Ethnic identities questioned after Virginia Tech

In the aftermath of last week's Virginia Tech massacre, the national Korean-American community has reportedly suffered a backlash similar to that unleashed against Muslims in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, but Asian Americans on campus largely agree that they are being treated with respect and sympathy and credited the media's portrayal of the attack as objective and fair.

A number of Facebook groups, such as "Cho Seung-Hui does NOT represent Asians," are continuously amassing new members, while a YouTube post with the words "I belong in Korea" over Cho's face is receiving hundreds of hits per day.

While the Virginia Tech shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, was South Korean, other ethnic groups have expressed empathy for Asians in the wake of last week's attack. Ahmed Ashraf '07, vice president of the Muslim Student Awareness Network, said he had similar fears before the identity of the shooter was disclosed.

"I know that when I first heard about the Virginia Tech tragedy, I was very, very nervous about the gunman's background," Ashraf said in an email to the Daily. "If a Muslim student were involved in the massacre, it [would have] hit way too close to home."

Media coverage of the shootings has drawn an ambiguous reaction from Asian students and faculty members at the University.

"This shows that race and ethnicity is still a key source of collective identity in the United States," said Sociology Prof. Gi-Wook Shin. "Non-white ethnic groups and females can be self-conscious and extra careful precisely because they are still minorities in American politics of identity."

Others said they were pleased with the focus on Cho's mental state, rather than his ethnicity.

"The media has been pretty good at being neutral," said Kenny Kim '08, co-president of the Korean Students Association. "As a member of the Asian-American community, I was inclined to think of the worst possible outcomes, but the discussion has now turned more to Cho's mental health than to his ethnic background."

"This, sadly, is not a new crime in America and is not seen in new terms now that the latest perpetrator is of Korean origin," Shin added. "Experts have compared him to the Columbine shooters, saying that he fits the same profile. This is a judgment about mental state and behavior patterns that have nothing to do with race or ethnicity."

In South Korea, reaction to the Blacksburg, Va. tragedy brought up deeper, cultural issues.

Shortly after the shooter's ethnicity was revealed, the South Korean government and media went into a frenzy, debating whether Cho's actions warranted an official national apology.

Such a phenomenon has raised discussion of collective guilt. Yet Kim emphasized the importance of a clear-cut distinction between guilt and shame.

"Koreans are a unique race," he said. "We often blur the lines between the nation and the people. Thus when we found out that the shooter was Korean, every Korean felt a bit of shame that one of 'us' committed a horrible act."

"However, this is not to say we feel any guilt for what happened," he added. "The act that Cho committed is an isolated event and has no linkage with him being Korean or Korean American."

On campus, students and faculty said they have faith in the community's power to overcome the blame and guilt.

"This tragedy was not about Korean or Asian Americans, and I am sure the Stanford community is well aware of that," Shin said. "In a sense, Cho himself was a victim and we have social responsibility to make sure that this kind of tragedy won't happen again."

Reprinted with permission by the Stanford Daily.