The emotionally fraught, racially charged personnel drama that unfolded at Teen Vogue last week could be an opening for a national dialogue about redemption, racial reconciliation and forgiveness. Think I’m being too optimistic? Many countries have overcome worse division than this.
As the late Nelson Mandela said of his victories for truth and reconciliation, “We were expected to destroy one another and ourselves collectively in the worst racial conflagration. Instead, we as a people chose the path of negotiation, compromise and peaceful settlement. Instead of hatred and revenge we chose reconciliation and nation-building.”
Employment in a high-profile editorial job at an elite employer like Vogue magazine is a privilege, not a right. The managers at Teen Vogue were well within their rights to fire Alexi McCammond as editor in chief because of decade-old offensive tweets she wrote when she was 17. But if they were to apply their standards equally, they’d also fire senior social media manager Christine Davitt, who publicized a letter reportedly signed by more than 20 staffers rejecting McCammond “in light of her past racist and homophobic tweets.”
Turns out Davitt has some explaining to do about her own past. Davitt reportedly wrote two tweets in 2009 to a friend, identifying him using the N-word, and tweeted the word again in 2010. The friend to whom the comments were addressed appears to be white, and Davitt said in multiple tweets that she is of Irish and Filipino descent. By Davitt’s own standards, she should resign for her statements, even if Teen Vogue chooses to give her a pass.
But once the race-based calculus begins, it’s hard to see where it ends. Should the magazine somehow show Davitt forbearance because of her Asian background in light of the troubling rise in violence against Asian Americans? And if so, would forbearance for Davitt suggest that Teen Vogue believes Asian lives matter more than black lives, given both Davitt’s repugnant word choice and the fact that McCammond is partially black?
Does the fact that Asian Americans are, on average, better educated and make more money than all other racial groups in the country mean anything when comparing the sins of McCammond and Davitt? And how does “woke culture” process the fact that McCammond is only partially black and Davitt only partially Asian? Is McCammond’s sin worse because she also used anti-LGBT language? Does it matter that both women profoundly reject the language they used in their youthful ignorance? Such questions could go on forever. But this absurdly complicated, amorphous race-based calculus is deeply problematic for our culture and society.
The hard truth for Teen Vogue is that it’s reaping the fruit of the identity-infused cancel-culture wars it, and others in media and entertainment, have been sowing for many years. Dividing people by race is an absolute rejection of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream that we view each other as members of a universal family.
Are all people irredeemable? What does redemption look like? The Vogue team said that McCammond, whom I briefly worked with when I advised Bustle.com, was an attractive hire because of her work writing about social justice and being a voice for marginalized communities. The Teen Vogue team vetting McCammond said she was open and honest about her past statements during the interview process, and that she was contrite and acknowledged the pain she’d caused, a crucial first step in reconciliation.
Jim VandeHei (my former boss at Politico), the Axios cofounder who hired McCammond, said on Twitter that his former staffer “admited [sic] her mistakes, repented (years ago and again of late) and showed during her four years with us she was a strong woman with a big heart. She was a great colleague who often stood up 4 others.”
No matter what Teen Vogue decides, a whopping 64 percent of Americans say cancel culture is a threat to freedom, according to a recent poll by Harvard CAPS-Harris. That figure includes majorities of black (53 percent), Hispanic (66 percent) and white (67 percent) Americans.
Even the liberal hosts and guests of MSNBC’s Morning Joe last week acknowledged the dangers of cancel culture, and their conversation could almost have been identical to one at Fox & Friends. This appears to be a bipartisan moment for national unity, a call for us to lay down our weapons in the culture war and rejoin that call for “a more perfect Union.”
As the brilliant African-American economist Thomas Sowell says, “Our children and grandchildren may yet curse the day we began hyping race and ethnicity. There are countries where that has led to slaughters in the streets, but you cannot name a country where it has led to greater harmony.”
These past few years, our country has hit a fever pitch of division and discord. But it isn’t our destiny, and it’s something we can heal through contrition, dialogue, right actions and grace.
Carrie Sheffield is a senior fellow at Independent Women’s Forum.