Alicia Goode-Allen '19
Munroe Bergdorf, the first trans model of L’Oréal’s True Match campaign, was fired last month after mainstream media picked up a post she had written on Facebook. Bergdorf’s post, in direct response to white supremacist actions in Charlottesville, was incendiary—as L’Oréal deemed it—because of the simple words: “Honestly, I don’t have the energy to talk about the racial violence of white people anymore. Yes, ALL white people.” Shortly after L’Oréal ended its contract with Bergdorf, Piers Morgan interviewed the Black trans model, DJ, and activist on Good Morning Britain. During the interview, Morgan repeatedly attacked Bergdorf’s statement that all white people are racist; the entire interview centered on this statement.
Bergdorf responded to Morgan’s attacks by contextualizing her words, by relaying the ways in which all of us have been socialized to understand ourselves as, for example, white, male, and straight. Her words met unhearing ears. It was as though, no matter what Bergdorf said, Morgan did not care about her response.
When viewing the interview online, I watched Morgan say “…I, as a straight, white, guy who’s not remotely racist, get very offended by [your words],” and saw reflected in Morgan my own nearly identical words and my own very identical fragility. Watching Piers Morgan’s defensive, desperate anger during this exchange felt like watching moments of myself on screen.
Morgan and I have both been told by family, friends, and society at large that we are white our entire lives. In subscribing to the story that we are white, both Morgan and I speak the same protective script when that whiteness and its attending privileges are challenged. Bergdorf’s post addressed the foundations of whiteness, historical and current modes of imperialism, and an intertwined white and class privilege as founded on the “backs, blood, and death of people of color.” Morgan’s anger to such words was not only protective, but the anger itself meant that the heart of what Bergdorf addressed—a critical analysis of whiteness—was not given any screen time whatsoever. This is no accident. To use James Baldwin’s terminology, those “who believe they are white” will do all they can to maintain that one can be both white and innocent. That one can be white and not be racist.
Just a quick peek into the history of whiteness reveals otherwise.
Thus, mainstream British media swept a sentence into its fold and disregarded the focal point of Bergdorf's Facebook post: white supremacists had hurt and killed many in Charlottesville. These actions do not exist in isolation. Piers Morgan, more importantly, did not want to be named a racist.
“This is why there’s a problem,” Munroe Bergdorf tells Morgan, “Because you’re taking it personally.” Rather than take Morgan’s words personally, what might it entail to look at her words through a systemic lens?
Upon reflection, L’Oreal’s actions seem strikingly similar to those of an institutional presence a little closer to home—the one and only Claremont Consortium. Jon Paul Higgins, now-former director of the 7C Queer Resource Center (QRC), posted tweets on racism and white femininity this past summer. The colleges deemed these tweets insensitive towards, specifically, queer white students. The College Fix, a conservative, student-run news outlet, had published a piece in which anonymous students indicated they were uncomfortable with some of Higgins’ tweets. The article focused primarily on two tweets, one stating a wariness of “White gays and well-meaning white women,” and a second that read, “…police are meant to service and protect white supremacy.” Mainstream media represented the firing of Dr. Higgins and Munroe Bergdorf in isolation, but the actions of the Claremont consortium and L’Oréal do not exist in isolation from each other. We, students, are implicated. A student affairs professional right here at home was fired in our name. Allow me to repeat: we students are implicated. A student affairs professional was fired in our name.
“White…white…police…white supremacy.” Dr. Higgins’ tweets center whiteness clearly.
Higgins’ firing comes after a plethora of professors across the country have been reprimanded, shamed, and threatened for their social media posts that address, most concretely, systemic racism. The question arises: what are these academic professionals and activists challenging? And why are these challenges suppressed immediately?
Higgins’ tweets, it seems, are insensitive. After all, one cannot be well-meaning and racist. The Claremont Consortium’s actions indicate the paradox of its work towards, as Dean Collins-Eaglin of Pomona noted in an email to current students following Higgins’ firing, “a demonstrated commitment to diversity and community.” Jon Paul Higgins threatened the comfort of those who believe they are white, who must believe they are well-meaning and blameless, with his tweets. The 5 Cs—Pomona, Scripps, Harvey-Mudd, Pitzer, and Claremont Mckenna—will demonstrate a commitment to diversity and community so long as those who fulfill this commitment do not challenge ideas of race and racism, and, more importantly, do not center a critique of whiteness.
When I say that I saw myself in Piers Morgan on screen, I do not say that I saw a similar professional role, nor did I see a similar accent, nor even a similar appearance. The whiteness to which I speak has nothing to do with the color of both my own and Morgan’s skin. I speak to a whiteness that creates a story; this story tells me that my sense of being white is not based on racism. But as Ta Nahisi-Coates states: “Racism is the father of race, not the son.” If Morgan were to acknowledge this, then the scaffolding on which his whiteness—in personal and institutional form—relies, would come crumbling down. If Pomona and all the other colleges were to dig deeper into Jon Paul Higgins’ critiques and the discomfort those tweets evoked, then we students would have a Queer, Black QRC director that might just destabilize a little of the power of which he speaks.