Asian Americans in the Greater Seattle area say they’re concerned about possible backlash or even retribution as word spreads quickly about the identity of the gunman responsible for the deadliest shooting spree in modern U.S. history.
Police say 23-year-old Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus Monday morning, then turned the gun on himself. Police have not offered a motive for the massacre that left scores of students and professors wounded or dead.
The list of fatalities included at least two Asian American students and two professors originally from India.
Cho, who might have been taking medication to treat depression, also died at the scene.
Reports say the 6-foot-tall Cho was a senior English major at Virginia Tech. He was born in South Korea but raised in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., since he was a young boy. His parents, residents of Centreville, Va., reportedly run a dry-cleaning business.
For Korean Americans especially, the tragedy is hitting close to home. Though they don’t personally know Cho or his family, local Korean Americans share a cultural and ethnic background with them.
“I’m very ashamed,” admitted Buwon Brown, a community volunteer who is Korean American.
Dong Lee, an editor at the Korea Central Daily News’ office in Seattle, said the community was “very shocked, very saddened by the news.”
The state’s only Korean American legislator, Paull Shin, said he was watching the news early Tuesday morning as he was getting dressed. He “collapsed” when he heard the gunman was a fellow Korean American. “I could not face the reality. How could this have happened? I lost my control,” Shin recounted.
Later that day, the Edmonds legislator took the floor of the Senate chambers to apologize on behalf of the Korean American community. He told his fellow senators, “This (shooting) really affects me deeply. I’m sorry.” Afterwards, his colleagues came over to console him and to emphasize that the shootings were not his fault or the Korean community’s.
“The act of an individual”
Asian Americans are reminding themselves, and especially others, of the same.
In a statement released nationwide Tuesday, the Japanese American Citizens League cautioned people not to take out their anger on people of Asian descent. “While it has been confirmed that the gunman was Asian, there is no evidence that race or ethnicity of the suspected gunman had anything to do with the incident,” the statement said.
“The JACL emphasizes that this tragedy must be seen as the act of an individual and not that of an ethnic community.”
The Organization of Chinese Americans, including the group’s Greater Seattle chapter president, Victor King, issued similar concerns.
Still, there has been plenty of talk, especially online, about the gunman’s ethnic background. Soloman Kim, president of the Korean American Coalition in Seattle, came across some of it while searching the Internet for news about the shooting.
“Reading some comments posted on the Web yesterday, there was quite a bit of racial commentary that was very, very negative. Actually, quite disturbing. It was about shipping everyone back (to Korea) … and things being said about the Asian community in general,” Kim said.
He, like many others, fears a backlash.
“I just don’t want people to take this in the wrong context and retaliate by hurting or attacking … innocent people who are trying to be good citizens, trying to contribute to American society,” Kim said.
The president of the Korean American Professionals Society, Jesse Adams, said he was “bothered that the media focuses so much on the fact that the shooter was a ‘resident alien.’” Though Cho had been in the U.S. for a number of years, he was not a naturalized citizen.
“This type of language could stir up racial prejudices toward all minorities trying to immigrate to the U.S.,” Adams said.
Kim said the Korean consulate called an emergency meeting with community leaders on Tuesday to come up with a unified response to the shootings.
“We need to denounce it (and) be very, very clear about what this person did. It was a horrendous act that goes far beyond anything we all expect of one another,” Kim said.
Already, fund-raisers have been set up in the Korean community to help the victims and their families. Shin said he hopes the gesture will convey the message that the Korean community cares — that “we … are with you and we support you.”
Locally, four Korean-language media outlets, along with the Korean Association of Washington, have banded together to raise money for the victims’ families. Radio Hankook, KOAM-TV, the Korea Times and the Korea Central Daily News have begun collecting money that will be forwarded to a victims’ fund. (To donate, contact any of those media offices.)
Nationally, the Korean American Coalition has joined other Korean organizations to establish the Virginia Tech Memorial Fund, which also will help the victims and their families. (To donate to that fund, send a check to Korean American Coalition, Attn: Virginia Tech Memorial Fund, 1001 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Suite 730, Washington, D.C. 20036.)
One community activist doesn’t think there will be a backlash against the Korean or Asian communities. Though Nadine Shiroma realizes the temptation is there among some people, she believes “our nation has matured enough” to realize that “the actions of one individual do not define our community any more than the actions of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh define the white community.”
Almost everyone interviewed for this article was quick to point out that the shooter could have been of any race or ethnicity.
“I wasn’t concerned about what the ethnicity of the shooter might be when the news first broke out, and now that I know, I still don’t believe it’s relevant,” Adams said.
“It was a single act of violence, and what we should do now is grieve and move on,” he said, “focusing not on the ethnic background of the shooter, but on how to support and help the victims’ families and friends.”
“This can happen to anybody, any Korean, any other American. It’s very much an individual case,” stressed Lee, of the Korea Central Daily News. “Everyone has the responsibility to solve problems through peace and love, not through hate. I hope the community doesn’t focus on the (gunman being) Korean.”
In early reports of the tragedy, some news outlets, including the Chicago Sun-Times, incorrectly identified the assailant as being Chinese.
Charles Liu, a Chinese American resident of Issaquah, is among those disturbed by the mainstream media’s coverage of the tragedy. He said he is seeing too many headlines focused unfairly on the shooter’s birthplace.
“The fact is, the gunman … immigrated to the United States when he was (young), indicating his actions were the results of his experiences in America, not South Korea. … Also, it’s been widely reported that Cho is an undergraduate English major at VT. Most foreign students come to America for post-graduate study. With little history in the U.S. or command of the language, most do not choose this study. …
“This, by all accounts, is an American tragedy,” Liu pointed out.
Within hours of the killings, the Asian American Journalists Association, a nonprofit that represents about 2,000 members in the United States and Asia, began sending e-mails nationwide urging news outlets to be mindful of how they refer to the shooter’s race and ethnicity.
“We understand the need to research the background of Seung-Hui Cho … but we are disturbed by some media outlets’ prominent mention that the suspect is an immigrant from South Korea when such a revelation provides no insight or relevance to the story. The fact he is not a U.S. citizen and was here on the basis of a green card, while interesting, should not be a primary focus in the profiling of him. To highlight that suggests his immigration status played a role in the shootings; there’s been no such evidence,” read the AAJA statement.
“We remind the media that the use of racial and other identifiers must be accompanied with context and relevance. Without it, we open the door to subjecting an entire people to unfair treatment or portrayal based on their skin color or national heritage.”
Time to stand together
Like everyone who has been following news of this massacre, local Asian Americans are saddened by the loss of so many innocent lives. It’s especially heartbreaking that this country has lost some of its future leaders, said architect and community volunteer Dennis Su. “But I am not surprised, since this is a country of extreme violence,” he said.
Brown, a community activist, urges parents to teach their children, no matter how old they are, how to deal with anger and stress. She added that she thinks America needs tougher gun-control laws.
Some have also expressed sympathy for Cho and called for the community to take better care of its young people.
“I can only imagine how desperate he must have felt when he perceived that there were no remaining choices,” said local community activist Maria Batayola, who is Filipina American. “Such a loss for all of us when there is so much promise in the young people whose lives were cut short.”
This is no time for Korean Americans and other Asians to lay low, according to the president of Seattle’s Korean American Coalition.
“It’s important to not just cower and be silent, but to come forth” to condemn the incident, Kim believes.
Batayola agrees. “I hope that we can stand together as a community to not feel shame around him being Asian,” she said.
If or when there is a backlash, she wants the Asian Pacific American community to “stand together” and “help people move through their angst.”
“It’s important to reach out at this time,” Batayola added. [Link]
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