Yesterday afternoon, Condé Nast, the publisher of Teen Vogue, announced that Alexi McCammond, a 27-year-old former reporter for Axios, would not be taking over as editor of the magazine after all. She had been done in by her own social-media posts, little time bombs she’d unwittingly armed when she tweeted them at age 17. Those posts groaned about her “stupid asian T.A.” and mocked Asians’ “swollen eyes.” She apologized for the tweets in 2019. The Teen Vogue staff discovered these comments, spurned the apology, and revolted.
My own half-swollen eyes widened at this news. McCammond’s tweets are a kind of denigration familiar to Asian Americans—an expression less of hatred than of social difference. If you regard Asian people as a distinct social type, never conceivably overlapping with your own circles, ineligible for friendship or romance or conversation, you might think that you can ridicule them and never suffer any consequences. Then the bombs go off, and instead of standing amid mock-ups for your “Summer Style” package, you are standing amid the ruins of your career.
I suppose a magazine aimed at teens and preteens would strain to acknowledge what every adult knows, which is that the entire point of being a teenager is to make and correct the most mortifying errors of your life. “The sooner you make your first five thousand mistakes,” the artist Kimon Nicolaїdes once wrote, “the sooner you will be able to correct them.” Then, at some vague point when the first digit of your age is no longer a 1, you experience a cleansing bonfire of your sins, and your adult permanent record begins.
If Teen Vogue, even in its current woke incarnation, does not exist to celebrate this period of still-expungeable error, then it may as well be calling for the abolition of the teenage years altogether. Its staff, as well as many of its advertisers, evidently think its readers deserve no bonfire, no sin jubilee, and should be hounded eternally for their dumbest and most bigoted utterances. This suggests an intriguing editorial mix of beauty tips, celebrity news, and vengeance. Who wouldn’t want to read what a modern 20-something Torquemada thinks about Zayn Malik’s Netflix queue or a new brand of facial cleansers? Because I am no longer a teenager, I have no teenage years to lose. Although if Teen Vogue has its way, I suppose I should consider myself hostage to the idiocy of my wayward teenage self until I am safely dead.
Teenagers lose from this decision. Asian Americans do too. I know nothing about the racial composition of the staff of Teen Vogue, but the policing of anti-Asian tweets, no matter who does it, is a cheap exercise in identity construction. In an interview published Wednesday, the writer Cathy Park Hong told The Atlantic that fixing political problems requires that we “talk about our racial identity, because people feel intimately close to that.” The solution is to “build an Asian American identity that’s beyond loving boba tea and K-pop.”
The coup d’état at Teen Vogue is the result of a debased form of identity building—one that mistakes an identity worth having for one founded on the pitiless prosecution of offenses by members of other races regardless of whether they are large or small, intended or unintended, ongoing or long-disavowed. I see little harm, and some good, in the various Asian-hyphenated Americans celebrating their communities, and even their wider pan-Asian community. Like everyone, Asian Americans should meet racism and violence with the contempt they deserve. But they should decline to model their outrage on the vindictive excesses that have become commonplace. They should do so independently of existing structures, which originated in categories of Black and white, and don’t work very well for discussion of those races either. Nor is it any failure of allyship with Black people, or for that matter white people, to opt out of these structures. Black identity and white identity are lamentable realities, difficult to unravel because they are legacies of America’s original sin. If, as Hong says, Asian identity is something still being built, a real act of allyship would be to reject the defective templates of its predecessors. No one wants to be stuck in a prison of racial identity, but the prison walls do not crumble because some people volunteer to be inmates with those who have no choice.
The strongest argument for McCammond’s ouster is that she has not been especially gracious in accepting the apologies of others. (This is Wesley Yang’s “Dexter rule,” named for the TV serial killer who kills only other killers: Cancel only the cancelers.) But let’s grant her maximum charity. A world in which McCammond apologizes for her old tweets is better than one in which she sees nothing wrong with them. Possibly worse than the latter, though, is one in which the highest aspiration of racial pride is to slam the doors of repentance permanently in the faces of your enemies. In many religious traditions, expiation of guilt is an earthly process; you can confess your sins to a priest, or wander Earth in sackcloth and ashes. For the sake of today’s Teen Vogue readers, I hope that by the time they are McCammond’s age, the current culture has developed its own process of expiation. Most people were 17 once, and those who haven’t gotten there yet will be 17 someday, and 27 too.