Asian-American community members are fearful of a backlash given the recent events at Virginia Tech and are urging Americans not to reduce the tragedy into stereotypical assumptions about Asian Americans or Korean Americans in particular.
The Asian American Psychological Association on Thursday said that in the search for simple answers and sound-bites, the spotlight may swing towards the issues of race, ethnicity and culture.
“Although the alleged perpetrator has been identified as a Korean American immigrant, it is important to remember that no person’s actions are solely related to their race and/or culture. We also caution against retaliation directed at members of the Asian American community and call attention to the injustice and inappropriateness of such possible responses in the hope of preventing them,” said a AAPA statement.
Meanwhile, Lee Seung-wook, head of Virginia Tech’s Korean Students Association said the association would hold a meeting for any reports of threats or racial discrimination.
“I am worried that the Americans will treat all Asian students, including Koreans, as criminals,” Lee told the Joong Ang Daily.
Another Korean student, John (last name withheld), a 1996 Virginia Tech alum, said he had heard reports of most Koreans leaving the campus due to fears of a backlash.
“When I heard it was an Asian shooter, I was surprised but when I found out it was a Korean, it was sickening,” he said. “As a race we are not known to commit such kind of crimes so it was shocking.”
According to Dr. Karen Sternheimer, professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, with the shooter dead people have no specific outlet for targeting their anger (such as what happens during a trial), so we often seek others to blame, often wrongly.
“Hopefully the fears will turn out to be unfounded, but unfortunately people sometimes take out their anger and frustration on those who they think look like the person who committed an atrocity,” Sternheimer said.
Esther Park, the executive director of the Korean Community Service Center of Greater Washington, D.C., told Diverse that the community was already taking steps to provide support services to Korean adults, teenagers and children to help them cope with the crisis and already established a hotline for anyone needing counseling services.
“My heart is heavy and goes out to the parents of the immediate families,” Park said. Park also said her daughter, a student at James Madison University, and her 7-year-old son were responding to the shock of seeing an Asian on TV in different ways. “It is physically and emotionally painful to see such a thing. We hope people don’t think all of us are like this.”
Asian-Americans students have been upheld as the model minority: outstanding scholars, hard-working, respectful and focused. Violence is not part of the image.
But in 1991, it was Chinese physics student Gang Lu who shot five people to death and wounded another in a shooting at the University of Iowa and in 1992 it was Taiwan-born Wayne Lo who killed a professor and a student and injured four others on a rampage at Simon’s Rock College of Bard in Great Barrington, Mass.
There are students like Mindy Koo who declined to return to her parents’ home in Northern Virginia. “I feel that would be worse if all the Asian-Americans fled campus. We can’t leave Virginia Tech in this time of grieving.”
Andy Wong, a 19-year-old freshman who lived on the same floor as the shooter, does not think there will be an anti-Asian backlash on campus. “It’s not going to be taken as a race thing,” he said. “People understand this is a special case.”
Dr. Elaine Kim, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California at Berkeley, said that after some Virginia Tech students reported Monday that the shooter was an Asian, “You can’t imagine how many Korean-Americans have e-mailed me . . . saying that it makes them feel sick.”
The South Korean government also issued a statement after Cho’s national origin was revealed.
“We convey deep condolences to the victims and their bereaved families and the [American] people,” said Cho Byung-Jae, head of the North American affairs bureau of South Korea’s foreign ministry. But he said he hoped the shootings would not “stir up racial prejudice or confrontation.”
Dr. Ron Astor, professor of social work and education at the University of Southern California, did not believe that nationality or ethnicity had anything to do with the shooting.
“It is a combination of so many variables – suicidal, obsession with guns, vendetta, disturbing writings, etc. – if anything, it is the failure [of the university] not to deal with it as a totality,” Astor said.
He added that shooters come from all sorts of backgrounds and if anything should be focused on, it is the issue of males.
“This is the most common category since all shooters happen to be male. We need to look at it more closely. There are as many idiots out there who will blame Koreans but there are people who deny the Holocaust, too,” he said.
However, Dr. Joel D. Lieberman, chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said that people will never forget that it was a Korean that committed the crime.
“When you’ve got a White guy going crazy, [his ethnicity] doesn’t stand out because most mass killings are done by Whites,” he told The Los Angeles Times. “But when you have two rare things occurring like this, people tend to overestimate the frequency of the occurrence” and make a connection between group membership and behavior that doesn’t exist.
“People’s sense of identity rests not just on your own accomplishments, but the failures and accomplishments of your group. If you’re a Mets fan and the Mets are doing well, you feel good about yourself. When a person from your group does something that reflects negatively, you feel bad about yourself. You have a desire to distance yourself from the person,” he said.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report
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