Sung Hee and I were walking home from school together, trying to put on a brave face in front of our grade school tormentors.
“Rocky,” they shouted at me making monkey noises. “Ching, chong, chink,” they mocked my friend.
Rocky was an ornery, ancient gorilla who lived in the zoo across the street from the housing projects where we lived. Me with my kinky afro, full lips and extra long, lanky limbs and her with her thick accent, straight black hair and Asian eyes — neither of us were considered cute enough to be popular. Worse, we were considered “brown-nosers” because we loved school and excelled in class.
But standing together, facing the hate in front of us, Sung Hee and I felt safer. We felt braver.
Not back then and not today, did it matter to me that we were of different races from vastly different cultures. We had a common enemy. We knew no one had the right to mock or abuse us for how we looked or sounded or because we didn’t fit nicely in the box of what little girls were supposed to look and sound like. And if they did — true to my North Philadelphia roots — they would face my fists. When those bullies came after us, Sung Hee and I decided together that we would resist their hate.
I understood those childhood memories in a sharper light when 27-year-old Alexi McCammond had to step down last week from her new post as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue magazine once a slew of mocking anti-Asian and homophobic comments she made nearly 10 years ago were once again brought to public attention. Her departure was necessary, but it isn’t the end of her story.
“I should not have tweeted what I did and I have taken full responsibility for that. I look at my work and growth in the years since, and have redoubled my commitment to growing in the years to come as both a person and as a professional.” McCammond tweeted as she announced her resignation.
I’m not here to judge McCammond. I’m not here to cancel her, either. But I do think it’s fair for her to be held accountable despite the time that has passed since her comments. And her departure is the embodiment of an accountability that feels right and that, thankfully, we are seeing more often these days. For me, her bigotry, whether intended or not, calls into question her ability to lead a newsroom in today’s more racially conscious climate. I made multiple efforts to reach McCammond but I did not hear from her.
Some people contend that it matters that McCammond wrote these offensive posts when she was a teen — an age when all of us make questionable decisions. I know I did, and having raised a child, I get this argument.
Still, while it’s commonplace for teens to post things on social media they may regret later, not every young person displays the amount of bigotry and insensitivity to multiple groups as did McCammond. And more importantly, even if they have I think there is always room for growth and grace. The problem with McCammond’s tweets is she has chosen a leadership position in the media — an industry plagued by problems of racism, homophobia and bigotry.
I’m not saying McCammond shouldn’t have a job or a platform ever again — far from it. But at this moment, it’s hard to imagine how she can effectively take the helm at a major publication at a company where so much change is needed when it comes to institutional discrimination.
There is no doubt that her ouster is in part a reaction to the rise in anti-Asian violence across the nation and to the recent spa shootings in Atlanta, Georgia, that left eight people dead, six of whom were Asian women. But it would be wrong for anyone to allow Condé Nast, the media company that houses Teen Vogue, to imagine that McCammond’s leaving the company puts an end to an ongoing, deeper discussion around inclusion.
McCammond’s exit shouldn’t distract from the larger, glaring issues of race and inequality in media — ones I have experienced personally after working nearly 25 years in publishing, as a founding editor of ESPN Magazine (the only Black editor) and several newspapers.
Condé Nast executives knew of McCammond’s racist tweets long before her hire and it was not a deal-breaker for them. As Conde Nast’s chief communications officer Joe Libonati told CNN, “Throughout her career she has dedicated herself to being a champion for marginalized voices. Two years ago she took responsibility for her social media history and apologized.” That the company knew and didn’t see a problem is part of what’s wrong here.
Since her dismissal, there have also been reports of a photo showing her in Native American costume at a Halloween party Conde Nast apparently did not know about this or homophobic posts from McCammond because they had been deleted. But as we’ve seen in past Twitter controversies, even if you tweet, then delete, there’s a good chance your words will come back to haunt you.
The publishing empire under Anna Wintour, currently the chief content officer and the global editorial director of Vogue, has long been described by employees and those of us working in publishing as a shop ruled by systemic racism, fear, pay inequities and discrimination. In the surge of protest against racial inequality in America that followed the killing of George Floyd and the scrutiny of that inequality’s manifestations in the workplace, Wintour’s dynasty, rightfully, has not been spared.
“My time at Vogue, at Condé Nast, was the most challenging + miserable time of my career — The bullying + testing from white counterparts, the completely thankless work, the terrible base pay + the racism was exhausting,” tweeted former employee Shelby Ivey Christie in June 2020. In an internal memo last June, Wintour said: “I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate and give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators. We have made mistakes too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant.” Additionally, a spokesperson for Condé Nast affirmed publicly the company’s commitment to inclusive hiring and “creating meaningful, sustainable change.”
Kudos to the 20 staffers at Teen Vogue who challenged management about the hire and then posted their concerns on social media, clearly hoping to gain outside support. They questioned McCammond’s ability to lead and grow the business among the very audiences she had offended, especially after a pandemic that has devastated an already hemorrhaging publishing industry.
The tone-deaf decision to hire McCammond, at a broader level, reinforces the reality that installing one person of color at the top of an organization does nothing to effect structural change within it. This time around, staffers demanded more.
And that structural change is what is most urgently needed if media companies want to survive and learn to connect with today’s diverse audiences.
Throughout my tenure in publishing, I witnessed White executives justify pay inequity for nonwhite employees, little or no promotional opportunities for Black employees, people of color and women, and, excuse blatantly racist behaviors. I witnessed gay employees sidelined and bullied. And sadly, no amount of work I did joining diversity boards, developing inclusion seminars or recruiting and promoting Black staffers in the end resulted in sustainable culture change needed to create equal opportunities. Many of those newsrooms today are either shuttered or have become even more hostile work environments toward people of color.
Time does not always heal our wounds. Reactive public apologies are not as readily accepted as they once were. And that’s not a bad thing.
McCammond is a talented journalist. She established herself as a savvy political reporter while she covered President Joe Biden’s campaign. I’m rooting for her and hope she will find a way to heal the wounds her past comments have caused, intentionally, or not. If she can put in the hard work to regain the trust of the audiences she offended, she can continue her success.
But McCammond isn’t the story anymore — what happens next is what matters most. Now is a perfect opportunity for groups like the National Association of Black Journalists, which named McCammond the emerging journalist of the year in 2019, and the Asian American Journalists Association, which stood by her hire but asked for more equitable treatment of Asian employees, to deepen their partnership and more aggressively challenge the structural racism throughout media.
Condé Nast is not an isolated situation.
For too long Black journalists have led the fight against systemic inequality mostly alone — both inside and outside of newsrooms — and that must end. As we continue with more authentic conversations with one another and our employers around race and inequality in media, I’m hoping our partner organizations can become bolder workplace advocates.
In journalism, and in daily life, allyship works best when it is not only reactive but when it is intentionally focused on the day-to-day work of advocacy for all marginalized communities. (Full disclosure, I am a longtime NABJ member and currently serve on the Sports Task Force board.)
White supremacy threatens us all. None of us can afford to remain silent, or comfortable with flimsy “model minority” stereotypes, or fancy corporate titles. Our communities are under attack, but we don’t have to live isolated by our own fears.
As Sung Hee and I discovered on those long walks home, standing together, facing the hate in front of us, we are safer. And we are stronger.