This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Huie, founder and CEO of VIM & VIGR, a compression legwear company. Michelle is also a guest lecturer at the University of Montana and an adjunct professor at Mercy College.
Tell me about your business, and what kind of work you do.
I’m the founder of VIM & VIGR, a stylish compression sock brand based out of Missoula, MT. I’m originally from New York City and grew up in Chinatown and Queens and moved to Montana about 10 years ago. Before taking the leap to start my business, I spent the first 12 years of my career in corporate America in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry.
What unique challenges have you experienced as an Asian-American in business?
One of my first experiences with openly racial comments at work happened on the first day of my first job out of college. I went out to lunch with several people on my team and ordered the ubiquitous Chinese chicken salad. One of the senior people on the team said to the entire table, “Michelle, just because you’re Chinese doesn’t mean you have to eat Chinese food for every meal.”
At the age of 22 and new to my job, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Do I ignore the comment or do I make this person feel openly uncomfortable about his comment? If I say something, then I become the humorless and overly sensitive person on the team. This was just the start of “playful” comments about my identity that seem innocuous but pregnant with ethno-racial “othering.”
Now as a business owner, I have experienced similar comments or gestures that continue to single me out because of my ethnicity. A few years ago, I was asked to be part of a entrepreneur panel – I was the only female and non-white speaker on the panel. After a few questions to the other panelists, the moderator turned to me to ask me to comment on being a minority in business and how I felt about it. I was completely caught off guard because my race wasn’t the topic of the conference and I felt singled out as the racial “other”. It also made me question and second guess my accomplishments and the motivations of others asking me to participate in events.
As someone who fits into the category of “female minority entrepreneur,” people often want to qualify my accomplishment with my gender or ethnicity, but I think the success that I have should stand on its own without the caveats.
Have you experienced a noticeable difference in discrimination since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic?
With the onset of COVID, I have definitely had more racist comments said to me. From a woman asking to move away from her in the supermarket even though I was over 8 feet away or a woman saying “Make America Great Again” when I passed her on the street. I remember every single racist comment said to me since childhood – it’s one of those things that completely catches you off guard and you feel angry, confused, sad, and embarrassed all at the same time. I’m a big girl and can take any comment, but racist comments are the most hurtful mainly because they’re not just attacking me – they’re attacking my family, my friends and my entire community.
How do you cope with discrimination, and what might you suggest to other Asian-American professionals who might be facing the same discrimination?
I can’t say that I cope with discrimination all that well and this is something I’m actively working on. I never used to talk about racist comments said to me, but I feel much more comfortable talking about it now. I think it is helpful to talk about it with your Asian and non-Asian friends. I have had a lot of friends recently say to me that they were completely unaware of the attacks towards the Asian community. The more awareness and acknowledgment we put toward overt and casual racism will hopefully help people be more self aware of their own stereotyping and assumptions.
There’s a new generation of Asian-Americans that have a voice and an audience and they are so unafraid to speak up and it’s extremely refreshing. I feel a sense of pride and connectedness to my Asian community and truly feel proud to be an Asian-American.
What are some of the key factors in overcoming acts of discrimination (i.e., a supportive social circle, strong community)?
I think open dialogue and education are critical to overcoming acts of discrimination. I also think it’s important to be empathetic towards other people’s lived experiences. Some of the racial comments I have received have been unintentional and have truly come out of ignorance. When that happens, I try not to get angry but understand where they’re at and see if I could use it as an opportunity to inform and educate.
This is why “cancel culture” can be dangerous – I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be accountable for their words or actions, but it can also close down the conversation. If there isn’t an opportunity for dialogue – how do we grow and learn from our differences?
What can non-Asian Americans do to support their Asian American friends and colleagues who are facing discrimination in the workplace or on the street?
Just asking how their Asian American friends and colleagues are doing is a great start. Since the pandemic took hold, there has been an over 150% increase in random attacks against Asians in the United States. The Asian community is afraid and hyper-aware of the nonsensical violence that they could face when they walk out the door every morning. I know that non-Asian Americans may feel uncomfortable bringing it up but asking how we’re doing goes a long way and helps us feel less alone.
I also think there’s an opportunity for non-Asian Americans to think more critically on how they address race with Asian Americans they encounter. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked, “Where are you from?” and when I say New York City, they are unsatisfied and repeat the question with “No, but where are you from?”. What they mean to ask is: What’s your ethnic background?
This is a very different question than “where are you from,” which implies that you are clearly an “other” and inherently can’t be from here based on the color of your skin. Most of the time, it’s a way for non-Asians to connect and inquire about something they’re genuinely inquisitive about. I don’t want to discourage that but I do think there could be an opportunity to educate people on how to be more thoughtful in asking these types of questions.