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Monday, April 23, 2007

When Stereotypes Stalk Tragedy

Please don't let him be Jewish.

Please don't let him be black.

Please don't let him be Chinese, Japanese or Korean. (Or even Pacific Islander.)

Such were the prayers of men and women across the nation who feared a backlash from stereotypes of a killer, especially a mass murderer of such evil as the shooter at Virginia Tech. When portraits of a villain fill the television screens, it's easy for good people to look to their comfortable prejudices for explanations. Blaming race, religion, ethnicity and culture seems more reasonable than accepting the randomness of one madman.

The Asian American Journalists' Association urged editors and reporters to "avoid using racial identifiers unless there is a compelling or germane reason" (and by urging restraint in the name of Asian journalists neatly identified the killer's ethnicity). The public naturally wants to learn everything it can about someone who commits such a heinous act. Reporters look for every angle to explain motive, raising questions about race along with questions of sociology and psychology. Cho Seung-Hui, age 23, had lived in the United States since he was 8, and had spent those first eight years in his native Seoul. That's simply a fact, and Koreans here and there are particularly sensitive about it.

An editorial in the Korea Herald, a Seoul newspaper, expressed shock and sadness over the murder of 32 students and called the young man "one rotten apple," but certainly not acting on behalf of Koreans or the Korean government. No one had suggested that he did, but the newspaper, perhaps typical, worries that "the shocking incident will taint the good image that the Korean community and the Korean nation have strived to build among Americans."

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun expressed shock and sent two messages of condolence and consolation to Virginia Tech. Official representatives of the South Korean government said they would work to prevent a backlash and " minimize the impact on the South Korea-U.S. alliance further strengthened by the conclusion of a bilateral free trade deal."

Shallow generalizations always do harm, and there was nervous anticipation in Korean neighborhoods where families expected bigotry to surface. Asian bloggers feared sociologists would use the profile of the killer to describe the "fragile egos" of Asian men. Others fretted that glib comparisons would dredge up the image of Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II, who used themselves as flying bombs targeted at American warships. Still others were concerned about a proliferation of condescending and patronizing stories about "good" Koreans.[Link]

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