Munroe Bergdorf talks about oppression, intersectionality and speaking out

‘If I monitor everything I say it would be watering down what I mean’

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It’s a common conception that life in Cambridge equates to living in a bubble – a world so far removed from normality that anything that occurs here wouldn’t replicate itself in the real world. Our interview with Munroe Bergdorf, however, tells a different story. The events of the summer have demonstrated that the Cambridge experience, and issues facing the student body here, are far from removed from the outside world.

Just a standard occurrence in the bubble…

Munroe Bergdorf is a model, social activist and DJ. She recently came to light after being fired by L’Oréal for supposedly incendiary comments, and was then targeted by the media to create a narrative in which people of colour were not the victims of today’s society. Her experience was made particularly pertinent to Cambridge students, when Jason Okundaye and Lola Olufemi experienced similarly negative and outlandish targeting by the right wing press, for different reasons. The common denominator, however, is the fact that these victims were all people of colour.

When asked about her thoughts on the unhealthy obsession of the media with regards to targeting minorities, Bergdorf responded that this came down to a simple “fear of the other”. She continued: "The press response [to these issues] goes to show that we aren’t used to speaking about race, or even hearing about black men and women raising their opinions on these issues."

She also argued that there is a “need to recognise structures”, and those who do and “go against the status quo” can have their thoughts “taken in an unexpected way”. This is a symptom of a much more systemic issue – the press response to these issues shows there are “different levels of upholding power structures, from extremism to oppressive but offhand comments.”

Bergdorf furthered this point: “You don’t have to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan to play into a white supremacist narrative… [It's] a simple matter of sociology. Certain sections of society, without being aware of it, are programmed to uphold a power structure. Men and patriarchy, heterosexual men and heteronormativity, white people uphold white supremacy.”

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Where's Wally…?

This lead to discussion of whether people in the public spotlight should be particularly careful with their choice of language, to avoid inciting anger across groups of people, but instead focusing on a more positive note.

Bergdorf was asked whether the statement which sparked such debate this summer, “ALL white people are racist", should have been worded more carefully. She replied: "At first I thought maybe I should be a little more careful”, but then shifted to thinking, “no, not really. If I monitor everything I say it would be watering down what I mean.”

“I said it because I wanted it to be provocative, not necessarily down the route of a worldwide scandal but to actually think about what I meant."

Intersectionality was also a key theme of conversation. Bergdorf is a black, queer, transgender woman, and so a spokesperson for an intersection not commonly discussed, that of being BME and LGBT+. Bergdorf said: “The big thing about intersectionality is the need to look at it in a really holistic way”, and that we “can’t separate” the different aspects of our lives as they all “work together” and so we should “speak about identity as a whole”.

This means that the experience of, for instance, a cis-female white lesbian is very different to that of a queer woman of colour, despite sharing points in common, and so must have their issues addressed with slight variations. She described herself as being “in touch with myself sexually, intellectually… I have to look at myself as a whole, in the moment, in all elements.”

Bergdorf also argued we must use our intersections by playing on their relative strengths. “As a woman, we are expected to emotionally separate ourselves from topics", when it ought to be the opposite, that her “strengths lie in this, most women can be more empathetic and consider issues from different angles to men”.

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All the intersections

One could go as far as to say we should be able to draw on the strengths of other people's identities, but sometimes this can result in the development of cultural appropriation. When asked about the line between appreciation and appropriation, with reference to Trinity Hall dropping the ‘Tokyo to Kyoto' May Ball theme, Bergdorf responded: “The line is that we don’t need to be something to appreciate something. People aren’t costumes”.

She went on to say it was a “privilege”, and people “need to be culturally and historically aware” when planning certain events.

"Playing into a narrative of being able to dress up as a person or a culture, a body or a race with people actively saying that makes me feel uncomfortable [is] playing into that person’s oppression. Some may think it’s harmless to dress up as a Japanese woman, but the very real and serious thing is white bodies are oppressing people of colour.

“There is history that we can’t delete that we wish we could. History affects the present, and so we need to change the narrative of the present, and stop allowing things to go on that make people feel uncomfortable”.