When I first heard about the Virginia Tech murders I was driving home from work and at that time there was not information about who the shooter was. My first thought was what a sad and senseless tragedy this was, and all I wanted to do was go home and hug my kids.

The next morning I found out the killer was Korean and the first thought I had was, Every Asian man in the United States must be terrified right now. And the second thought was When will the retaliation begin?

It didn’t take long, as it turns out. As I’m finding more out, there are a lot of questions and concerns that I have, as well as the rest of the world. But many of my questions are going to be different as a fellow Korean living in the United States.

For example, how do I write this post?

I could focus only on my condolences to the victims and families of this terrible tragedy, without any mention of the person responsible for this. That would be the easy answer. But it wouldn’t be complete.

Do I leave out my critique of how the media is overemphasizing his race and residence status? Because this man has been living here since he was 9, he is likely more "Americanized" than "Korean" in a cultural sense. Yet the media continues to present him as a "foreigner" and as an "international student." Is this another way for the U.S. media to hype those who commit the most violent acts as "foreigners" i.e. the 9-11 tragedies?

I’ve been reading accounts that it must be that his Korean parents abused him and/or that Korean child abuse/physical abuse is rampant. This might be a way of providing some explanation into his psyche, but does it only serve to perpetuate stereotypes about Koreans?

Do I talk about how this individual was severely mentally ill and that reports are coming out that people tried to get him help but were unsuccessful? Do I talk about how mental health services for Asians are almost non-existent and how the Asian American population is severely underserved when it comes to access to mental health services? Or that there are few mental health professionals who understand Asian American issues regarding their mental health?

What kind of response should the Asian American population make regarding this tragedy? How quickly do we have to send out media and press releases, condemning this person? How much are we all going to be considered guilty by association? When a white man commits a heinous crime, how many white men in America are going to feel unsafe walking down the street? How many white men are going to feel that they are guilty by association? When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, did groups of white men send out a press release offering condolences and publicly recognizing the heinousness of the act?

Those of you who have adopted Asian children – especially boys – are you prepared for them to get harassed at school? Have you taught them what to say, how to keep safe, which teachers they can trust? Because it’s going to get ugly.

I ask these questions because when terrible crimes occur, the racial and resident status of the assailant only matter if that person is non-white. And those who share that race or residence status have to be on our own "high alert." It is very likely that I would have spent my entire life without ever coming into contact with the killer in this awful situation. Yet now, I will be asked by co-workers what the Korean American response to this man is. I will have to make it clear to people that I am dissociating from him, while trying at the same time to counter the stereotypes that people will assert.

And when the Korean grocery stores are burned down, or the random Asian-looking person is beaten or  murdered as retaliation?

Then what do I say?

Will my silence be taken as support?

Will my silence be taken as resistance?

What possible thing could a person like me say?


I’d like to add this as a coda, from my friend Rich Lee’s blog. Rich is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota and he writes,

One of the racial issues to emerge from this tragedy is the way in which Seung-Hui Cho has been characterized. In an NPR interview, one witness described in as foreign looking. Other sources keep referring to him as a South Korean or a resident alien or as a foreign student. In truth, according to the latest CNN report, Mr. Cho was an immigrant to this country. He immigrated in 1992 and was a permanent resident. He was probably as American as the next person living in this country, despite not being a naturalized citizen.

We also are reminded that Asian Americans, despite public portrayals, are not model minorities who seem to only succeed in the American Dream. This myth is fraught with socio-cultural problems, discussed widely elsewhere (just do a quick google search). Yet it is a persistent myth that is conveniently used to scapegoat Asian Americans when discussing race relations in this country and then quickly discarded when tragedy strikes such as the Virginia Tech shootings. People are quick to blame the foreigner whom they only moments earlier saw as the model minority.

Asian Americans are just as likely as other groups to struggle with mental health problems. Such problems seem to be even more challenging for individuals who grow up as children in this country, as noted in a recent NLAAS study. The unspoken other tragedy in the aftermath of this event is the fact that this young man did not receive the needed treatment to address his mental health problems and that could have perhaps prevented this rage. To what extent is this likely lack of intervention due to the model minority myth?

The recent tragedy reminds us to to NOT mythologize a group of people as model anything and to NOT scapegoat this same group as foreigners. Instead, it should remind us to view all people of all races and ethnicities as individual people. Moreover, it should remind us as Americans that immigration and acculturation are stressful life experiences, rife with discrimination, racism, and other cultural barriers, that put an added strain on human functioning. As such, a more appropriate question is what can we do as local communities and as a society to address these challenges?

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

19 thoughts

  1. I don’t have any answers for you. But I will say that I feel like I’ve read more about his race from Asian American bloggers than I’ve seen in the news. Maybe that reflects my news sources? This morning, NPR referred to the shooter as “the English student.” It took me a half-sec to realize they were talking about his major.
    I agree there was some focus originally on his residency status and nationality, but I think that’s in part because there was little other information.
    Now I’m hearing the focus on his “perverted” writings and alleged stalkings.
    Honestly, I had never heard the stereotype of South Korean men as being quick to anger til I read it on a blog written by … an Asian American.
    I’m not saying you’re wrong. Maybe just very sensitive right now? Let’s hope I’m right, eh?

  2. Korean adoptees (male) are already being targeted by schoolmates. The majority of the newspapers I’ve been reading include a detailed immigration status account.
    I think I’m being careful and proactive because of some recent history in the Midwest after a hunter of Hmong descent killed 5 white hunters after a racialized incident. The backlash and racism in the reporting around here was immediate and profound.
    I very much hope that the reporting is fair and accurate. But as far as backlash, I guess I can’t say I’m too optimistic.

  3. As soon as we heard his ethnicity, my non-american born asian husband and i looked at each other, both thinking what you wrote.

  4. I’m still digesting all of this, but you raise some good questions and concerns, Jae Ran.
    On the backlash, I put down similar thoughts this morning on my MS blog. I started having 9/11 flashbacks. Not to say that it would get that bad for the AA community, but backlash is still something to be concerned about.

  5. Among the less enlightened white men I know, unfortunately the group more likely to say something stupid, I have noticed only one mention of immigration.
    Nothing about Asian men.
    The rest entirely about guns and how it could have been avoided had someone there been armed.
    I’ve been rolling my eyes ever since.
    I feared what you do when I first heard of this. I remember the problems here where I live after 9/11. There are a lot of Iranians here, and for a few weeks I found it necessary to escort my neighbor across the street to the grocery store. She was that frightened, and for good reason. I witnessed teenagers taunting anyone that appeared even vaguely Middle Eastern.
    Shame on us.

  6. What kind of retaliation have you read about? I haven’t read about any. Didn’t he kill people of European, African and Asian decent?
    And, like the other poster, this is really the first time (on blogs) that I’m hearing so much emphasis on his race. Of course they are going to mention his country of origin as a fact about him.
    I feel sorry you work with such assholes who will ask you such things. I have a number of Korean American co-residents and co-workers. No one I know would even think it meaningful in any way to ask their opinion on the matter. Everyone who I work with knows that his being Korean had zero to do with this.
    And, people did try to help him. Apparently to some extent he tried to help himself. Personally I see him as a victim as well. But, I don’t know what more could have been done as he hadn’t hurt himself or anyone else previously.

  7. daisy, many asian americans are blogging on this because it means very much to them, and because the early news accounts so clearly identified him as “immigrant.”
    If this was an international norwegian student, they would’ve called him a “white male” and never mention his immigration status.

  8. I heard this morning that there are already reports of backlash and violence against Korean Americans in other communities, including tire-slashings and one shooting.
    The majority of the news reports I have read and watched mention his “South Korean immigrant” or “South Korean native” status in the second or third paragraph/statement, if not the first. I’d say that’s a pretty prominent emphasis on his race and residency.
    Over the past 2 days I have received a handful of e-mails from non-Asian friends and acquaintances asking me what my reaction is to the shootings. One was addressed to me along with some other Korean Americans. So, it’s clear to me we are already being looked to as spokespersons.

  9. I don’t have permission to share the stories that I’ve been told about, just trust me that it is happening.
    I have to say that a couple of days into it, I’m hearing less in the news about race and immigration.
    However, I am – and most Asian Americans like myself – are aware that Cho’s race IS going to be a factor whether consciously or not, for a long time. After any non-white person commits a horrible crime, there IS backlash. Maybe not any you’d see personally, maybe not anything reported in the news. But for those of us within these communities, we’ve heard or experienced it first-hand.
    As a side note, many of us within these communities do NOT necessarily share them with others – i.e. white people. Because sometimes when we do, we get all kinds of excuses about how we might be misinterpreting the stares, the mutterings under the breath, the anonymous notes left in the locker/on the desk, and the “helpful suggestions” on how we should handle these things. Sometimes, we keep silent or share them amongst ourselves.

  10. Thank you for this post, Jae Ran. I haven’t been able to clearly navigate through my own thoughts on all of this since first hearing about who was responsible for the tragedy.
    I was out in public for the first time earlier this evening (since Cho was identified as the killer) and believe me, my son and I (both of us are Korean) were the recipients of some very unfriendly, critical stares and looks of disgust. We were with my parents (who are white) but they were several paces ahead of us. I have to wonder if the looks would have been as overtly condemning if the people giving the stares suspected we were together.

  11. for those questioning the legitimacy of our worry as asian americans, do not. just as you might speak to your friends about the subtle uneasiness you might feel walking down 145th street in harlem – know that there are many moments in our minority lives that we feel this uneasiness in a normal week or year, walking down our very own street, let alone after incidences like this tragedy.
    hear, and listen, and know that it exists – they are not phantoms of our imagination. i hope as much as the next person that this blows over quickly and as empathetically as possible – but there will always be a question mark (no sick pun intended) associated with quiet, laconic, asian male students (and perhaps there should be…who knows).
    on another note, i know that there has been ALOT written in the past 24 hours to news/media outlets by my friends, and people i know, sent also to NPR especially after there sub-par reporting yesterday; it seems to have cleaned things up a bit (i can only hope at least). did anyone catch wolf blitzer totally ignoring the point about possible anti-asian racial backlashing this afternoon?

  12. “Sometimes, we keep silent or share them amongst ourselves”.
    I believe you. Will you believe that the same thing has happened to me?
    The more I read about the hatred directed at minorities in this country, the more I begin to pull up memories of hatred that have also been directed at me because of my race. This is largely due to where I was raised. Yes, I know that as a white person I gain enormously from white privilege. I have also been hated for being white and I’ve also been told that I must be dreaming it. This was typically from very well intentioned African and Hispanic Americans. Like you and many others, I stopped saying anything.
    And, if you say shit is happening and you can’t talk about it….I believe you. Do you believe me that this DOES happen to white people? We have examples in NYC history. When young Gavin Cato was killed by a reckless Orthodox Jew (who was very white) a black man killed a Jewish scholar in retaliation that evening. And, yes, this was retaliation.
    It’s funny how you get different reactions and opinions depending on who you talk to. I was sitting with two white co-residents today in our on-call suite. It was just the three of us. They were shocked that it was a non-white person who committed this crime because “it’s usually a white guy who goes out an commits mass murder”…..which also seems kind of true to me. They were saying “thank god it wasn’t someone from the Middle East” because in that case they were sure there’d be a wicked backlash and that everyone would swear it was Al Qaeda or something.
    All of this leads me to wonder, sadly, if any one of us can ever view such events and not interject out own biases based on our race and the race of others. Can any one of us truly look at things from the other guys pov? Are we even motivated to?

  13. Margaret, I have come to believe it isn’t about trying to see from another’s POV.
    It is about trusting their POV when they share it with you.
    This is something I am trying like hell to work with where my (Korean) boys are concerned. What they have to say, regardless of when or what or why grabs my immediate and accepting attention. And they are learning fast that I care about what THEY think.

  14. I think I mentioned that Ed. I don’t have too much trouble believing Jae Ran’s experiences.
    And, yes, I do think it’s crucial that people try to understand one another’s povs. I can’t imagine it any other way.

  15. I am so glad you posted this. As soon as i heard that the killer was s. korean, i teared up. I was so disappointed and had a difficult time sorting through my feelings of shame because he shares the same birth country as me.
    Once i did sort through these feelings, i realized: It would be foolish of me to bear the weight of all the bad things s. koreans have done. What i truly feared was that others would think that i *should* bear that guilt and the onslaught of retribution on people who look like me.
    *sigh* Almost makes me want to blog again.

  16. The killer was a disturbed, deranged individual, representing himself only. Scapegoating any identifiable group for his slaughters defies logic.

  17. Backlash is everywhere, I’ve heard from friends all over who have experienced it first hand. And the media coverage is certainly a trigger. Adoptive parents most definitely must prepare our children, and we have to be prepared to speak out against backlash when we see it, too.
    I have an additional concern – the expressions of collective shame and apologies that have come from the Korean American community and even the Korean government. These send the message that Koreans actually DO have responsibility for Cho Seung Hui’s actions, which is absolutely not the message our kids need to hear. The Korean Ambassador went so far as to say that Koreans must “repent.”
    While preparing our children for the inevitable backlash, I think it’s important to tell them there is no reason for Koreans to apologize for Cho’s actions either.

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