I am coming to this story a bit late on purpose, in order to have some distance from the jagged nerves resulting from last Monday's insane mayhem at Virginia Tech. The most important people in this sorry, scary episode are the dead victims and their friends and families who will forever remain scarred by the actions of one dangerous mad man. But in a perverse way, because evil is always interesting, we turn our focus on the perpetrator. We try to figure out why someone would do something most of us wouldn't. Mass murders by lone killers are not new in America and the killers all turn out to be severely disturbed individuals. That much is usual enough. But when the murderer turns out to be "atypical" in some way, the focus spreads beyond the killer himself - to his (yes, they have all been males so far) family, community and race. In such instances, there is a second set of victims of vile stereotyping that sometimes spills over into unfair reprisals against innocent targets of guilt by association.
I have never identified much with ethnic, religious, regional "group identity" - no matter where I have lived. The conspicuous success or abject failure of a member of my community, race, cultural background etc. neither makes my heart burst with reflected pride nor bow my head in sympathetic shame. But I am not naive enough to ignore the truth that for a large number of people around me, including friends, neighbors and total strangers, it is a common yardstick to measure themselves and others.
Community group think quite often is an obsessive concern of minority communities themselves, caused by insecurity. Members of majority communities everywhere are comfortable and confident enough to march to the beat of their own drummers. Minorities on the other hand feel that they must "represent and uphold" a standard. Ironically, that standard is defined not always by the minorities themselves but what is perceived as the model the majority community wants them to represent (see an old post of mine on stereotyping). Willing to submit to that definition, perception becomes the reality. Identity often hinges upon collective pride, collective parochialism and on rare and tragic occasions, a stomach clenching fear of collective guilt and punishment.
African Americans of course have borne the biggest burden of negative social stereotyping in America . After 9/11, Middle Easterners and South Asians (Muslims and non-Muslims) have joined the list of "un-Americans." Now on the heels of the horror at Virginia Tech, another minority community is cowering in fear - the Korean-American community in particular and east Asian Americans in general. I haven't read the right wing blogs but it appears that some had started drumming up pre-emptive rage against Muslims / Arabs as soon as word came from eye-witnesses at VT that the gunman was Asian. How disappointed they must be now that the perpetrator turned out to be a member of an Asian "model" minority group often held up as an ideal for other "lazy" minorities to emulate.
This happens all the time, doesn't it?. When it is one of "ours," who commits a heinous crime, it is he/she/ the individual who did it. If it is one of "theirs," ... get out the lynch mob! But this is by no means a peculiarly American disease. Minority groups (Jews, Gypsies, Muslims, Sikhs, lower caste Hindus, Asians and Africans in diaspora) all over the world face this menace when one or a few among them anger the majority community. Faced with horror and frustrated rage, some people tend to forget that the act of one individual does not reflect on an entire community. Sometimes it doesn't even reflect on the family who nurtured a baby to angry adulthood.
It need not be this way but it is hard to overcome our own short sightedness and the need to lash out at someone after a terrible tragedy. We are often alone in our pain, rage and shame. The insane and violent act of one unhinged individual should be a cause for universal anguish and not selective vengeance.
Some personal musings of an Asian American journalist (San Jose Mercury News) on the Virginia Tech campus killings:
All day Monday, reeling from the unfolding carnage on the pastoral campus of Virginia Tech, I wondered the same thing everyone else did: Who was this shooter? Why did he do it?
When I awoke the next morning, the name of the perpetrator of the nation's worst mass murder was all over the news, and I had another reaction: Oh, no. He's Asian.
Actually, there was a collective flinch out there among Asian-Americans.
Twenty-three-year-old Seung Cho, a troubled student raised in the well-to-do suburbs ringing Washington, D.C., reportedly left a note railing against "rich kids" and "deceitful charlatans." School officials identified him as Cho Seung-Hui in the order his name would appear in South Korea, where he was born. Now, Cho may be just the name of a guy described as "a loner" who barely spoke in class, but for a number of us, he has a face that looks like our brothers, cousins and friends. That association alone is unsettling.
How does one explain this jumble of revulsion, shame, sadness - and empathy for his parents - that arises among Asian-Americans? It's hard to articulate, but it does.
Elaine Kim, professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, said she has received all kinds of e-mail from concerned Korean-Americans.
"Everyone is sensitive to it, worried about it," Kim said. "I said, `Don't take responsibility for it. You have nothing to do with it!'"
Among minorities, we're not alone. A black colleague once shared his unvoiced reaction when the Washington, D.C., area snipers John Muhammad and Lee Malvo were arrested four years ago: "Oh, damn it, they're black!" Local Muslims report having similar feelings when violence breaks out, hoping silently that no Muslim is involved. Kim said one of her e-mails Tuesday came from a young Jewish man who first stated, "I remember being disappointed that Dylan Klebold was Jewish," referring to one of the teen shooters of the infamous Columbine High School massacre. "And he asked what I thought about Cho being Korean," Kim said.
I can't say I know a single white male who read about Jeffrey Dahmer's serial killing and thought, "Oh, no, another white guy" - FBI criminal personality profiles notwithstanding.
As minorities, we all feel that we have to "represent," to use the modern phrase. That we have to show that our people are normal - shocked like everyone else, saddened like everyone else - and that we stand for sanity, for decency and, yes, as obvious as it is, that we have utmost sympathy for the victims' families. First up was the government of South Korea, which expressed its shock and condolences. The Korean American Coalition in Washington, D.C., extended its sympathies "on behalf of the Korean community" and announced a memorial fund for the bereaved Virginia Tech families.
It comes out of genuine concern. And out of fear of a backlash.
We're afraid others are only going to see the Asian part of the shooter's identity. Or his immigration status. We're afraid that the violence will somehow be ascribed to his Korean-ness, or that his legal permanent residency - as repeatedly mentioned in news reports - is relevant to his mad actions.
"They keep saying he's a `Korean national,' but he's been here since he was 8," said Hoang, the news editor who contributed to the blog, "Trip Master Monkey," a posting about the backlash. "He's Americanized."
Now and in coming days, this tragedy will spark discussions about campus security, gun control, mental health care. Hopefully, we can all recognize the red flags his professors and others saw.
Perhaps all will see themselves as a community devastated by madness, not color.