One afternoon in March, Suzie Nelson was leaving work at Noteworthy Paper & Press in Missoula when an older white gentleman approached.
“He called me split eyes,” said Nelson, who is of Vietnamese and Chinese descent. “I had never heard that before.”
Nelson was accustomed to being among the few Asian people in Missoula. She was not, however, prepared for the instances of discrimination she would face because of her ethnicity as coronavirus gripped the country.
Her experience is not unique.
Across the country, there has been an uptick in reported instances of discrimination towards people of Asian descent in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Missoula, a small college town burrowed in the Rocky Mountains, has proven to be no exception.
Motoki Kato came to Missoula from Osaka, Japan earlier this year as an undergraduate exchange student studying anthropology. In March, Kato was smoking a cigarette on the University of Montana campus in a designated smoking area when a man shouted “coronavirus” at him as he sped past.
The University of Montana’s Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center, an academic unit committed to fostering university and community links with Asia, has also chronicled multiple local instances of aggression directed at Missoula’s Asian population.
In one report, a University of Montana faculty member detailed a general sense of anxiety and the hiding of identity present during the coronavirus pandemic.
“With fear, I have put extra effort to minimize my Asian look. When my family and I are in public spaces, such as having a walk in the neighborhood, we wear hats or hoods and minimize talking in our native language,” she said.
The Mansfield Center highlighted this instance, and another, on a Zoom webinar featuring activists and local professors in late April.
“Missoula is a great place, and people don’t like to believe such discrimination exists in our community,” noted Deena Mansour, the center’s executive director. “We felt we needed to let people know this was happening.”
The intensity of the discrimination varies. Yet, an atmosphere of unease and intolerance against the Asian population in the country has festered in tandem with the coronavirus pandemic. It has permeated the cracks of society even in Missoula, a town that prides itself on its welcoming and friendly community.
“People are feeling that others are suspicious of them. They are treated as other, as someone that is not welcome,” Mansour said.
In a time marked by fear and uncertainty, it is not unprecedented to shift blame onto others. “In our country, the first scapegoats that we turn towards are people of color,” said Tobin Miller Shearer, director of African American studies at the University of Montana.
Xenophobia and scapegoating directed specifically towards the Asian community has been well documented throughout U.S. history, particularly during times of national crisis.
Perhaps the most notable example is the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal law designed to curb the influx of Chinese immigration in response to economic woes following the gold rush.
During World War II, Japanese Americans were incarcerated in internment camps. Many were naturalized U.S. citizens or even second and third generation Americans.
The collapse of the auto industry in the 1980s was widely blamed on Japan. A surge of discrimination directed against Asian Americans followed suit.
This undercurrent of racism directed at people of Asian heritage has ebbed and flowed in American society. “What we are seeing now is not an exception of that history but a continuation of it,” Shearer said.
In March, President Trump took to twitter using the phrase “Chinese Virus” for the first time. This phrasing stands in direct contrast to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines that specify against using geographic locations in the naming of new human diseases.
The president’s use of this type of rhetoric increased as the pandemic spun further out of control. In June, during a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the president labeled coronavirus “kung flu,” much to the support of his loyal base.
“This is empowering people to be more racist, to be more outwardly verbal with their racism. They are feeling empowered to say these things out loud because of that rhetoric being tolerated at the highest levels of our society,” Mansour said.
The rhetoric espoused by President Trump has indeed seemed to send a ripple effect across the country. “It is shocking. He doesn’t know the repercussions he has caused,” Nelson said. “It really breaks my heart.”
According to the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, since March 19th people of Asian descent across the country have reported over 1,400 instances of coronavirus related discrimination, a number that continues to grow.
Even so, some individuals and communities deny the existence of the problem, holding onto the sentiment that they or their city are immune to these issues.
According to Shearer, who has over 20 years of experience as an anti-racism consultant and workshop facilitator, not acknowledging the existence of the issue actually contributes to the problem.
“The most challenging environment is one in which people think they don’t have a problem,” he noted.
Jordan Unger is MA journalism student at the University of Montana