February 17, 2022

Between the 6 and 10 o’clock news, Michelle Li listened to the voicemail. Then, she hit record on her phone and made a video of herself listening again.

As the caller talks about “the Asian anchor,” Li puts her hand over her mouth. She blinks slowly as the caller complains about being offended when Li shared a special dish she eats on New Year’s Day. (It was dumpling soup.)

“She’s being very Asian,” the caller says and Li looks down. “And she can keep her Korean to herself. Sorry. It was annoying. If a white person would say that, they would get fired.”

Li, an anchor at KSDK in St. Louis, finished recording the video.

“And then I was like, well I’m going to put this up on Instagram.”

She put it on Twitter, too.

Li had faced racism enough to know that she didn’t have to let herself get othered.

“For me, playing it and listening to it and not saying anything was like, can you believe this? Listen to this. I don’t know if anyone would have believed me if I just would have said it.”

Li posted the video with the call and did the 10 o’clock news. KARE 11’s Gia Vang, a friend and journalist in Minneapolis, shared a story about Hmong foods and used the hashtag #VeryAsian.

It sounds like a T-shirt, Li told her.

“And she was like, ‘On it.’”

Li went home and to bed. The next morning, she woke up to something much bigger.

The internet embraced #VeryAsian. Li and Vang turned it into a brand, a foundation and a way to celebrate cultures, traditions and people.

Li was written about by CNN and The Washington Post. She went on “Ellen.” The first round of money raised from merchandise, about $20,000, will go to the Asian American Journalists Association. Moving forward, a portion of proceeds from the sale of merchandise will go to Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit. Very Asian Foundation’s goal so far, Li said, is to amplify AAPI voices through education, storytelling and partnerships.

It’s been a month and a half since the virulent-turned-viral moment, which has become more of a movement, and Li continues to share the story of what happened and what was built out of it.

Li, an award-winning journalist, has worked in local news for 20 years — in North Carolina, southwest Missouri, Wisconsin, Seattle, and now St. Louis.

“It took all that to not feel like an imposter.”

Journalists have to cover the news for everyone, she said, but they also get to be who they are.

“I also believe that I have a responsibility to cover people like me.”

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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