Michelle Li: Turning a racist voicemail into the positive #VeryAsian movement (“1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
ST. LOUIS, MO. (WECT) - Michelle Li has anchored thousands of newscasts in her award-filled, two-decade career as a journalist. The Missouri native has won Edward R. Murrow and Emmy awards for stories and campaigns she’s done in television markets across the United States, including at WECT in Wilmington. But nothing in her vast experience could have prepared the 42-year-old for what happened on January 1, 2022.
While anchoring the 6:00pm newscast for KSDK-TV, the NBC affiliate in St. Louis, Li did a short story on some traditional New Year’s Day meals, and why some families may eat certain foods to bring good luck, health or prosperity for the upcoming year. Being of Korean descent, Li added that her family enjoyed a traditional meal of dumpling soup on the first day of the year.
“It was just an ad-libbed line, it wasn’t intentional,” Li said about the story. “I said, ‘I had dumplings because that’s what a lot of Korean people do’. I’m adopted, and the Korean culture that I incorporate into my life is very intentional for our family. So, it’s a nothing story. Actually, I got a couple posts on social media that said ‘Thank you for mentioning that! That was so cool! I heard that! My daughter is making that soup for the first time!’. It was just very subtle. But then I got that voicemail.”
A woman called the television station and left a voicemail message with her thoughts regarding the story and Li’s comment.
“Hi. This evening, your Asian anchor mentioned something about being Asian, and Asian people eat dumplings on New Year’s Day and I kind of take offense to that because what if one of your White anchor said, ‘Well, white people eat this on New Year’s Day?’ I don’t think it was appropriate that she said that and she’s being very Asian and, I don’t know. She can keep her Korean to herself. Alright. Sorry. It was annoying. Because if a White person would say that, they would get fired, if they said something about what White people eat. So alright, thank you.”
“My assignment editor sent it (the voicemail recording) to me as kind of a ‘What in the world?’ thing, ‘Can you believe this?’”, Li remembered. “I played it and listened to myself playing it. I sat on it for a minute, probably more than a minute, and then I was like ‘I think I’m gonna post it. I’m gonna post it on Instagram. So that’s what I did. I posted it on Instagram, because you can do the captions. I didn’t say anything, I just listened to it.”
Li still had another newscast to anchor that night, at 10:00 p.m. and she says the impact of what the voicemail said began to weigh on her.
“I went out on set, and I was telling my friend, the meteorologist who co-anchors with me — his name is Jim Patio — and I started getting upset,” she says. “I think I was processing it because at first you’re shocked, and you process it and you’re like, ‘Holy crap!’ I was emotional for that newscast, but I don’t think anyone would have seen it. I went home and I was kind of devastated. I talked to (her husband) Jim, and I’d already sent it to him, and he was like ‘Are you okay?’ and I was like ‘I don’t know!’. It was really sad and heavy.”
By Sunday morning, social media had taken notice of Li’s posts. It started rolling on the road to becoming viral.
“My phone was just blowing up, all these notifications on Instagram and Twitter,” Li said. “I looked at Jim and I said, ‘I think this is getting some traction’. Jim looked at me and he smirked, said ‘Okay, come on’, like ‘Who do you think you are?’ kind of stuff. He disappeared, and then came back an hour or two later and comes to me saying ‘Michelle, Rex Chapman re-tweeted you!’ You know Rex is ‘Mr. Twitter’. Then he said, ‘I think this is going to get big!’ Then it did. It actually blew up even more, and it’s had a life of its own.”
Gia Vang, a morning anchor at KARE-TV in Minneapolis, re-tweeted Li’s video post on Twitter with a message of support. Vang, who is Hmong, wrote “Hmong people consume a lot of Hmong sausage, chicken, pork with pepper this time of year. @MichelleLiTV I must be #VeryAsian too right now”. Well-known artists, actors, politicians and others posted on social media using the #VeryAsian hashtag, sharing their stories and letting Li know they stood with her in defiance of the racist voicemail. The two anchors later spoke by phone, launching the idea of taking #VeryAsian even further to benefit the Asian American Journalists Association, a group that advocates for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in newsrooms around the world.
“I said, ‘That sounds like a t-shirt!’, and she said, ‘On it!’”, Li said, recalling the conversation with Vang. “She called me a few hours later that night, and she and her partner had come up with five #VeryAsian merchandise things and a website, because she’s already in that space. They’re very artsy and awesome, and they did it. We worked on a couple of designs, and I put my input in. So, we were ready to go that night. We also had to make sure we had the support from our corporate. We took it to lawyers, you know, to make sure we could make a donation to AAJA, and we had to make sure AAJA wanted our donation. Everyone was on board. I think it took two days, and we got it on.”
Two days after the voicemail arrived, with the #VeryAsian movement already gaining momentum, Li went on the air with a commentary about what happened. She admitted to crying from the hurt she felt after hearing the voicemail. Li talked about experiencing racism, witnessing it done to others, being American, adopted by white parents and having a white husband. She called the voicemail ugly. But she also called it a gift, for helping to start a movement to bring awareness to anti-Asian hate crimes.
“I taped the commentary because I don’t think I could have done it live,” Li said. “I wrote it and asked my special projects producer to look at it, and also my director of content and my news director. They all looked at it. I needed that support to make sure, you know, does this make sense? They didn’t change it, it was great. It was really tough, but because I felt so much support from my colleagues and my managers, even (station ownership group) Tegna corporate people reached out to me. I felt like, you know, protected. Like I couldn’t do anything wrong if I came from an authentic place, and one that wasn’t damaging to somebody else. I wasn’t out to get her or anything like that.”
On that same day, Li had a conversation with the woman who left the voicemail. She doesn’t know the woman’s name, but they talked, and promised that one day, when it is COVID safe, they would meet and continue the discussion.
“She apologized, and I believe she is sincere in her apology,” Li said. “I actually gave her resources if she wants to talk to other people about race, she certainly can. She was receptive to it. I don’t believe her apology was hollow. I believe it was sincere, and authentic, and I think she meant it. She also told me she has a history of saying racist things, and that she went viral once for saying something racist when President Obama was in office, and it went viral on Twitter. So, I think there’s just some work that needs to be done. I’m not here to do all that work for her. But I think it just shows you that racism, bigotry and ignorance can be really complex. I feel very strongly that because of how everything worked out, I don’t want her to lose her livelihood. I don’t want her to lose her job. I don’t want her to have some sort of mental stress over it, because we have turned it into something positive.”
Media outlets across the country, including The Washington Post, the TODAY Show and CNN, have reported on the voicemail, Li’s reaction to it, and the #VeryAsian movement it has sparked. Li even traveled to Los Angeles to be Ellen DeGeneres’ guest on her nationally syndicated talk show. DeGeneres presented Li with a check for $15,000, which she used to found Very Asian Foundation, which ‘is committed to amplifying diverse AAPI voices through education, storytelling, and community connection’.
“I feel like there are a lot of people who connect with the idea of ‘We should all be working towards self-acceptance, self-love, because when we can love ourselves, we can love other people’,” Li said when asked about the response to the #VeryAsian movement. “If we carry around hate in our heart, we can’t really love other people. If it’s a movement, I want to keep the momentum going.”
I posted on social media in the days after Michelle Li made the voicemail public that I was pleased to see the support she was receiving on social media, and I was proud of the way she handled a very ugly situation and turned it into something positive. I hope you enjoy this inspiring conversation with my friend as much as I did.
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