Alexi McCammond landed a dream job: editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, an idolized fashion magazine that many of us grew up taping to our bedroom walls. In its 2021 iteration, the now-digital publication is prized for its inclusive, progressive content that spans Title IX politics to spring collections. At only 27 years-old, McCammond would’ve been one of the youngest editors-in-chief in Condé Nast history, and as a Black woman, one of too-few people of color to occupy the top job. But shortly after the company announced her appointment, the fairytale promptly ended.
A torrent of outrage ensued over a slew of McCammond’s past remarks: In 2011, the Axios reporter tweeted racist quips like “Now googling how not to wake up with swollen, Asian eyes,” while also using “gay” and “homo” as insults. The tweets first drew criticism in 2019, which prompted an apology from McCammond, and quickly resurfaced as soon as the Condé Nast announcement was made public. Immediately, McCammond’s hiring was met with swift backlash from the staff at Teen Vogue, readers, and the general public.
In light of the terrifying uptick of anti-Asian hate crimes and violent attacks on the community since the pandemic, the hiring felt especially gut-punching. With her own future staff issuing a statement of disapproval over her appointment, all eyes were on McCammond to make amends. She Instagrammed a typed statement that came stamped with Condé Nast management approval. Many took umbrage at the apology she offered, which centered on her own experience and came across self-serving and disingenuous. McCammond told followers that “this week has been one of the hardest weeks of [her] life.”
A question emerged: Can we embrace a young, driven journalist with unsavory racist comments under her belt as a reformed thought leader? For many, it wasn’t easy to forgive and forget.
“[Alexi’s] lackluster apology feels like a slap in the face during an already anxious and painful time for Asian people in this country,” says journalist and author Melissa Magsaysay. “There is a very real problem with anti-Asian violence and hate crime around the world right now. People are dying and being hurt daily. Alexi, Teen Vogue and Condé Nast need to do far more than release a generic statement manufactured by a human resources associate.”
Condé Nast management (including Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour) was aware of McCammond’s tweets when they hired her, and they stood by their decision at the beginning of the onslaught. The doubling-down of Condé management was met with critical review. “Elevating her [McCammond] to this position is telling the next generation that this behavior is OK and it’s not. This is about accountability. If you are racist as a teen, you should not be the next Teen Vogue editor,” says fashion and celebrity photographer Yu Tsai, who has shot countless covers for Condé Nast titles including Vogue and Teen Vogue.
Tsai joins an immutable number of voices that have wielded their platforms to take a stance against the publishing giant.
“By allowing McCammond to remain as EIC at Teen Vogue, Condé Nast is showing that they only fight for activism when it is beneficial for them and only when they can profit. It negates any prior stances they have made about uplifting diverse voices,” says actor and entertainer Daniel Nguyen. Beloved celebrity makeup artist Daniel Martin, whose clients include Meghan Markle, didn’t hesitate to share this thoughts on the matter: “I’ve shot with Teen Vogue since its inception and I let my agents know that as long as McCammond helms the magazine, I won’t contribute to the editorial anymore. As a gay Asian male, I won’t forget her words.”
Then came the blowback from major advertisers such as Ulta Beauty and Burt’s Bees, who chose to withdraw their deals with Teen Vogue. Martin applauded Ulta’s bold move to pause seven-figure advertising dollars to show their disapproval with this specific hire. “I won’t contribute my artistry, time, or voice to an institution that doesn’t represent my values,” he adds. “It’s very unfortunate that someone who is so bright can also be so ignorant. I don’t believe in cancel culture, but I do hope she takes the time to understand our community and use her now larger platform to be a better ally.”
Heavy hitters within the publishing realm echoed these repudiations of McCammond. Former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth appeared on CBS’s The Talk to condemn McCammond’s past actions. “Her tweets and the sentiments behind them were racist, abhorrent and indefensible, period,” the media pro said. “We need to speak up.” And speaking up is precisely what so many brazen leaders are doing in the name of racial justice.
McCammond’s tweets were made when she was a teenager, but their sentiments continue to inflict harm. “Although Alexi McCammond’s tweets were from years ago, they triggered that feeling of anguish and despair that many of my fellow AAPI brothers and sisters have endured when someone made fun of our eyes, our heritage, and reminded us that we don’t belong here,” explains media personality XiXi Yang. Yang’s impassioned diatribe on McCammond’s apology incited rampant discussion and empowered countless others to grapple with their own ethical beliefs–no matter their color.
“At a time when members of our AAPI community are falling victim to the highest level of hate crimes from coast to coast, I have little faith that [Alexi] will ever be our ally at this point. How can someone who has such a visceral reaction towards Asians lead a major publication that claims to push for the inclusion of all races in this day and age?” challenges Yang.
The McCammond hiring decision opened up old wounds and outrage, pitting two minority groups against each other in a time where we all need so much healing. “Standing up for those who look like us is easy. It’s being consistent with our views even when it applies to someone that we don’t agree with that is challenging,” explains Sharon Smith-Akinsanya, author, CEO of Rae Mackenzie Group and founder of PeopleOfColorCareers.com.
Racism between marginalized groups has ignited a race war that many of us simply want no part of now, or in the future. “Under no circumstances do you get a pass to be racist because you are a person of color,” explains diversity and inclusion strategist Randi Bryant. “We must realize that Alexi is a product of a society that was built on the idea that the lighter a person’s skin, the better the person is. Consequently, people of color are placed in a position of adversaries–trying to be the most lauded minority.”
It’s a loaded situation with seemingly no way out. How can McCammond–and anyone with a history of racist remarks–work towards redemption with the communities they’ve hurt? Are we all beholden to the people we were as teenagers, or is there a way to truly make amends?
“We must all recognize that we were raised with systemic racism. We all are affected and must consciously work against doing and saying racist things,” says Bryant. “Alexi needs to ask the Asian community what would make them feel as if she is not just sorry about what she said; but that she is committed to doing better. Her statements were public, her journey to becoming better needs to be public, too.”
Diversity expert and cultural architect Dr. Kerry Mitchell Brown, founder and principal of KMB, urges people in leadership roles to actively be anti-racist. “Use your position to ensure that your organization tackles racism head-on and works to lift up the brilliance, beauty, innovations, and contributions of Asians and other people of color to challenge conventional wisdom and stereotypes that are holding us all back.” Brown makes an important point. The longer we harbor angry, divisive feelings towards one another, the less advancement and forward-thinking opportunities we create for all.
We all still have a lot to learn from one another, but one thing proved true during this painful exercise of exploring racially-charged wounds: just because you’ve hit rock bottom doesn’t mean you have to stay there. As of March 18, McCammond and Teen Vogue ended her employment agreement. “After speaking with Alexi this morning, we agreed that it was best to part ways, so as to not overshadow the important work happening at Teen Vogue,” wrote executive Stan Duncan in an e-mail obtained by the New York Times. For her part, McCammond said her “past tweets have overshadowed the work I’ve done to highlight the people and issues that I care about.” Whether McCammond actually follows through with the work of being anti-racist is up to her, but Teen Vogue now has the opportunity to find a leader who embodies the brand’s professed values.