Munroe Bergdorf and Lady Phyll schooling investment bankers on racism and transphobia is the energy we need in 2020
Black trans woman Munroe Bergdorf is schooling 300 investment bankers about racism and transphobia in the UK.
It’s a sign of how far we’ve come: Just under three years ago, Bergdorf was publicly shamed by the press and fired from a high-profile modelling gig with L’Oréal for privately discussing white supremacy on social media.
Now, the model and activist is sat down – over Zoom – for a “fireside chat” with Kaleidoscope Trust boss and UK Black Pride co-founder Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, at a co-meeting of the Pride and BAME networks of investment bank Macquarie Group.
Black Lives Matter is at the top of the agenda.
“We haven’t really confronted our racism in the UK, we’ve always assumed it’s America’s problem or a faraway issue,” Munroe Bergdorf tells Phyll Opoku-Gyimahl – who is known as Lady Phyll, partly due to her decision to reject an MBE to protest Britain’s role in formulating anti-LGBT+ penal codes across its empire.
Bergdorf continues: “To become anti-racist is a really open-ended thing – as we’ve seen over the past 400 years, racism takes many forms. It’s a never-ending journey of allyship. But one day it will end!”
“And we’re only just confronting transphobia,” she says, referencing how the Conservative government has “used the pandemic as an opportunity to wind back trans rights“.
Lady Phyll agrees. “I can’t stress enough how hurt and pained I feel for our trans siblings,” she says. “As a Black lesbian woman, we need to find better, more concrete ways of being an ally.”
Munroe Bergdorf: Black Lives Matter means ‘addressing racism in the LGBT+ community’.
This has renewed the conversation about racism in the UK and in the LGBT+ community. One immediate result of this was gay hookup app Grindr promising to remove its “ethnicity filter” – denounced for promoting racism – in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
And after being widely criticised for a “speaking up is worth it” post on social media, L’Oréal – which was accused of hypocrisy, having sacked Bergdorf in 2017 precisely for speaking up about white supremacy – apologised to the model, and has now rehired her as a diversity consultant.
Amid these and many more conversations, many white queers are talking about allyship – and how to be better allies.
“One of the things I struggle with about ‘allyship’ is that this is something people should be doing anyway,” Bergdorf says. “Not just allies.”
If I expect white people to show up for Black lives, then I need to be showing up for Muslim lives.
She explained: “I expect to hold myself accountable, too. If I expect white people to show up for Black lives, then I need to be showing up for Muslim lives. I need to be showing up for disabled lives. We all need to be showing up for each other, rather than just hoping somebody will show up for us.”
Lady Phyll added that the problem is when “we stay silent on subjects that don’t feel like our struggle”.
The problem is when ‘we stay silent on subjects that don’t feel like our struggle’.
“We don’t address the racism that exists in our LGBT+ community,” she said. “I get an email every week – why do we need a Black Pride? Why don’t you just join the ‘normal’ Pride? And it just shows me that we can have bigots in our LGBT+ community.”
Bergdorf, who first came out as gay aged 14, said she’s had a “well rounded experience of oppression”.
“I’ve experienced the racism, the misogyny, the transmisogyny, the homophobia. But when it comes to privilege, it’s such a liberating thing recognising your privilege,” she said.
“With my job I have access to certain spaces,” she continued. “I have a certain income, I’m a lot safer physically than a lot of Black trans women.
“And I’m a light-skinned Black woman. So I don’t experience colourism. I’m not oppressed in the same way that dark-skinned Black women are – and I have the ability to oppress dark-skinned Black women in this way.
“It’s such a liberating thing to recognise these things about yourself. I can’t make myself darker! It’s not about feeling guilty about who you are, it’s about recognising that you’re part of a system.
“Take yourself out of it, and work to deconstruct it.”
‘Do the change without the praise.’
On the subject of allyship, one thing that kept coming up for Munroe Bergdorf and Lady Phyll was the need to make changes, urgently, but without the expectation of praise or recognition.
“Without the praise, without the thanks,” Bergdorf emphasised. “Diversity is the bare minimum. You need to be investing. You need to be willing to invest your resources.”
She urged companies to think about what they meant when they said “diversity”.
“It’s the infrastructure. Dismantling racism is structural change! It’s very easy to not be diverse. To exercise diversity in a conscious way is a little bit more difficult, a little bit harder.”
Berdorf gave an example: When hiring for a role, how many Black applicants did you have? If there weren’t any, this is something to reflect on.
If you didn’t have Black applicants for a role, you need to ask yourself why.
“Where have you advertised?” she asked. “Have you made your workplace look inviting to somebody with a different experience to the majority of people in your business? If it’s a really white culture that isn’t inviting and inclusive and understanding of the Black experience, then Black people aren’t going to want to work there. It’s about how you look, and how you treat your members of staff.”
“There needs to be diversity in the decision-making process,” she continued. “Not just white people, or white authority bringing people in. The table from the outset needs to be diverse. Instead of offering a seat at the table, you need to look at who’s at the table in the first place.”
“And sometimes,” Lady Phyll added, “you need to dismantle the table and start again.”
Tackling transphobia in the UK.
With three months of worrying remarks by Tory equalities chief Liz Truss under our belt, the trans and non-binary community in the UK is anxiously waiting for the government to publish the results of a huge 2018 consultation on the Gender Recognition Act (GRA).
The consultation was aimed at deciding how to reform the GRA – the 2004 law that trans men and women use to gain legal recognition of their gender – but Truss’ recent comments, on top of years of transphobic hate spewed by the British press, means the community is braced for US-style “bathrooms bills” and further restrictions on access to healthcare, rather than the improvements that were originally promised.
“What’s going on in the UK”? Lady Phyll asked. “Trans lives – why are we still debating these things? Why are we stuck on toilets?”
Why are we stuck on toilets?
“We saw George Floyd get murdered but we still decide to debate trans lives,” she continued. “I find it nonsensical and frankly insulting to our trans siblings, who just want to live and just want to survive.”
Bergdorf admitted that being Black and trans has been tough recently, and said that the news stories have bene “weighing heavily” on her.
“I woke up two days ago with a stress rash all over my body from this JK Rowling situation,” she said. “Where she’s chosen now, during a pandemic, to advocate for the winding back of trans healthcare.”
She continued: “But I feel positive that we’re having these conversations. There’s a lot of transphobia in the LGB community.
There’s a lot of transphobia in the LGB community.
“There’s a lot of trans people with internalised transphobia who are working against trans people. There’s oppression from all angles. It’s about calling it out, being organised – I don’t think we’ve ever been so organised as a community.
“The repoliticising of Pride during this time of COVID-19 has been a moment to behold. It’s been so great to see us get back to the roots of Pride. To start marching again. To recognise what’s going on with our government.
“Cisgender white gay men have accessed a privilege that Black trans women, migrant queer women, disabled lesbian women, have not.
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Cisgender white gay men have accessed a privilege that queer women have not.
“We need to keep speaking about this, and centring the experiences of people that experience these marginalisation. Don’t speak for them. Let them speak for themselves.”
Notes on allyship from Munroe Bergdorf and Lady Phyll.
“There’s a change in the way people are talking about things,” Lady Phyll mused. “They’re using the word intersectionality, and not using it in the wrong way, to describe diversity, but in the right way.”
Munroe Bergdorf agreed – and added that now, people are beginning to action their allyship, rather than just talking about it.
“No child is born racist, or sexist, misogynistic, transphobic,” Lady Phyll concluded. “It’s learned behaviour. So the question is how does it change?”