It’s time we honor Black women for their anti-racist work

Jemele Hill and Munroe Bergdorf

Photo: Jemele Hill (left) via Twitter and Munroe Bergdorf (right) via Twitter

Trans and cis Black women remain the least recognized, most undermined truth tellers and strugglers for Black liberation across Black communities. As exemplars of this fact, ESPN’s Jemele Hill and model and activist Munroe Bergdorf are living through a moment of struggle. Their’s is a fight against white supremacy, misogynoir, and, in Bergdorf’s case, transphobia, that remains under appreciated and little recognized in the stage of public discourse today.

But, it’s time we change that.

For background, in August, Bergdorf was hired as a part of L’Oreal Paris’s new “diversity” campaign in the United Kingdom, according to Washington Post. But, just days after the partnership was announced, L’Oreal Paris took to Twitter to announce it was severing ties with the model and DJ, saying:

The action was, apparently, the result of comments Bergdorf made in response to the acts of white supremacist violence and riots in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12. According to the Daily Mail, Bergdorf’s now deleted Facebook post read: “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 colour,” Bergdorf reportedly posted and later deleted. “Your entire existence is drenched in racism.”

What is striking about Bergdorf’s comments is that she has consistently drawn attention to structural and systemic racism. Rather than focusing on individual white people or interpersonal acts of aggression between Black and white people, Bergdorf’s comments and her subsequent interviews have explicitly called out the ways that all white people benefit from a system of white supremacy, no matter if they intend to or not.

While Bergdorf is on her glow up, becoming the new face of “rival British makeup company, Illamasqua” according to The Post, the threats of violence against her and the compromise of her safety at the hands of a capitalistic mega-business like L’Oreal (and the hypocrisy of those actions given that she was hired specifically because she is a trans activist) are just two of the ways that Black women’s work to make us a little more free are dashed when deemed economically infeasible.

Sadly, Bergdorf isn’t the only recent example of this issue.

This week, long time newscaster for ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” Jemele Hill sent out a sequence of (completely honest and accurate) tweets summarizing her thoughts on Donald Trump. Then, a proverbial shit storm ensued.

Hill has not deleted any of the tweets, which is the equivalent of Nene Leakes’ “I said what I said!” meme. But, after ESPN issued a milquetoast ass apology on Hill’s behalf, she issued one of her own on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the White House (yes, that White House) has come out to demand that Hill — a private citizen  — be fired for words. As late as Friday, there were still reports from the LA Times that ESPN President John Skipper claims that Hill’s actions were a “violation of [ESPN’s] standards.” No word yet on how that works since using Twitter is probably not against company standards nor is commenting on current events as a news reporter.

Yet, they have tried literally everything to get Hill off of the air in an attempt to shut her up. But, Hill has been cultivating a viewership and supportive peer-base for a number of years. That’s why when ESPN officials reportedly tried to get her off the air this week, none of the Black men anchors they attempted to slot into her place were having any of it, according to reporting from Think Progress. 

Hill has been clear about why she talks about politics and sports.

A few weeks ago, Hill sat down with The Root to discuss her beliefs that sports and politics are deeply intertwined. Specifically, she called out the ways that big name athletes like Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Colin Kaepernick have engaged in very political acts making those actions “sports news.”

Hill and Bergdorf both hit on some important points in these videos. Their lives and the work that they do are inherently affected by the political climate. And, when compared to many prominent men, their words and actions are actually quite tame.

There are scores of white male reporters on Twitter right now who have said the same or worse of Trump. Further, there was no shortage of commentary following the Charlottesville, Va. white supremacist march and riot calling it just that. Years from now, history will reward both Bergdorf and Hill for being in its “right side.” But, we can’t rely on time to redeem us for our oversight of Black women’s good work today.

And, while Colin Kaepernick is another Black person who has been sacrificed in the name of preserving the anti-Black status quo, the social and economic consequences for him don’t have the same gendered components as those facing Bergdorf and Hill.

Bergdorf and Hill are Black women who have made the choice to use their voices and platforms for political aims. But, we know that Black women in the arc of political history rarely get their just due. Only in recent years have Black women freedom fighters and anti-racist activists like Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Shirley Chisholm become more recognizable leaders in our long history of Black collective action. This comes after generations of a male-dominated narrative of Black collective struggle in the United States.

Much of that change can be attributed to the work of Black women authors and historians like Barbara Ransby, Paula Giddings, Chana Kai Lee, Carole Boston Weatherford, and Shirley Chisholm herself. These women had to rummage through archives, scrounge among the annals of our systems of records, and elevate the voices of those least credited for the freedoms we enjoy to tell these necessary truths. It took that much work and the passing of a great deal of time to give proper credit to Black women who gave us their intellectual, emotional, and physical labor.

Thus, I am convinced that if we do not honor Black women strugglers for our freedom in the present, we risk them being erased and misremembered for generations. That is a risk that I am not comfortable with.

Honor these Black women now. Today. They do for us what no one else can or will.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Co-Founder/Editor-in-Chief
Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.

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