As the Australian-born Chinese founder of Snow Fox Skincare, Song relives the covert, institutionalised prejudices that she encountered when entering the US market through a high-profile New York PR firm
Phoebe Song is the founder of Snow Fox Skincare, and her story as an Asian entrepreneur trying to break into the US and other Western markets is a shocking but perhaps familiar one to others in her position. Song suffers from inflammatory rosacea and wanted to create something that would be powerful but suitable for sensitive skin, and Snow Fox specialises in products that feature a blend of traditional Eastern concepts and modern technology.
This should be just the kind of brand that would appeal to Western buyers, but her experiences show that prejudices are alive and well, even in the glossy world of luxury skincare. Here is her story.
I don't mind ignorance as it can be fixed with knowledge. We are all ignorant to a degree. Racism is another thing altogetherPhoebe Song
As told to Jacqueline Tsang
In Asia, I am not a minority. As an Australian-born Chinese, I may be considered different, but racially we are all Asian so there's no race-based stereotyping among our own. The main challenges I had in Asia were about my cultural mindset. For example, I'm considered very "Westernised" in my thinking and it can lead to some discomfort, especially with the older generations who have certain beliefs about gender and age. In the West, I've got so much more freedom and support as a 35-year-old female entrepreneur, though as a racial minority, the issues are more about gender and race rather than age.
I grew up during Australia's One Nation/White Australia campaign in the 90s and it was rough. Grown men threw cans at me for walking past them on the street as a non-white child. I saw Indians and other Asians get heckled, abused and threatened in public. It was an overt racism that came with public bullying, violence and cruelty. Then came the new wave of "covert racism" " the type of subtle, cultural, systematic discrimination hidden carefully underneath a politically correct culture, designed to escape being called out while still just as damaging to the groups that it targets. It's incredibly dangerous and needs to be looked at because it can take a lot longer to identify and it's easy to dismiss the impact on its victims.
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I don't mind ignorance as it can be fixed with knowledge. We are all ignorant to a degree, as no one is a cultural genius of the world. Racism is another thing altogether " it's an active type of discrimination based on dislike, hate or perceived superiority over a certain racial group.
I've seen both ignorance and racism in my work and personal life, but mainly ignorance. For example, I've lost sales after potential customers met me in person. Once they met me, they said that they didn't want another "cheap, Korean brand" and subsequently we were rejected. I remember wondering if my price list was even looked at, because our pricing is not cheap at all! One of the times it happened, I gently tried to explain that their assumption of my brand was not correct, but it made everyone extremely uncomfortable. It reflected poorly on me, as if I was pulling the "race card" unnecessarily. So there was no winning, it was impossible. If I called it out, I lost. If I said nothing, I lost.
This is the reality of being an Asian face behind a brand. Our colour becomes a factor in the West " sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not, but it will definitely be there. I'm very proud of my Asian heritage and will never allow anyone to shame me for it, so for me, ignorance is something I look forward to solving by reaching out and showing people better through friendship. I've also changed certain beliefs I had after meeting different people. Right now, as Covid-19 peaks throughout the West, there are many stories of Asian people getting targeted in the streets.
Covert, institutionalised racism is still very much racism and it needs to be weeded out at the roots. They have to be held responsible for their behaviour, and we as minorities should not be frightened or dismissed into silencePhoebe Song
My worst experience as an entrepreneur of colour was with a New York-based PR agency. This agency currently represents large beauty brands with hundreds of stores in Asia and even a celebrity brand. When I first went to visit their office, I was uncomfortable about one thing: I barely saw any staff of colour. In a diverse place like NYC, it seemed like purposeful selection. When I brought this up, I was told by our local consultant that I was being too sensitive and it was brushed off. So we signed on at an expensive monthly retainer but by the time we tried to exit, our contract was breached " basically they didn't bother to complete the scope of work. When we brought up service issues and disputed the breaches, instead of apologising or trying to make amends, the beauty director immediately resorted to sending me insults and threats to try and intimidate us into paying for incomplete work.
The director tried to convince us that it is an "industry norm" that the scope of work is incomplete, and claimed they had the right to a portion of our sales revenues " which is simply not true. Even when her own staff admitted fault in writing, she continued to harass me, focusing on why we were even disputing their "over delivery" of work. When I stood my ground, her threats worsened.
"We have been doing this a long time", she warned, "and you are new." I'm not new to beauty, I've been in the industry for five to six years now. The only thing I am new to, as a foreigner, is her country. So while she carefully avoided using a racial slur outright, she knew all the sore points that I would face as an Asian founder coming to the US. I would not have the same connections. It's a tight-knit local industry and a seasoned PR professional like her slandering me and my company could really hurt, the same way as the Trump administration indirectly paints a target on an entire minority community by calling Covid-19 "the Chinese Virus", the "Kung-Flu". She knew that I would be more vulnerable and afraid of backlash.
Is this race-based? Many people wondered if this was really discrimination if they didn't use any actual evident racial slurs. I believe that the moment she saw me, she assumed a very widely pushed stereotype of Asians in the West: that we are meek, gullible and easy to bully. That's ingrained, race-based negative stereotyping, which in my case, led her to make very wrong decisions. Is it more about me being a foreigner or more about me being Asian? I believe it is a combination of both and it doesn't matter which of these played more of a role than the other, because ultimately I was worse off.
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This is the worst literal example of covert discrimination that I've experienced so far in the West, which I am not afraid to call out. Covert, institutionalised racism is still very much racism and it needs to be weeded out at the roots. They have to be held responsible for their behaviour, and we as minorities should not be frightened or dismissed into silence.
Some people did warn me about speaking out. Since then, people in the industry have reached out to tell me that she has actively begun slandering me as threatened, even after being served with an official cease and desist and our contract included a confidentiality clause. In the end, bullies will try to hurt you, no matter what you try. Even if you fight back, it will get messy because they aren't used to having people stand their ground.
While it was a hurtful experience, it's important to point out that I think most Americans are good people and I've definitely had more positive experiences than bad. We have a healthy US business and there's so much both East and West can learn from each other, especially in times like this.
If you ever feel discriminated, know this: you are not alone. It doesn't matter if you are fighting racism, sexism, homophobia or any other form of discrimination, you have to fight so that we don't preserve the existence of systematic, subtle abusePhoebe Song
I am sure that some people reading this will roll their eyes and accuse me of pulling the "race card" or being a "snowflake". These are the consequences of speaking up and it won't be easy. For me, I'm willing to pay this price. After all, how many of us were attacked, ridiculed and ostracised for fighting for the rights that we have today? The right to vote, the right to drive, the right to equality. Terms like "snowflake" or "angry Asian" were created to deter you from speaking up, to diminish what you have to say " so don't let that happen by backing down.
My biggest regret is that I didn't fire them earlier. The truth was that I was initially afraid of any backlash, respected the contract terms and wanted to make the most of what we had, so I tried to be as nice as possible in the hopes that we could exit peacefully. It didn't work. My biggest advice for others now is this: don't assume that being kind is going to change their treatment of you. It won't, because it's a bias based on your ethnicity, something you can't change.
I've come across several expert opinions which point out that subtle, institutionalised racism is actually the most harmful but is still the least discussed form of racism. That definitely influenced my decision about speaking out. On a more personal note, I am motivated by my daughter. She is mixed race. When I look at her, I see the future, just like any other parent. So I'm willing to speak up and fight for the hope that she won't have to face the same discrimination when it is her turn to enter the workforce or run her own company.
Our fights are not about us, our fights are for the future. I am speaking out to encourage other founders of colour to do the same. There were so many times that I was told that I was being "too sensitive" and I agreed, against my own judgement. In the end, I always regretted it and suffered more, because it is not up to other people to decide whether the pain is real or not for you. That pain is yours and you're the one with one less sales account, less opportunities, with threats in your inbox, with your name being slandered.
So take ownership of the rights you have and don't be afraid to speak up. I'm just adding my voice to a long line of people before me who have done the same.
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If you ever feel discriminated, know this: you are not alone. It doesn't matter if you are fighting racism, sexism, homophobia or any other form of discrimination, you have to fight so that we don't preserve the existence of systematic, subtle abuse.
I don't know if humanity will ever learn how to live in harmony. We are as flawed as we are human.
Ultimately I'm just a skincare brand owner, but I can tell you one thing as a proud woman of colour: racists, stealthy or covert, may have been doing this a long time, but now it's time to stop.
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