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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

April 17, 2007

Written by C.N.

Asian Identity of Virginia Tech Gunman

By now, I’m sure everybody has heard of the tragedy that took place yesterday, Monday April 16, at Virginia Tech University. Words cannot adequately convey the profound shock and sadness that I feel about this unthinkable human catastrophe. As an educator, a parent — as a human being — I am struggling to come to grips with the enormity of what happened but at the least, I want to convey my deepest, most sincere condolences to everyone affected by these killings.

You may have also heard that gunman has been officially identified as an Asian American — Seung-Hui Cho, a 23 year old senior English major at Virginia Tech who originally immigrated from South Korea in 1992.

The Associated Press article cited above notes that he was referred to school counselors after his instructors found his creative writing rather disturbing. The Chicago Tribune also reports that he apparently left a rambling suicide note that railed against “‘rich kids,’ ‘debauchery’ and ‘deceitful charlatans’ on campus” and that he had committed several strange and violent acts in recent weeks.

As a sociologist and Asian American Studies scholar, I will try to to put some sociological context into this horrific tragedy and several initial reactions come to mind:

If the gunman were White, his racial identity would go virtually unnoticed and unmentioned. However, because he was a person of color, much will probably be made of his racial identity. Specifically, because he was Asian American, much of the nation’s attention will be turned to examining what kinds of cultural characteristics may have influenced his behavior.

Also, inevitably, there will be some extreme reactions from xenophobes and people with anti-immigrant positions, perhaps along the lines of “This is what happens when we let in all kinds of immigrants, so we need to shut down our borders” or “We let in these damn foreigners and give them a chance at a better life and this is how they return the favor?” In addition, those who have anti-Asian sentiments are likely to say something like “Well, this just proves that Asians are so weird, foreign, and inscrutable –we just can’t trust them.”

Unfortunately these sorts of opinions are a classic example of confounding individual traits with group traits. In other words, yes, this one particular immigrant was responsible for this tragedy, but that does not mean that all immigrants or all Asian Americans are ticking psychopathic timebombs just waiting to go on a murderous rampage.

More likely, I think typical reactions will be along the lines of “Wow, I always thought Asian Americans were so quiet and passive” or “As an Asian, he must have been under a tremendous amount of pressure to do well in school.” Admittedly, these types of responses are a little harder to respond to because there are some kernels of truth to these particular sentiments.

For example, some Asian Americans do tend to be quiet and unassuming, although that is changing and also, much of these perceptions are based on biased media portrayals and cultural stereotypes. Nonetheless, the perception — whether it’s true or not — of Asians being quiet does exist. Similarly, it is also true that many Asian Americans, particular students, do experience a lot of pressure to succeed. In fact, I’ve written about such examples before and other barriers many Asian American students regularly face.

To this mix, we can also add other examples in which various social pressures or contentious incidents have pushed Asian Americans over the edge, causing them to snap and commit murder. But does that mean that Asians are more prone to psychotic episodes that result in them killing those around them?

My answer is, absolutely not. If anything, I believe the opposite is true — that despite having to frequently deal with various incidents of prejudice, hostility, and outright racism, the vast majority of Asian Americans react with dignity, courage, and perseverance. Perhaps too many still keep their emotions buried inside them and need to share their frustrations more openly in order to move beyond them, but as a group, I think that in the face of persistent examples of inequality and injustice, we do not react more violently than any other group.

Did the Virginia Tech gunman’s reasons include having to deal with racism as an Asian American? At this point, I don’t know. But if that turns out to be the case, my reaction would be the same as it was in the case of Chai Soua Vang, the Hmong American convicted of killing six White hunters in Wisconsin after a hostile encounter that allegedly contained anti-Asian profanities.

That is, many of us Asian Americans face racism as well, but we don’t go on murderous shooting rampages. In other words, my point is that ultimately, what Seung-Hui Cho did at Virginia Tech was an example of someone who was clearly emotionally unstable and that he just snapped for whatever reasons known only to him.

I would not be a sociologist if I did not also point to the culture of violent masculinity that frames mass shootings like this. My UMass Amherst colleague Sut Jhully has produced several acclaimed documentaries that detail this phenomenon, most notably the video Tough Guise. For now, I will leave it up to him and others who have greater expertise in this particular sociological context to contribute their analysis.

In the end, this entire episode is an opportunity to remind Asian Americans and anyone else out there who are facing emotional issues or challenging situations that there are resources out there for them to access in order to more constructively deal with those pressures before they get out of hand. Suffering in silence doesn’t help anyone.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Asian Identity of Virginia Tech Gunman" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2007/04/asian-identity-of-virginia-tech-gunman/> ().

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