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What Anti-Asian Sentiment Looks Like In Smaller, Rural Areas, And Why It Matters

Elvert Barnes via CC BY-SA 2.0

The past year has shown evidence of an increase in Anti-Asian violence in major cities. All of that escalated when six Asian women were murdered in the March Atlanta spa shooting. But has that anti-Asian sentiment permeated into smaller, rural areas in the U.S.? And what does it look like?

The short answer is: Yes, it has permeated into smaller, rural towns. However, it's been present even before COVID-19 hit. The pandemic just exacerbated it.

Bias, Discriminatory Incidents

It was around the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak when Professor Jingke Tang, who heads the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Wyoming, parked his car in his usual spot near the UW campus. He walked south, down to his office building passing a dark-colored brick house that he usually does. But this time, something unexpected happened.

"I heard a man, shouting at me, 'China virus,'" recalled Tang.

Tang looked back, over his shoulder, to see who yelled the racist comment. But no one was there.

"I'm not surprised [that this happened], but it hurts. Every time, when it happens, it hurts," he said.

He said every time because this isn't his first brush-in with xenophobia.

Tang said five or six years ago he received a phone call in his office. The call was from someone asking a physics-related question.

"So, I picked up the phone, and [was] ready to answer this person's question. And this guy said, 'I want someone to speak English.' So that's my first unpleasant experience," said Tang, recalling his first racist incident since moving to Wyoming.

Tang has witnessed how racism affects the U.S.

"Racism has a long history," Tang said. "And this country... part of its history is the struggle with racism. You know, blaming immigrants, blaming people of another culture for the problems that this country faced."

Seventeen-year-old Miya May, a high school junior in Meeteetse, can relate.

"I've never really had those racist encounters, I guess until I came to Wyoming. When I moved here, I didn't know how to speak English. I didn't know how to read; I didn't know how to write," said May.

May moved from the city of Aomori, Japan, with an estimated population of more than 280,000, to Meeteetse, Wyoming, with close to 500 residents as its population, when she was in the sixth grade. Her American father "wanted to try ranching," said May. And her Japanese mother also wanted to work on her English. So, they settled in the state.

"I did not know what the pledge of allegiance was, at all," shared May. "We had a national anthem in Japan, but we only did those when it was a bigger event, like maybe for a state Basketball Championship or something."

So, on her first day of sixth grade, "At 8 a-m, everybody stood up and was like, talking in the exact same thing. And I was so confused," explained May. "And the teachers were like, 'Stand up!' So, I was like, 'Oh okay.' And I saw everybody, that they're putting their hand on their heart. So, I was like, 'Oh, maybe I should do that.' I didn't know... which hand or anything like that. So, I just put my left hand, which is the wrong hand. And my classmate at the time, he was like, 'That's so rude! You need to stand up! Like, you're not even putting your hand on the right - your right side!' So, I was like, 'Oh, I didn't know.' Nobody told me and that was when reality hit. Like 'Oh, I need to do better.' But yeah, nobody really told me the meaning of it. I couldn't speak English, either."

That same year, she experienced another incident.

She was in math class, solving word problems.

"And I could speak fine. I mean, obviously, my vocabulary wasn't 100 percent. But I could still read and understand things," May recalled.

As she was about to start, her teacher approached her desk. "And he's like, 'You don't have to do the reading problem.' I was like, 'Oh, why?' And he was like, 'Cause I know you can't read English,'" recalls May. "To me, it was just like 'You can't read. You're not good enough at reading. So don't do it.' And I was just like, 'Oh... like I'm trying!'"

Data And Numbers On AAPI Hate

The pandemic has escalated these bias incidents.

The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University recently found hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by 149 percent between 2019 and 2020. A separate group called Stop AAPI Hate, recorded close to 3,800 hateful incidents during the first year of the pandemic.

A major attribute to the rise of AAPI hate was due to former President Donald Trump, and his usage of terms like 'Kung Flu' and 'Chinese virus' when addressing the coronavirus.

Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco said Trump's first tweet with the term "China virus" triggered a rise in anti-Asian hashtags on Twitter. A study published by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) linked the rise in anti-Asian American sentiment on social networks and in the real world directly to Trump's "incendiary rhetoric" about the coronavirus.

"The spike in physical violence against Asian-Americans across the nation was whipped up in large part by bigotry and conspiracy theories that grew online, fanned by national leaders," including Trump, the study said.

Racialization Of Epidemics

Infectious disease anthropologist and 4th generation Wyomingite, Aura Newlin, explained that racialization of epidemics has been going on for a long time and that this is just history repeating itself.

"You can find it in pretty much every epidemic if you look for it," said Newlin. "Infectious agents, or pathogens like viruses or parasites or bacteria, they cause disease, but they also cause fear and uncertainty. And that fear and uncertainty often leads to mistrust and scapegoating," said Newlin. "Anthropologists have documented this for all sorts of diseases. The people who tend to be targets of that mistrust and scapegoating are the ones who have already been marginalized by society. So, fingers are pointed at women, and people of color, and immigrants - anyone who's perceived as a 'newcomer', even if they've been here a really long time. The people who are perceived as not belonging, are the ones who get blamed."

An immediate example is the HIV pandemic.

HIV's spread in the U.S. "happened to start off in the LGBTQ community," Newlin said. "And again, this, maybe [an] accident of where disease shows up, that's where the disease proliferated. Not because of any particular gender or gender identity [that] has anything to do with the disease itself. And then it became stigmatized and stereotyped by gender. And then, it's also racialized too because HIV has hit communities of color harder as well."

There have been many historical examples of scapegoating immigrant communities and Asian communities in general though.

"Really anybody who is perceived as not belonging here being scapegoated for the troubles of our society," said Newlin. Like the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, or post-911 to Muslim communities or Muslim-looking people being targeted.

"This current iteration of scapegoating for our society's problems happens to be in the context of infectious disease," said Newlin. "But it's a story that we've seen over and over again, throughout American history and honestly, throughout world history."

What About Smaller, Rural Towns?

The location of most hate crimes have one thing in common: they originate from larger, metropolitan areas like Boston or San Francisco. Not much is really reported or heard about anti-Asian violence and rhetoric in smaller, rural areas.

Dr. Grace Kao, the Chair of the Sociology Department at Yale University and former director of the Asian-American studies program at the University of Pennsylvania, said that it's mainly due to population size.

"It doesn't surprise me at all. I think there's the other aspect where, if there are more Asian Americans around, people might feel angrier and more threatened," said Kao.

Kao used the example of her hometown of San Francisco. "The city has a lot of Asian Americans," she explains. "And it's increased over the last 10, 20, 30 years, very steadily."

She said people who are not Asian-American can grow uncomfortable seeing populations of Asian-Americans growing in San Francisco.

"And they might feel like, 'Oh my city is changing.' And might not be so happy about that."

Additionally, she said that big cities have "a more visible change."

It's different for small towns. "I've had students who said they were the only Asian American kid in their school, or maybe they were one of five kids. And that can be a very isolating experience." But from the perspective of non-Asian-Americans, "maybe having one, two or five [Asian-Americans] is not all that threatening. You don't feel like they're taking over the whole city or the town," Kao said.

Why Does It Matter?

Dr. Diana Pan, an associate professor of sociology at the City University of New York, believes hateful incidents in smaller areas and towns are very important. It's very and equally important to monitor these microaggressions and incidents that occur in smaller places, because it has the potential to grow.

"Well, it's all interconnected, right?" said Pan. "Because within our society, we think about racism in a one particular model. We have one particular trope, and we think about the experiences that Black, African Americans face as racism, right? Which is absolutely true. But there are different ways that different groups experience racism. When we only have one trope, then it makes it seem as if our other race-based experiences can't be racism because this is one form of racism that we know. So, then what happens is, that gets dismissed. When people say, 'Oh, that was really weird, someone told an anti-Asian joke, like, Asians are the butt of a joke, like, that's racist,' oh, that can't be racist, right? Because this is not how we know what racism - it's not how we conceptualize racism, that can't be. Because we have this one model that we subscribe to as a society."

She explained that yes, it's not as if people in smaller towns are getting beat up or faces slashed, etc.. But microaggressions add up and can do certain psychological harm, as she recalled her personal experience growing up in one, in Oregon.

"I actually am also an immigrant, but I was very young when I came, I was seven-[years-old] when I came to the States," said Pan. "I became interested in issues of race at a young age because I grew up in a predominantly white state, in a predominantly white town. And so, the things that my parents experienced, and that I experienced, were not so great. It wasn't blatant. There was some name-calling. But it was more of the microaggressive stuff."

Like not getting served at restaurants, not getting serviced at Oregon's non-self-serve gas stations, or waiting for a long period of time for servers to come to pick their order when they are seated at a restaurant as other white families get theirs in a timely manner.

"To this day, I'm a little uneasy in small towns," continued Pan. "Because of just the experiences I've had. Like, you can't ever be your full, authentic self, because you've experienced these things in your life. And also, you have to kind of always be on guard, right? It's actually pretty mentally exhausting. I've got to always be on guard. 'Oh, this person said this thing to me. And it does not feel good. I don't have the societal backing to call it racism. But it feels like racism to me.' And you kind of second-guess yourself, and all these things, and it carries on with you through your life. So, these things are additive."

And by additive, she means that this can grow into something worse.

"Could these microaggressions become - and include just words and stares, and whatever - could they become something more severe? Absolutely. That's what we saw progress in the last year. So, you see these things kind of escalate which then brought us to Atlanta," said Pan.

The Atlanta spa shootings that happened in March, where eight people we killed out of whom six were Asian women.

Pan added that people who study the Asian American community, as well as members of the AAPI community, had been warning everyone else for the entire year when the first few microaggressions and xenophobic incidents happened early in the pandemic, that this is not good and can escalate into something deadly.

"But instead, the former president [Trump] kept fueling, kept fueling, kept fueling and people weren't addressing it. Because it's not addressed, it's not important. Then, these things escalate," said Pan.

What Individuals And Communities Can Do

In bigger cities, there are resources and organizations that can help members of the AAPI community who do not speak English or speak it as a second language, to report a hate incident or attack that occurred to them. That might not be the case in smaller, rural places.

"There's just, people don't feel comfortable reporting, right?" said Pan. "It depends on how safe they feel in those communities."

Pan said that it's tricky because it depends on how safe members of the AAPI community feel in their environment. If they feel established and know that they're safe, Pan highly recommended speaking out. "Because if we don't, and we remain silent, we collectively as Asian-Americans, then it makes it seem as if these things don't happen."

Pan also suggested for allies to speak up and show up. "If people really want to be allies, then they would amplify these concerns of their neighbors, right? Thinking about their neighbors [and] thinking about their friends," said Pan.

Especially in small towns, Pan encouraged people to remember that their neighbors' experiences are very real. "And even if they're not expressing them to you, what they're seeing on national media is probably also instilling some fear. So be kind and gentle," Pan added.

Infectious disease anthropologist, and 4th generation Wyomingite, Aura Newlin, agreed and added that changing the narrative will be important to bring about change.

"So, blame can go viral. And that's what we have seen as definitely a causative agent, and the rise of anti-Asian hate or this epidemic of anti-Asian hate if I want to continue going with this disease metaphor," said Newlin. "But kindness is contagious too. And so, if we change our narrative, and if we get people out there speaking about kindness, instead of blame, then we can work for healing. And I think that's something that's going on in the Asian American community, but also just in general, to bring things back to those parallel dynamics that we're seeing in our country of a pandemic of infectious disease."

Newlin emphasized that it is everybody's responsibility, not just people of color, to slow and possibly reverse the trend of blaming and scapegoating communities of color.

"Part of this solution is going to take time," said Newlin, adding that a start to the solution is ensuring a requirement to make sure people of color are included in positions of influence and power.

Clarification: (4/12/2021, 4 p.m.)

An earlier version of this story did not include how the HIV pandemic started specifically in the U.S. It has now been added for context to avoid confusion on how the HIV pandemic originally came about, and how it appeared in the U.S.

Naina Rao comes to Wyoming Public Radio from Jakarta, Indonesia. She has worked at NPR for Story Lab and the nationally syndicated show, "1A". Naina graduated from Michigan State University in 2018 with a B.A. in Journalism. Naina enjoys swimming, listening to podcasts and watching Bollywood movies.

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