Photo: Ryan Dorsey, CC BY-SA 2.0
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the ways that feminism is getting tied to capitalism, and the ways that tie helps or hurts feminism. (Some people are also concerned about whether it helps or hurts capitalism, but I don’t care about those people.) Now in my heart of hearts, I’m a socialist. I absolutely understand the real and concrete ways in which the capitalist system disenfranchises women, people of color, people with disabilities, people in poverty, and LGBT people. I understand that a capitalist society will probably never be fully feminist because it’s just so dang fun and profitable to exploit women. But I’m also a pragmatist, and I understand that until the revolution finally comes, we live in a capitalist society, and as such, if companies at best adopt feminist ethics in their business practices and at worst at least pay lip service to feminist ideals because that is what is trendy right now, that might be the best we can get in the current moment. So I view capitalist “fempowerment,” as Doree Shafrir calls it, with grudging acceptance, and the knowledge that I still have to investigate and critique companies that express feminist ideals as a marketing tactic. There are obviously, and constantly, multiple instances where companies don’t practice what they preach, or when they even co-opt feminist language and symbolism from the original creators, which is why I don’t click on half of the “buy this feminist merchandise!” clickbait that Facebook offers me, because I know it’s some sweat-shop produced BS where someone found an Audre Lorde quote and slapped it on an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt.
The same holds true for a lot of different social movements, who latch onto LGBT rights, issues of diversity, etc. because it is the hot thing or because they want to distract the millennials from killing another thing for at least a minute and not necessarily because they actually give two damns about the issue at hand. But here’s the first rule about “Pretend to Care About Social Causes So People Buy Your Shit” Club: you gotta commit. Otherwise you end up showing your ass, and instead of being the champions of diversity, you are the poster children for hypocrisy and cowardice.
Case in point: L’Oréal Paris.
For a couple days, my Facebook was blowing up because L’Oréal Paris had just hired Munroe Bergdorf to be part of their YoursTruly True Match ad campaign. This was big for a couple reasons. First, Bergdorf is a woman of color, and the makeup industry has a pretty terrible track record when it comes to providing affordable, accessible, and applicable products to women of color. L’Oréal’s True Match line appears to be at least an attempt to provide foundation and other products for an array of skin colors and shades. Second, Bergdorf is a transgender individual, making her the brand’s first trans model and one of the few trans women to represent a major brand at all.
But before I could even celebrate (and way before I could convince myself that I deserve to buy new makeup as part of the celebration) L’Oréal fired her for “racism.” Her crime? Acknowledging the role white people play in systemic racism. Quelle horreur! (Do you like what I did there, with the French, because it’s L’Oréal Paris? … well you can’t fire me, I don’t get paid.)
The Daily Mail, that bastion of excellent reporting (*cough*) dug up a Facebook post Bergdorf had written following the events in Charlottesville, and ran an article titled “L’Oreal transgender model says all white people are racist.” Because screw context, right? Though the original Facebook post has been taken down, People reprinted the majority of it, and I think it is worth taking a look:
The post has since been taken down, but the model reportedly 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 color.” She continued: “Your entire existence is drenched in racism. From micro-aggression 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.”
So while it has some admittedly strong language and ideas that most white people don’t wanna here… she’s not wrong. All white people play a part in systemic racism. All white people benefit, either consciously or unconsciously, from privilege. This privilege has, in large part, originated from the fact that our ancestors committed atrocities against people of color, and kinda sorta tried to take over the world. Only without the “kinda sorta.”
L’Oréal Paris nearly instantaneously fired Bergdorf from the campaign. Then they explained why in a tweet: “L’Oréal champions diversity. Comments by Munroe Bergdorf are at odds with our values and so we have decided to end our partnership with her.”
Sorry, I was laughing so hard at this stunning example of a company not understanding the irony of their words that my finger got stuck on the quotation mark button. So L’Oréal “champions diversity” but when a trans woman of color decries systemic racism, that is “at odds with [their] values”? Exactly what definition of “diversity” are they using here?
Bergdorf quite aptly defended herself in a Facebook post and later a blog post, which is worth quoting at length (bear with me everyone, it’s really, really good):
“Sit still and smile in a beauty campaign ‘championing diversity’. But don’t actually speak about the fact that lack of diversity and is due to racism. Or speak about the origins of racism. It’ll cost you your job”.
This makeup brand cares about nothing but MONEY. I urge you to boycott L’Oréal Paris. I can’t express how disappointed I am in the entire team in dealing with misquotes that were entirely placed out of context.
Secondly, identifying that the success of the British Empire has been at the expense of the people of colour, is not something that should offend ANYONE. It is a fact. It happened. Slavery and colonialism, at the hands of white supremacy, played a huge part in shaping the United Kingdom and much of the west, into the super power that it is today.
Whether aware of it or not, in today’s society the lighter your skin tone (people of colour included) the more social privileges you will be afforded. Whether that’s access to housing, healthcare, employment or credit. A person’s race and skin tone has a HUGE part to play in how they are treated by society as a whole, based on their proximity to whiteness.
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.
We also live in a society where men are SOCIALISED to be sexist. Women are SOCIALISED to be submissive. Gay people are SOCIALISED to be ashamed of their sexuality due to heterosexual people’s homophobia. Cisgender people are SOCIALISED to be transphobic. We do not need to be this way. We are not born this way and we can learn to reject it. We are just socially conditioned to think this way from an early age. With the right education, empathy and open mindedness we can unlearn these socialisations and live a life where we don’t oppress others and see things from other people’s points of view.
So when a transgender woman of colour, who has been selected to front up a big brand campaign to combat discrimination and lack of diversity in the beauty industry, speaks on her actual lived experience of being discriminated against because of her race and identifies the root of where that discrimination lies – white supremacy and systemic racism – that big brand cannot simply state that her thoughts are not “in line with the ethics of the brand”.
If you truly want equality and diversity, you need to actively work to dismantle the source of what created this discrimination and division in the first place. You cannot just simply cash in because you’ve realised there’s a hole in the market and that there is money to be made from people of colour who have darker skin tones.
The irony of all this is that L’Oréal Paris invited me to be part of a beauty campaign that ‘stands for diversity’. The fact that up until very recently, there has been next to no mainstream brands offering makeup for black women and ethnic minorities, is in itself due to racism within the industry. Most big brands did not want to sell to black women. Most big brands did not want to acknowledge that there was a HUGE demographic that was being ignored. Because they did not believe that there was MONEY to be made in selling beauty products to ethnic minorities.
If L’Oreal truly wants to offer empowerment to underrepresented women, then they need to acknowledge THE REASON why these women are underrepresented within the industry in the first place. This reason is discrimination – an action which punches down from a place of social privilege. We need to talk about why women of colour were and still are discriminated against within the industry, not just see them as a source of revenue.
Racism may be a jagged pill to swallow, but I suggest you force it down quickly if you want to be part of the solution. Doing nothing, does nothing and solves nothing. Empowerment and inclusivity are not trends, these are people’s lives and experiences. If brands are going to use empowerment as a tool to push product to people of colour, then the least they can do is actually work us to dismantle the source, not throw us under the bus when it comes to the crunch. At times like this, it becomes blindly obvious what is genuine allyship and what is performative.
Bergdorf says it all: if L’Oréal was truly interested in diversity, if its management was actually invested in addressing the roots of oppression that have suppressed the images and voices of women of color, then Bergdorf’s Facebook comments would have been in line with their values, instead of at odds. Bergdorf isn’t “just” trans; one aspect of her identity cannot be pulled apart from the other aspects. She experiences oppression and injustice as a trans woman of color, not just a trans woman. Her inclusion in a campaign doesn’t just increase diversity because she is trans. Her race and her experiences due to her race are an intrinsic part of her identity, which L’Oréal was well aware of when they hired her. Hiring her to increase diversity but refusing to acknowledge the racism and oppression that have hindered that diversity and in fact punishing Bergdorf for acknowledging it, is not only hypocritical and stupid, it is perpetuating racism. By firing Bergdorf, L’Oréal has made it clear that they were only interested in lip-service diversity, and only partially interested at that. L’Oréal was perfectly happy to exploit Bergdorf’s image and identity when it didn’t challenge many power structures to do so.
Bergdorf is now calling for a boycott of L’Oréal, which I will happily take part in. “But wait!” I can imagine some centrists proclaiming. “Didn’t L’Oréal at least try to be diverse? Shouldn’t they at least get acknowledged for hiring a trans woman of color as a model in the first place, when many other brands haven’t even done that?” Sure. Give L’Oréal a cookie. Then boycott them anyway. Because again, they broke the first rule of “Pretend to Care About Social Causes So People Buy Your Shit” Club. They didn’t commit. Other brands aren’t hiring trans women of color, but they also aren’t trying to grab the “socially conscious consumer” market share. They’re assholes, but they aren’t hypocritical assholes.
L’Oréal specifically and explicitly committed itself to diversity, then essentially walked that back when it fired Bergdorf. Even if diversity was only a marketing ploy, they needed to publicly commit wholeheartedly to it, so that the veneer of caring wouldn’t wear off. Instead, they stripped themselves to the primer.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not critiquing corporate attempts to monetize diversity, she studies gender in popular culture.
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