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Editorial: They made anti-Asian comments. Now what?

Journalist Alexi McCammond speaks onstage at Politicon 2018
Alexi McCammond speaks onstage at Politicon 2018 at Los Angeles Convention Center.
(Michael S. Schwartz / Getty Images)

Our society has grown so outraged of late, unapologetic and unforgiving, that every week seems to bring new questions about just how offensive some person’s social media post was, what sort of redress is required of them and whether they are fit to keep their job.

They’re worthy questions, though, and more complicated than many people might like to think. An array of elements comes into play, such as in the cases of two Black women in leadership positions who, in totally separate situations, had written anti-Asian comments on social media in years past. One of the women, a commissioner of San Francisco schools, should resign. The other, a magazine editor, never should have lost her job.

As we seek to become a less racist nation, our responses to these situations should minimize the rage factor — except in situations that are simply too outrageous — and seek to move us forward as a society, protecting groups from further acts of racism while emphasizing redemption over punishment when reasonable. For starters, those responses should take into account how old the comments were, how offensive they were, whether they render the offenders unable to be effective at their current jobs and what the offenders did after the comments came to light.

Alison Collins, vice president of the San Francisco Unified School District board, posted a series of derogatory and racially stereotyping tweets about Asian Americans a little more than four years ago. Not yet a member of the school board, she was reacting to some troubling events, including the taunting of a Latino student by Asian American students at a school in the city. Writing about her thoughts, which included concerns that more Asian Americans weren’t vocally protesting racism in the days following Donald Trump’s election as president, she compared the group to a “house n****r.”

She went on to accuse Asian Americans of actively promoting the myth of the model minority and wrote, “They use white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead.’ ”

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Her concerns about standing up against racism were legitimate, but her remarks about Asians were heinous, invoking racist tropes and nasty accusations against a racial group that makes up 30% of the school district’s enrollment. And though the tweets were from before Collins ran for office, she holds an important and delicate position. It’s fair to say that many parents of Asian descent would not trust her to treat them or their children fairly. That trust is crucial to her ability to do her job.

Even so, Collins had a chance to defuse the situation and rebuild trust with a heartfelt apology and a vow to learn more about the concerns of the community she had insulted. Instead, she squandered the opportunity, delivering the kind of defensive non-apology that has become all too familiar lately: Her comments had been taken out of context, she claimed. (They hadn’t been.) And she apologized only for the pain she may have caused people, not for writing racist comments in the first place. She never even admitted they were racist.

In contrast, Alexi McCammond, who had been newly named as the editor of Teen Vogue magazine, issued a straight-on apology for ugly tweets about Asians she had made on social media 10 years ago — including a reference to “swollen, asian eyes” — along with slurs against gay people. She called those tweets what they were, racist and homophobic, and acknowledged that she had no excuse for having acted that way. And instead of apologizing for people’s hurt feelings, she took ownership of her own “hurtful and inexcusable language.”

Ten years is a long time, and McCammond already had apologized two years ago, long before being hired at Teen Vogue. She’d also acknowledged her past actions in interviews while applying for the job.

It matters too that McCammond was 17 at the time she made the remarks, not yet an adult. That’s not an excuse, but youthful outrageousness is a well-known phenomenon. There is good reason to think she has long since outgrown such harmful ways. Yet she resigned last week under pressure.

That’s a shame. People who have held racist views, or acted in racist ways out of callous disregard, can learn and be redeemed. They can become among the best contributors to anti-racist campaigns. The media need more Black journalists in positions of leadership, yet this talented young woman is now marked, perhaps for a very long time.

Collins, on the other hand, should give up her spot on the school board, as two of her fellow board members reportedly are demanding. She has shown little interest in learning from the racist attitudes she displayed and using that along with her position to heal and bring parents and students together in fighting all forms of intolerance. And that’s a shame, too.


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