’s Daughter voiced their displeasure on social media at the time the purchase was announced. Skeptics believed that L’Oreal intended to cash in on the trend of corporate diversity awareness, while doing nothing to remedy the underlying issue of white supremacy, which among its other more violent effects, shuts people of colour out of both the marketplace and the boardroom.

Last week, L’Oreal fired Black transgender model Munroe Bergdorf—not only proving their critics correct, but bringing forward a deeper question in the Trump-era conversation on race: When the people most violently affected by white supremacy can be fired for speaking truthfully about it, what good is served by “diversity and inclusion” initiatives at the corporate level?

As a DJ, model, and trans activist, Munroe Bergdorf has long been outspoken about anti-black racism in her work. As an influencer within the U.K.’s LGBT community, as well as a popular model and Instagram personality, Bergdorf has never minced words when it comes to discussing white supremacy. Her Instagram feed, between photo shoots and internet memes, is peppered with statements against patriarchy, anti-trans bigotry, and white supremacy. Her Twitter feed is more pointed, covering everything from hate crimes to the micro-aggressions she faces in her day-to-day life.

This is who L’Oreal chose to partner with for its pro-diversity campaign—an outspoken activist whose unapologetic statements about her life experiences with white supremacy earned her the moniker “London’s own Laverne Cox” by Evening Standard writer Lucy Tobin. And at a time of international outrage at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, which resulted in several serious injuries and the death of anti-racism activist Heather Heyer, Bergdorf wrote a lengthy post on her personal Facebook account adding her voice to the chorus:

“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 shit. 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–ked at the hands of your ancestors and your heads that remain buried in the sand with hands over your ears.”

READ: It wasn’t a lone, unusual flare-up. Charlottesville really is America.

A few days later, The Daily Mail picked up the post and described it as a “lengthy Facebook rant,” as well as describing Berdgorf as being “born a boy,” dropping her birth name, and mentioning the time at which she began her hormone treatment. In almost any other context, this would be seen as a rather malicious disclosure of Bergdorf’s personal life, especially at a time when international attention has fallen on the high rates of harassment and violence against trans people. And as a partner to the world’s largest cosmetics company, who acquired her services because of her reach within the intersections of trans communities and communities of colour, one might expect L’Oreal would stand up to the torrent of hate and death threats Bergdorf subsequently received. Instead, L’Oreal severed the partnership and explained the decision in a cursory tweet:

Much ink has been spilled on the efficacy of corporate diversity programs, and why they continue to fail. Last year, a paper released by the Harvard Business Review suggested that companies would produce better results if diversity was described in more positive terms, that participation and engagement be encouraged as voluntary (rather than mandatory), and that managers be rewarded for their results, rather than lack thereof. The thesis of that paper has echoed across the corporate universe, and I’ve personally heard it repeated in diversity workshops as recently as this summer.

But this new conventional wisdom continues to speaks around the problem without ever addressing it: whether by encouragement or by perceived force, diversity and inclusion initiatives are correcting for the latent racism and inherited white supremacy of corporate decision makers with the power to hire and fire. That is, those with the ability to stand behind a Black trans woman who speaks up about the system of white supremacy that underpins the social fabric of the western world, and also the ability to fire her for speaking to that reality. This latent racism has so efficiently twisted the meaning of words like “diversity” and “inclusion” and “tolerance,” that when a Black trans woman makes a personal statement asking white people to do more to combat the social cancer their ancestors introduced, white people take offence at the thought of being called “racist,” rather than understanding that one does not have to hate minorities in order to benefit from white supremacy.

READ: The false equivalency of the criticism of the ‘alt-left’

And by failing to address this reality—a reality in which white supremacy, so efficiently systematized and invisible to even those white people who believe themselves as “good,” “colour-blind,” and even “progressive” that the current centrist discourse puts anti-racism and anti-fascist activists on the same moral plane as those who believe in genocide as a solution to racial tensions—those of us in the workplace who are most marginalized by white supremacy have more evidence to prove what we have always known. It’s what critics knew when L’Oreal bought one of the largest and most well-known brands among Black women, in an effort to vie for their consumer dollars. We are not safe in the streets, nor in our churches, nor even in our homes. We are barely more than wallets to be opened, bodies to be showcased, and problems to be swept under the rug once we’ve become too insolent and inconvenient for white comfort.

In other words, in a society which is still structured on white supremacy, corporate commitment to “diversity and inclusion” are nothing but lipstick on a pig.


Munroe Bergdorf’s firing shows the futility of workplace diversity campaigns

  1. Serves them right for hiring a racist with mental disorders.

    Activism without truth is extremism.

    Maybe Macleans should publish a rant calling all blacks racist and immediately join the alt right.

  2. Sorry Andray, but you’re off the mark on this one. If a white person in a similar corporate position – or even just a regular Joe with no public profile whatsoever – had gone off on a rant like that about people of colour, you’d be demanding his or her head. A spokesperson for a company has to behave in a manner that’s not going to create negative backlash and hurt the bottom line; they are, in fact, hired to do the opposite. Sometimes, that means reining it in and biting one’s tongue.

    Being treated equally means just that – equally. Being trans or black doesn’t give one a free pass from the generally high expectations of behaviour normally placed on a spokesperson. In most businesses, a white guy would have been canned for much less. But now she’s free to say whatever she wants without having to worry about corporate oversight.

    • If a company can persecute someone for what they say outside of business then we don’t have free speech.

      It would also be unconstitutional for a company to demand someone to abdicate their constitutional rights as a condition of employment.

      We don’t have free speech.

      • I generally agree with you. The reality, though, is that – in this day and age – if you put your personal opinion out on social media, it can cost you your job. There are countless examples of this – and a good many are just average, previously “unknown” employees. As someone who is fairly active on social media myself, I can’t say I like that – but I am aware of the risks I take (which is why I created this nom de plume for commenting on Macleans many, many years ago).

        In the case of a spokesperson such as this, you are hired precisely for your image, in the hope that the positive association will drive sales. The moment you do something that hurts rather than enhances that image, the likelihood that you will be terminated rises substantially. Your image IS your value to the company; once it’s diminished, so is your employability. Ask any professional athlete.

        She chose her path. Her rant – esp. when she chose to insist “Yes ALL white people” – is as racist as many that have gotten white people in trouble. (And please – do not conflate individual and systemic racism, as many do these days. In western society, systemic racism is the exclusive purview of white people – but individually, anyone, regardless of colour, can be racist.) If that goes against the image of the company that she represents, esp. if it hurt their bottom line, then they have every right to terminate.

        If she were an anonymous line worker, making the goods, I’d be angry too about them firing her for a comment outside of work. In this case, though, given her role at the company – no, I don’t have a problem with it. There is a difference between free speech and consequence-free speech.

        • Whoops – looks like I made a coding mistake. Looks like I forgot the closing tag after “image”. In the above, only “for your image”, at the start of the bold, and “not”, at the end, are supposed to be in bold.

          I really wish Macleans would let us edit our comments so we can fix stupid mistakes like that!

        • Not so fast.

          You’re only suggesting that human rights are secondary to the profit motive.

          Perhaps one day it will be your right to life impeding another’s fortune.

          • Not at all; I’m saying that if you are hired to present your company in a good light, and you then do the opposite, you have breached your terms of employment. There would undoubtedly have been terms in her contract dealing expressly with such situations. Pretty standard if you’re out there as the “face” of a company.

            She has every right to say whatever she wants to say – but if her contract specifies a certain level of professionalism and behaviour, and she fails to live up to that, then the contract becomes null and void. Like I said – there’s a difference between free speech and consequence-free speech.

            Ask Mel Gibson about the consequences of a rant, and what it does to employability. Ask Tiger Woods about lost sponsorship deals after his car accident and word of his infidelity. Would you argue that those were human rights issues? Bergdorf’s firing is no different. The company was trying to sell inclusiveness, and she turned around and tore a strip off “ALL white people.” Completely off message; an attack on the largest portion of the company’s customer base. She no longer had anything of value to offer the company after that.

            If you can make a case that Gibson and Woods had their human rights abused, I’ll be happy to listen. But this is all apples here; you can’t try to pretend Bergdorf being transgender makes her situation an orange to Gibson’s and Woods’ apples and expect to be taken seriously.

        • The future ain’t what it used to be.

    • I agree that a white person would have been fired for less. But race is not relevant to truth, even as we discuss truth about racial issues. Bergdorf’s statements should not be evaluated on a metric of a race-based threshold for firing, but on the (historical) facts. If what she says is true, then she should be supported, or at least be left free to state things as she does. The only reason a white guy would and should have been fired for less is that any similar rant from a white guy would have been much harder-pressed to align with historical truth. For the record, I am a middle-aged white guy.

      • What makes you think it’s ok to persecute innocent people today for the once legal actions of their ancestors?

        The only government supported racism and sexism today here discriminates against white men and it’s called affirmative action.

        The Supreme Court of Canada ruled twice that truth is no defence against the charge of hatred. That means there can be no defence.

        Yes it is a nonsensical and misguided idea. Like persecuting the innocent for the actions of others and affirmative action.

        Unlike many, I know that truth can never be hatred.

      • Berghdorf’s statements have to be evaluated in light of the terms of her contract. Period. She was hired specifically as one of the faces of a campaign about inclusiveness. Her statement, “Yes, ALL white people” is definitely NOT about inclusiveness.

        How do you reconcile what she said with the campaign she was to be part of?

        This is about her breaching her contract. Just as if an Asian person hired as a face of the campaign had gone off on a rant about black people. Or a straight model had gone off on a homophobic rant. She should be treated as equal; she is being treated as equal. You think her status as a trans person should give her extra protections? She should get a free pass on making bigoted comments that damage the company’s campaign and reputation?

        If she breached her contract, the company had every right to terminate. If she didn’t – take it to court. As far as breach of contract goes, her race and gender are, ultimately, irrelevant here – as should be the case.

        Domay – and you – seem to want to make this about something it isn’t. I’m all for equality; plenty of posts here on Macleans to back that up. But I’ll also challenge people who try to spin things as race or gender issues when they aren’t. The battle is tough enough without crap muddying the water.

        • It’s not a right if you can be punished for it.

          That’s the acid test for any right.

          If we had free speech, and we don’t, then a company could not have a right to make you abdicate it with a contract or punish you if you exercised it.

          Breaking a law, is another matter. Whether a law is unjust, yet another.

          I agree that the legality and justice of what was said in this case is dubious.

        • The fact that companies act entitled to violate rights is their own mistake.

        • People have the right to free will and free speech.

          Products don’t and may be a more appropriate “image” for any company.

  3. When it comes to products, it is precision, quality & identicality that counts.
    Don’t ever associate anyone with the product, unless the quality and precision of the product is their 100% obsession. Hope L’Oréal uses this criteria for their next associate. Interview the potential associate and let the potential associate convince the interviewer that the associate is 100% obsessed with the quality and precision of the product. In our society, people under 40 do not understand this concept. At All.