Munroe Bergdorf and Structural RacismIn the aftermath of Munroe Bergdorf’s sacking, Eve Ryan analyses how a Facebook post received such a strong backlash.The rise and fall of Munroe Bergdorf has the ups and downs of a Shakespearian tragedy, ending with her being fired and widely criticised. In the ensuing weeks she has been lambasted by mainstream media, and received death and rape threats.It started with Munroe's Facebook post, in which she claimed that all white people are guilty of racial violence amidst a broader criticism of institutional racism. The post describes modern society as a product of racial oppression, thriving only on the backs of slaves and a "racist infrastructure" which embeds a racial bias in the minds of all white people. It is the quotation 'Honestly I don't have energy to talk about the racial violence of white people any more. Yes ALL white people’ that has really landed her in hot water. Thousands have been offended by these remark, and she has been labelled a racist and “at odds” with principles of diversity.
The lamentable choice of forum to discuss the real issue of institutional racism does not render Bergdorf responsible for the vitriol she has receivedThere are several reasons why Bergdorf’s comments have generated such controversy. She has repeatedly cited the context of the Charlottesville attacks: a white supremacist march, which was met with a counter protest, resulting in a man driving his vehicle into a crowd of counter protesters, injuring 19 and killing one. It is in the rubble of this harrowing event, an unambiguous display of racial violence, that Bergdorf chose to plant the flag of institutional racism and label all white people perpetrators of racial violence.As she later explains, she defines “acts of violence” as encompassing any unconscious bias, privilege, or societal structure which informs the lesser treatment of those of colour. This connection between her words and the events of Charlottesville begs for misinterpretation, although the lamentable choice of forum to discuss the real issue of institutional racism does not render Bergdorf responsible for the vitriol she has received.A common criticism against Bergdorf is that her charge that “all white people” are racist is overly simplistic. White Americans accounted for many of the counter-protesters at Charlottesville. This response feeds the fundamental misconception that it is a betrayal of white allies to criticise their social inheritance. Bergdorf’s post, she has stated, was purposely impersonal and related to the system of white power, not individual white people, but in any case the now notorious post and its backlash speaks to the fact that whatever our point in the debate, we lack the language to adequately communicate it.
We are yet to accept racism as a spectrumWe are yet to accept racism as a spectrum. It remains evocative of slavery, brutality and not the corner shop owner who feels generous for employing a black youth on the tills. Racial issues are incredibly complex but the language we employ to describe it has not undergone a concurrent evolution. “Racism” when synonymous with the organised intolerance demonstrated at Charlottesville attack is, fortunately, relatively rare. “Racism”, meaning the inequalities rooted in the very fabric of society is, however, ubiquitous. In the “racism” Bergdorf describes, white people are racist by virtue of their status of beneficiaries from an oppressive and unequal paradigm. By simply existing in the world and profiting from the inequality that is our legacy, we are racist. Without rising up in revolt, we are racist. No white cloak or slur necessary. This idea that one can be racist through mere acquiescence of the state of affairs is, to many, ludicrous. It criminalises inaction. It feels aggressively intrusive. It places an onus on white people to engage in the destruction of the architecture of modern society.Bergdorf's argument challenges not only our perception of racism but, by requiring us to step out and act as a moral imperative, she attacks the principles of self-interest that are the cornerstone of Western economics, philosophy and moral reasoning. To be labelled racist for preserving one's self-interest runs contrary to the individualism that has characterised the West since Descartes. It is clear that Bergdorf's remarks hit a nerve. This is not just because of the grandiosity of her claims, but because in calling for a new way to think about race she implicitly calls for something more: a new way to operate in society.