A news anchor in Missouri was deeply hurt when a viewer criticized her for being “very Asian” but within hours, Asian Americans across the country stood up for her.
Last week, an unidentified woman called CNN affiliate KSDK in St. Louis, Missouri to complain that Michelle Li, an anchor and reporter at the station, mentioned her choice of New Year’s meal during a segment on food traditions for the holiday.
The 42-year-old anchor had said at the end of the segment that she ate dumpling soup and explained it is “what a lot of Korean people do.”
Her comments prompted a viewer to call the station and leave a minute-long message Li described as racist.
“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 anchors said, ‘Well White people eat this on New Year’s Day’. I don’t think it was very appropriate that she said that, and she was being very Asian. I don’t know. She can keep her Korean to herself,” the caller said on the voice message.
“Alright, sorry. It was annoying. Because, if a White person would say that, they would get fired (chuckles). So, say something about what White people eat. Alright, thank you,” the caller added.
The voicemail was initially heard by one of Li’s colleagues who was “floored” by it and quickly shared it with Li, the anchor told CNN. When Li heard it, she was shocked and felt so hurt, she cried and went to bed feeling down, she said Monday during her station’s newscast.
“That night my husband gave me a really big, long hug because he knows that 42 years in this body has absorbed 42 years of racism, discrimination and at times, actual violence and to think some people lose their lives simply because a racist is annoyed that they exist,” Li said on Monday.
Growing up, Li was raised by White parents in Missouri and has spent many years reconnecting with Korean culture and trying to bring that part of her heritage to her family’s life. For her, the voicemail was a reminder of the challenges she has faced in her personal journey.
“It stinks. You’re just trying to do the hard work it takes to know who you are, to feel good about yourself, and to do all these things, and then when someone cuts you down like that it really puts you in a headspace that sometimes brings back old wounds,” Li said.
That night, Li says she posted a video on social media of her listening to the viewer’s voicemail because she wanted to urge others to do better. Within hours, numerous Asian Americans responded by sharing their New Year’s food traditions and stating they were proud to be #VeryAsian.
In a statement, Lin’s employer has said it fully supports her and will continue celebrating diversity and inclusion.
“At KSDK, we embrace diversity in the people we hire, the stories we tell, and our local community,” the TV station’s statement said.
While the voicemail was “wrong and ugly,” Li says the support she has received from people around the United States has been overwhelming and something she sees as a gift.
It made her realize there is still so much to be done to increase inclusivity for Asian Americans and other communities and see “there’s just a strong desire for people to want to be seen and valued.” For the next few weeks, Li and fellow journalist Gia Vang will be selling t-shirts, caps and other clothing with the phrase “Very Asian” to support the Asian American Journalists Association.
Li says the idea behind the voicemail doesn’t represent the majority of St. Louis or even the country. “One terrible voicemail, it produced a million times over much more beauty. I definitely think that more people are good and good-hearted,” she said.
But she says how she felt after listening to the voicemail is “minor” compared to the anti-Asian racism and violence many people of Asian descent experience in the US.
“There are people who lose their lives, or get seriously injured because of racism,” Li said. “What happened to me is very minor, but I’m appreciative of it because it turned out to be a blessing. A lot of people responded, and we’re getting so much positivity out of it.”