April 22, 2007
Written by C.N.
At the risk of overanalyzing the events surrounding the shootings at Virginia Tech last week, I would like to offer one last set of observations. In my previous posts, I’ve acknowledged that certainly, there are many complicated emotions and reactions to these tragic events. This also applies to Koreans and Korean Americans, for whom this event stirs up additional feelings that include guilt, shame, and embarrassment based on the fact that the gunman was Korean American.
As one article from New American Media describes, many Koreans felt that Cho’s murderous rampage tarnished the image of Koreans and Korean Americans and that it would lead to a backlash against them. Korean government officials have also issued repeated apologies, perhaps fearing that an association with Cho would interfere with their diplomatic and/or economic relations with Americans.
In talking about this particular issue with my Korean American colleagues, many of them observe that for whatever reasons, many Asian Americans in general, but Koreans in particular, are very quick to personalize and internalize the high-profile public failures of anyone identified as Korean or Korean American, and to therefore feel a deep and profound sense of humiliation and guilt about such events. The implication is that somehow, the entire Korean/Korean American community is “responsible” or “at fault” in some way for Cho’s actions.
In contrast, many Koreans/Korean Americans, particularly younger or more “Americanized” members, feel that while they obviously share in the shock, grief, and sorrow regarding the tragic events at Virginia Tech, their community should not have to feel that they are somehow responsible for what Cho did just because he was Korean American, in the same way that Whites as a collective group were not responsible for the shooting massacre at Columbine High School eight years ago, nor any of the other high-profile school shootings in recent American history.
I happen to agree with that sentiment, but I think it’s a more complicated issue than that.
The question that comes to mind for me is, where do we as Asian Americans draw the line between shared guilt versus group solidarity? In other words, in most other respects, many Asian Americans including myself have consistently tried to encourage a sense of pan-Asian American unity and solidarity. This effort is based on the notion that in emphasizing our commonalities and uniting as a collective group, Asian Americans can speak with a louder and more powerful collective voice in American society, rather than as isolated individuals or ethnicities.
But with that in mind, is it then a contradiction to disassociate ourselves from Seung-Hui Cho in this case, and basically say that he wasn’t “one of us” and to reject any insinuation that his ethnicity had anything to do with his actions (which would also imply that some Asian American may share some of his feelings of alienation, etc.)?
Ultimately, I don’t think that it has to be an either-or proposition. That is, we can still say that ultimately Cho’s actions should be understood as the aberrant behavior of an extremely troubled individual, while at the same time saying that his mental illness could have been made worse by feeling like an outsider and ridiculed for being different — sentiments that inevitably do exist among many Asian Americans.
Thankfully, even though many Asian Americans may have similar feelings of alienation, they do not react by going on a murderous rampage. Nonetheless, we as Asian Americans should recognize and advocate that (1) we be treated with respect and tolerance — especially those who might be otherwise seen as outcasts, (2) members of our community who are emotionally troubled be actively encouraged to seek help, and (3) mental health services should be readily available and culturally-competent.
These efforts would go a long way in preventing not just tragic incidents like this, but also in reducing the difficulties many Asian American face in the complicated process of finding our identity within the complicated American racial landscape.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Korean Reaction to VA Tech Shootings: Guilt vs. Solidarity" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2007/04/korean-reaction-to-va-tech-shootings-guilt-vs-solidarity/> ().
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