Posted on / by Debra Alfarone / in General, Podcast

🎙️✨ From a Racist Voicemail to a Global Movement: A Conversation with Anchor Michelle Li ✨🎧

Join me in this powerful episode as I sit down with the incredible Michelle Li, who transformed a hurtful racist voicemail into a profound teaching moment that sparked a movement across the globe. 🌍❤️

Michelle Li is an award-winning, veteran journalist who co-launched The Very Asian Foundation in January 2022 alongside friend and fellow journalist Gia Vang. This movement landed her on The Ellen Show.

Michelle’s inspiring journey is a testament to resilience, strength, and the transformative power of turning adversity into a force for positive change. 🙌🔥

Tune in as we delve into her story, exploring the lessons learned, the impact made, and the ongoing fight against racism. This is an episode you won’t want to miss! 🎉🎧

Sh*t I Wish I Knew In My Twenties (SIWIKIMT) is a podcast dedicated to helping 20-somethings thrive in their twenties, not just survive.

Host Debra Alfarone knows how hard being in your twenties can be. As a high-school dropout turned-network-TV-correspondent, she learned most of life’s lessons the hard way. She overcame the odds and now is a national anchor and correspondent for Gray Television. Previously, she covered the White House for CBS News nationally. She’s also a confidence coach for young women in the TV news industry.

This episode is part of SIWIKIMT’s star-studded season 2.

Connect with Michelle at: veryasianfoundation.org or follow her on IG at @MichelleLiTV or @theveryasianfoundation

PLEASE drop your email at https://shitiwishiknew.link/GTFO to be the first to know about new episodes.

Follow Debra on IG at https://www.instagram.com/debraalfarone/ and on TikTok at https://www.tiktok.com/@debraalfarone

 

Transcript:

Michelle Li 

A news director tells you you don’t matter and then people complain about your differences, then you start thinking, “If I get enough of these phone calls, I’m gonna lose my job.”

Debra Alfarone

Thanks so much for listening to Sh*t I Wish I Knew In My 20s. You know what this podcast is about. And today’s guest is Michelle Li. She is not just an Emmy Award-winning TV anchor. Oh, yeah, she’s also started a global movement, you know, just a global movement of unity that went worldwide. You know, no big deal. Nbd. I’m so excited because I feel like she’s been a friend in my head for a long time. But I want to tell you a little bit about what happened. So you had gotten this voicemail, and it was a racist voicemail.

Voicemail

“Hi, um, this evening your Asian anchor mentioned something about being Asian and Asian people eat dumplings on New Year’s Day and I 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 appropriate that she said that and she was being very Asian.”

Debra Alfarone

How did you feel when you got that voicemail?

Michelle Li 

Oh my gosh, Debra, it was crazy, because the voicemail was super racist, but in a very nice kind of way. I felt… at first I’d laughed it off. But just like everything, I think your initial reaction to a lot of things that are embarrassing or worrisome you laugh off, and then you give it some thought, and then you turn into hurt or anger. Right? And that’s kind of what happened to me. Like, I was like, “Oh, I cannot believe this.” Like, who would leave such a — I mean, at the time, you know I’m by myself — who would leave such a stupid voicemail? This is ridiculous. And then I really started thinking heavily about like, “God, this is why I, you know, hate this job, or this is why I hate being in this, you know, part of the country.” Which I will say, I’ve lived in many parts of the country, it’s like this everywhere, you know. But I had just moved back to my home state, I was like, you know, it just what it’s going to be like? Is going to be like for my son? And then I actually kind of freaked out a little bit. Because when I was in another station in another market years ago, I remember I would complain, like in contract renegotiations, I would say something like, “Well, doesn’t matter that I’m the first Asian person to anchor this newscast or whatever?” And one time, I said that to my news director, and he said “No, it doesn’t matter, because no one cares. And more importantly, the viewers don’t care.” And I was like, “So only Asian viewers could care about me, even though I’m adopted and grew up in the Midwest and have white parents and you know, like… not that that would really be a selling point to anyone. But it’s this idea of like, no one could see that I, you know, am an American or that I represent in a different way? And I used to have people call and complain about me. I didn’t have them call. I mean, people used to call and complain about me, sporadically. Like, one time I was covering a Veterans Day event, and someone was like, “Get that Jam off TV. That’s so disrespectful.” And I’m Korean. But also, you know, and I would always be really nervous about that. Because when a news director tells you, you don’t matter, and then people complain about your differences, then you start thinking, “If I get enough of these phone calls, I’m gonna lose my job. I’m gonna be, you know, demoted, or whatever it may be.” It was so hard for Asian people to get jobs anyway because, also, news directors would say to me, “Well, we can’t hire you because we already have an Asian anchor and having two would be really confusing for the viewer.” And even if you look at some of the big West Coast cities today, there still aren’t, like in where I worked in Seattle, there were not two Asian anchors, anchoring together, you know? So there, I mean, there was more than one Asian person, but it’s this idea of like, “We couldn’t have two of you next to each other. We couldn’t have two of you in this… You know, we couldn’t have four of you on a given news desk.” So I was just always really nervous about that. And so when that woman called, I’m was thinking “Oh, here it goes again, like maybe I’m gonna lose my job because I’m too different for the viewers.” And so I kind of panicked, too. And I had a lot of different feelings, long story short.

Debra Alfarone

I hear your story and all the things that went through your head and it really does illuminate for me what it must have been like being the only… being different than maybe the other people in your class growing up. And so I can imagine, you know, bringing that into this industry with you, and then that kind of setting off a panic or a, you know, that feeling. You made that video. And what happened next?

Michelle Li

Well, it’s funny because I did put it out on social media. I did tag people, but I really didn’t think anyone would answer because, I mean, I feel like I’ve done that a lot of times, like put something on social media, you know, and never really expected people to respond. But then my friend Gia Vang, who work in Minneapolis… We actually never met in person until this summer, but like we became friends after the Atlanta shooting. She posted about Hmong food, and then use the hashtag #veryAsian, and then #veryAsian went like wildfire, it just spread. And people started using the #veryAsian to share their multiracial gatherings or their multicultural celebrations, or using solidarity hashtag, like #veryJewish or #openlyBlack. And people really started, you know, like, just all around the world started sharing their stories.

Debra Alfarone 

The world.

Michelle Li 

The world, it was crazy. And we know this because we also I mean, aside from seeing the hashtag, we saw celebrities, politicians using it and sharing stories. And then we sold shirts to raise money for for journalists, for the Asian American Journalists Association. And we sold shirts like to Holland, and Germany, and Korea, and Australia, Canada. And I loved it. We had like, you know, we would see like the Bronx, Los Angeles, and it was really incredible. And we actually had to stop the the t-shirt sale early because we were afraid that we wouldn’t be able to fulfill those shirts. We I think we sold like 3000 shirts in five or six days and we had to stop.

Debra Alfarone

Oh, my God, it just took off.

Michelle Li 

Yeah, it took off. It was crazy. I should say one thing about it, was for two years people were really using the hashtag like #stopAAPIhate, #stopAsianhate, and still do and for good reason. But there was like this moment in time where people instead of having a defensive post, were saying, “Hey, I’m proud of being, you know,” and we’re going to use the hashtag variation to celebrate who we are. And so that was a… I think that’s why it was kind of a uniting kind of moment.

Debra Alfarone

How did that make you feel that people in Holland and people in the Bronx, and people all over the place were literally wearing a shirt to support you? That we’re buying shirts, that were tweeting? How did that make you feel?

Michelle Li  

Small. I mean, humble, you know, just like, I can’t believe that this would be my life. It felt very, like a movie or something. You know, I just felt like this was an out-of-body experience. And then, even though it was like, you would think that going viral like that would be really amazing. And I don’t know, like, a dream come true. It was really scary and it was also anxiety-ridden. And I was always really worried, “Okay, well, someone’s going to cancel me somehow, you know, take my words out of context. How many times did I put my son on the internet? Am I gonna get fired now because I took it too far?” You know, like, I was really super panicked about those beginning days, because it felt like I was in unchartered territory. And once that, once that train starts, you know, and it gets going, there’s no stopping it. So, actually, it was terrifying. Pretty, pretty awful.

Debra Alfarone  

So when did Ellen call? Because that is incredible.

Michelle Li 

Yeah, that was, I mean, it was really quick. So just the timeline: we went viral on January 1, I did a commentary on January 3, Ellen called somewhere between then because I flew out on January 9th, and then her episode aired January 19th. So it was like, I mean, it was actually really insane. And in between, then, you know, we had to take like three different COVID tests. I mean, there were so many things that were happening in between there that it just felt like we were racing to get out to Los Angeles.

Debra Alfarone

The world kind of stood up for you and supported you. And I can’t imagine how that must feel after you know, so many little things along the way and big things along the way. And I don’t think people realize what it’s like to have those microaggressions throughout your life.

Michelle Li  

One thing that I think is interesting is that, you know, I was afraid that when this all happened too that I would also be attacked from the Asian community, to be honest. Because I am, you know, there’s this whole conversation about Asian Americans and their proximity to whiteness, or, you know, or being the model minority, and all these things; or benefiting from that model minority myth. I was really afraid that people were going to come at me because I wasn’t Asian enough. You know, that’s what I was afraid of. And I just felt so much comfort from other people who would say things like, “I never felt Asian enough to stand up to, you know, anti-Asian hate because I don’t present as Asian because I’m a quarter-Japanese or half-Korean, or an adoptee.” And, first of all, I don’t like fractions. I mean, people can identify however they want. But you know, I’ve always been like, “We’re full people,” you know? I don’t want to say we’re half of anything. But that being said, I think, you know, that experience of people reaching out to me gave me confidence. So like, I have felt my confidence grow, and to validate the microaggressions that I’ve received throughout my life. And I’m hoping that that is also some sort of, like, confidence building for other people too. You know, I’m very Asian on the outside 100%, like, you see an Asian face. But like, I would never sell out my husband who is a white man, or my parents who are white people, because, you know, they have been such supporters of me, and, and my friends and advocates for the Asian American community in their own ways. And, you know, do they have a different privilege because they can walk down the street in a different way, just like I have a different privilege because I can walk into the street in a certain way? But they were there, you know, they were there doing work, I guess is what I’m trying to say. And so what I try to do when I talk to people, too, it’s not just like an Asian microaggression — we, as women, have faced so much in this industry. We have said, so many stories, and shared over and over again, and people may have dismissed us because they don’t believe it happened to us.

Debra Alfarone 

One thing that I remember, obviously, I’ve watched the videos, and there was one thing you said that really stuck with me — that you had made yourself small over the years, you know, here and there, not all the time. I too have made myself small to not upset others. And you know, this podcast is all about some sh*t we wish we knew in our 20s and I just wish that I was… Sometimes I see, you know, Gen Z and I’m like, “Man, I just wish that I was so unapologetically who I am.” I am now to a degree. But I wish I was different then. I wish that I kind of accepted myself then. You know, looking back, what is some sh*t you wish you knew in your 20s regarding shrinking? Ah, word or where you are? Or is there not a learning there?

Michelle Li  

No, there is, I was just thinking of like, all the times that I felt like I made myself small. But I think like, you know what, sometimes I still find myself in positions where I do think initially where I regret, you know, where I made myself kind of like, “Oh, I’m sorry,” you know, or being apologetic. Even though I stand in front of groups and say, “Don’t be apologetic.”

Debra Alfarone 

Oh I know, I know, I say I’m sorry all the time. Meanwhile, I tell people don’t say it.

Michelle Li 

No, it’s hard to live… You know, it’s hard to live out those things. I think for me, I wish I knew when I was in my 20s that being smart… that you don’t have to make yourself small, you really don’t. But you have to find ways to maneuver situations so that it becomes instinct, you know, and I never really get a good handle on that. I just would automatically make myself small for people, when I really needed someone to say, “Hey, don’t do that. Like don’t make yourself small for others. But if you do have this response, this might make them question things.” And just for an example, and I think in my 20s, like it definitely related to this, that this happened to me in my 30s… I remember someone kept asking me to come in early, like for my shift. And I had really come in early a ton like that month and I was like, “I’m really tired of coming in early. I’m not getting paid for this.” But it was to accommodate to other people in the newsroom who had children, which I understand that now too, you know, but they would still be working on their normal hours and I was the only one coming in for free, you know, to accommodate their needs because we were going to shoot something together. And I finally I just said, “I really can’t do it.” And this marketing manager was like, “You don’t have kids, right?” Like that was just the next question. And I said, “Oh, uh, no, but I have two dogs and that’s like the same.” Like, I was like, I didn’t know what to say. And what I wish someone… that was me making myself small for that person, you know, and I really wish I would have said, “Why do you ask?” You know, just put it… Like I had a therapist who was like, “Ask the question, ‘Why do you ask that? What does that mean?’ Rather than answering it and making yourself small because you don’t know how to answer it, you know, make it so that that person has to say, ‘Because we don’t value your life because you don’t have children.'” You know, this is what they were getting at. Or they would say, “Oh, nevermind, just curious.” But I need to, you know… To me, it was like, you don’t have to make yourself small, but having some sort of, I guess, like canned response, or just some ways to maneuver life a little bit easier, will not make you look like a total bean, but would make you question… make you have other people question why they even asked you that to begin with, you know. Just tools, resources, I guess is what I’m trying to say.

Debra Alfarone

That is so important. I wish I had that and I wasn’t even in my 20s. I was in my 30s at this point too when I was asked by somebody at a station I work with, “Well, what’s your rent?” She was a freelance reporter, I was a freelance reporter. And then I found out later she was using that against me by saying to the person who schedules us, “Well, she doesn’t need to work as many days as I do, because her rent is this.” But I didn’t know. And I was put on the spot and I answered it. What I should have said was, “Why do you ask?” Yeah.

You’ve got this book now that’s coming out. And I’m really… ‘A Very Asian Guide to Korean Food.” It’s a children’s book. And I just want to hear about the thought process, like how did you think like, “Oh, I gotta write this book?” Like, how did it all come to be?

Michelle Li  

A woman named Karen Chan, who authored a book called ‘What’s That?,’ sent me her book during this whole time period and I loved it, because my son thought he was the main character in her book. And that has never happened with anything that I’ve read to him. And so I thought, “Wow, this representation is amazing.” Like, you know, that he could think that he was the character of her book. And so I just reached out and said, “Thank you for sending me the book. It’s like, amazing.” Well, turns out she was an attorney who left the industry to form a publishing company so that she could create books that she believes needs to exist, just more inclusive books. And so when we started talking, she was like, “Would you want to write a kid’s book?” And I said, “Heck yeah, I’ve never done it. But is it… is it… can I do it, you know?” And so she said, “Yes and here’s what I think would, you know, would be a good idea.” And so we talked about it. And then there’s like a writing process and editing process, you know. I didn’t realize that, like kids books, for example, have a certain amount of pages, typically, you know. Just like little things like that. Or I was trying to write in rhymes and she was like, “Wow, that’s great except for if we publish it in different languages” haha. The whole world of publishing is very interesting. But I just love the fact that she is an Asian American woman who created this own path for herself because it wasn’t, in her mind, there already. And if you talk to a lot of people in publishing, or authors, they’ll say, you know, a very, kind of… it can be exclusive in many ways. So we worked together, my sister helped me sometimes too because I was like, “Well, here’s what I’m thinking,” you know? And she would say, “Oh, yeah, and here’s the story that, you know, this happened to me with this food,” you know, or whatever. And so we would add that to the book. I have to give my sister a big shout out for that. And then Karen Chan, the publisher of Gloo Books, also found the illustrator. And so I mean, it was just, it was all kind of a really big labor of love, but very fast-paced.

Debra Alfarone 

You’re just so easy to talk to. But you’ve got some real street cred, you know, as far as like a Congressional Award, national Peabody Award, four national Murrows, and multiple regional Emmys. I had to write this down, because I’m like, “Oh, I’m a little bit intimidated.” Tell me about what kind of stories move you?

Michelle Li  

Oh, wow. Thank you for saying that. You know, sometimes I feel like you just step into a story. But it’s, to me at the end of the day, it’s always inequities, you know, whether it’s like gender inequity, health disparities, racial inequities. Those are things that that I really liked writing about. It’s funny because I just had a conversation with my co-anchor who I love. His name’s Rene Knott and he used to work in Washington, D.C. actually many years ago. But he… like one of them, the national Murrow that I won for was for Featured Writing, but it was actually a very sad, sad story. And so sometimes I… we were talking about, because he is a really great feature writer, but I said sometimes features can also be really serious and sad, you know, and just have just really strikes at your emotions. And so, so yeah, that’s kind of my, my thing, but like, a lot of times, I’m just whipping out VOSOTs and packages on consumer stuff. You know? Sometimes I’m, like, I tell younger reporters too, especially in their 20s, I say, “You know what, stop sweating the small stuff because in reality, if you look at all the, you know, the great storytellers in the country, they will win all these awards for one story that they’ve put in, like, several contests, right?” So sometimes it’s like looking at, like, how many great stories can I do in a year? Sometimes it’s literally one or two that are long-lasting and have the kind of things that you want out of them. I mean, you don’t do a story for an award, right? But I mean, if you’re talking about like the payoff, the return-on-investment on this one story. You know, to me, be proud of yourself for just having one great story. You don’t have to knock ’em out of the park five days a week, it’s really hard to do that. But, obviously, do the best you can do for that day. But yeah, I’d say inequities across the board are always what I would I kind of would appeal to me. And I think that’s because of the way I grew up. Because I feel like so many people don’t have the lens of… actually, people do have the lens of struggle and challenges. Everyone has a struggle or a challenge story, but I think just normalizing those stories so that people don’t feel so isolated, you know, when they when something happens to them.

Debra Alfarone

You’re making me think about back in the day, the day, whatever day that was, when we tried to be these cookie-cutter-looking journalists, like we’d have the bob hair cut, or you know, we’d wear the blazer or whatever… I’m still doing the blazer, I don’t know. But anyway, you know.

Michelle Li 

I think those are back in?

Debra Alfarone

Thank God, they are, all of them over here. But I feel like we try to be very much like, “I am going to be this reporter.” And I feel like these days we are allowed to really lean into who we are and the struggles that we’ve had that give us that lens to tell these stories. And so there are always stories that I gravitate towards. There will be some dog stories in there, you better believe it, but there’s always stories about people who need their stories told, whether it’s a sex trafficking survivor, or a domestic violence survivor. I like to tell stories that give women a voice. And, you know, anybody who needs their story told… like they’re not really being told, I want to do that. And I feel like that’s the lens in which I come to journalism with.

Michelle Li  

I 100% agree with that. And even when I talk to people, because you know, Very Asian, I want to make sure it doesn’t get twisted into some sort of political fodder. And, you know, I’m always afraid of that, and I have a thread that’s pinned on my Twitter account. But the truth is, like I can be, I am a journalist for everyone hands down. Hands down.But like, if you can be kind of marketed as a woman, or as a mom, or as a dog owner, or whatever it is, you know, then it’s like, then you can also look at me as this. Celebrate me as this, understand that my, my full humanity includes being a first-generation college student, an immigrant, child of foster care, you know, someone who grew up in the Midwest, also someone who’s very Asian, you know, so to me, it’s like, those things don’t make me different necessarily, but they lend itself to have more empathy to certain things. And I always use first-generation college students as an example, because a lot of people connect with that. And they go, yes, it was hard to be a first-generation college student, you know? So like, there’s a connection point there. And so that’s why I say, you know, full humanity looks and means a lot of different things that you don’t necessarily see.

Debra Alfarone

First-generation college student, I’m giving you a big *clink*, there you go. A toast to that.

Was Ellen, nice?

Michelle Li 

Yeah. Yeah. Oh, my gosh. So I have like, I had read stuff, you know, I had read some things. She was amazing. And not only that, but like, when I got… right before I went out on stage, the segment producer was so nice, but he said, “Michelle, if there’s a surprise, just go with it.” What? What do you mean? What does that mean? Because they asked you a bunch of questions before you go on Ellen. So they’re asking you like, you know, if you could meet a celebrity, who would it be? So I was, like, in my head in the 15 seconds before I went on, I was like, “Oh my god, who’s gonna pop out of those… out of the corner? What’s happening?” And then I get there and, you know, Ellen. Ellen hugged me when I get on stage and I’m like, “Oh my god!” In my mind, she’s like 6’4, you know, but I don’t know how tall she actually. Very smooth skin, like very smooth beautiful skin. And just like strikingly beautiful in person, not that she’s not on television, but you know how, you know…

Debra Alfarone  

When you see people in person sometimes you’re like, “Whoa, like, this is real?”

Michelle Li   

And she smelled good. Oh my god, I was so fangirling and so nervous. Because I was also thinking some man’s gonna jump out of a corner without a shirt on and give me a check or something. I don’t know haha.

Debra Alfarone

I’m so happy to hear, I’m so happy to hear she was nice.

What is something in your 20s, whether it be a bad date, or a bad haircut, or a bad outfit, or something that from your 20s that you’re like, “Oh, gosh, why did I do that?”

Michelle Li 

I cut my hair off in my 20s, like, I had a super bob. So I looked like I was a Korean school girl, you know, like in Korea. Like I just, I looked like I was 12 years old on air for probably 10 years. And I always looked how… I feel like I look better now than I did in my 20s, even though I was probably 25 pounds lighter, you know, and liked my body a little bit more. I just I was so awkward on TV for a long time. I’m surprised by I worked on television. But I think that goes to show people like, stay at it. Stay with it. You know? Don’t listen to people who you know want to steal your joy, like keep going.

Debra Alfarone 

Don’t listen to those people who want to steal your joy. What are you doing? Don’t listen to those people.

Michelle Li  

Yeah, oh, my god. Also, eyelashes helped a little bit too. Putting on eyelashes.

Debra Alfarone

I can’t believe it, I actually went running around without eyelashes on at one point in my career.

Michelle Li  

I had a conversation with a lot of young people right now, whether they’re high schoolers trying to get into college or like 20-somethings trying to make it to their mid-level, you know, kind of career. And I had, you know, just a conversation recently, and this person was like, “I did this, I want to do this. And I didn’t want to do that.” And I said, “Oh my gosh.” So you have to understand that like you could get to the school of your dreams, you could have your dream job. Some people might think that you’ve got the dream job right now, you know, but like, your dreams constantly change. And you don’t become a magic number. Like I didn’t become 40 and go, gosh, I’ve got it together. This is my dream job. Like, there are other things that you feel like you want to do at some point in your life, too. And even like when I look at politics, you know, say what you will about either politician, but if you look at Donald Trump, and you look at Joe Biden, they’re in their 70s still, like, that’s a dream for them, right, trying to be like a President of the United States. We never stop dreaming and our dream always evolved. So like, I just feel like we put so much stress on our lives to get things done now, that we don’t really look at the journey, of course. And then, also, another thing that I wish I would have been… someone who would have, like, kind of wrangled me in a little bit, is that there’s space for everybody, and everyone is on their own time timeline. Just learn from people, you know. Learn from even your adversary, just learn from them. And then you’ll actually end up respecting them a lot more.

Debra Alfarone 

That is so important. We do put these ridiculous timeframes and even, you know, sometimes you could do something that’s even bigger than you ever imagined. But you might not do it because you’re keeping yourself right here. You’re keeping yourself at this limit. I remember I wanted to work in New York. Oh my god, I wanted to work. Well, I got to work in New York and the dream ended, because I look at the job that I did in New York and if I was still doing that today, I’d be pretty tired. Yeah. Yeah, I just feel like that dream. I did it. And I wouldn’t. It’s not the dream that I have now, but I’m not the person I was then. You have to allow for the fact that your life is going to unfold and you are not in charge.

Michelle Li 

And you have to find happiness in every moment. You know, I mean, not every moment, but like in what you’re doing now, you know, with or without other factors. If someone just left I could take that job, or whatever it is. They’re not real… those are not real solutions, I think, to finding happiness and joy, and also success, you know. It’s got to be your own success.

Debra Alfarone 

I interviewed Jenny Blake who wrote an incredible book called Free Time, and she put it like this: You have dreams, but sometimes you know you change and keeping to that old dream is kind of like ordering off an old menu.

Michelle Li 

Oh, yes. I love that. I gotta write that down.

Debra Alfarone 

I know, that was a good one. Yeah, if you’re ordering off of the same menu that you are when you’re in your 60s, 70s, and 80s I mean, come on. You would have missed out on avocado toast, you know what I mean?

Debra Alfarone 

Michelle Li, it is been so great to talk to you and everybody that is some sh*t we all wish we knew in our 20s. 

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