When Ethnicity Brings An Unwelcome Focus

Sandy Banks, Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2007

The sense of shock and shame that has engulfed the Korean American community in the wake of the murderous Virginia Tech rampage may seem overdone to some, but its roots are familiar to many minorities.

“My first thought when I heard initial reports [of the shootings] was ‘Oh my God, I hope it’s not a black person,’” African American commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson said. “It’s a visceral reaction, a reflection of this country’s long history of typecasting all minorities.”

When the spotlight settled on Seung-hui Cho on Tuesday, Korean Americans in Los Angeles wasted no time denouncing the crime, holding a candlelight vigil and prayer serviceextending, in effect, a collective olive branch to a society they worried might judge them harshly.

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That kind of response prompted confusion, even derision, in some quarters. “It’s a lack of intelligence to think that one lunatic shoots up a university and we’re going to go after all the Koreans,” John Kobylt of “The John & Ken Show” on KFI-AM (640) told his audience Tuesday afternoon. He poked fun at Korean Americans’ self-blame, accusing them of “playing the race card. . .. Now look who’s stereotyping.”

But the sensitivity of Korean Americansand that of other minoritiesis rooted in culture and history, and reflects the reality that distinctive events, with distinctive players, tend to leave a unique mark on our collective psyche, bolstering innate tendencies toward bias and stereotyping.

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But the impulse toward a public display of contrition is also rooted in psychology, he said. “People’s sense of identity rests not just on your own accomplishments, but the failures and accomplishments of your group. If you’re a Mets fan and the Mets are doing well, you feel good about yourself. When a person from your group does something that reflects negatively, you feel bad about yourself. You have a desire to distance yourself from the person.”

The feeling may be especially pronounced among minorities who feel more vulnerable to being judged by society. Each group nurses its own concerns that are specific to its history and place in society.

Blacks might fear that events like this would bolster stereotypes that they are prone to violence. Jews’ fears might reflect a history of being scapegoats for society’s ills. The focus on immigration causes many Latinos unease. And hate crimes against Muslims in America have risen since the World Trade Center attacks cast them as terrorists.

Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the national Muslim Public Affairs Council, said he waited with dread Tuesday to find out whether the Virginia Tech killer might be Muslim or Middle Eastern. When the gunman was identified as a South Korean national, Al-Marayati said, he felt overwhelming relief, quickly replaced by guilt, and then by sadness that another immigrant community would be in the spotlight.

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Al-Marayati expressed similar sentiments immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1993, when little was known about the perpetrators but suspicions were rampant that they might be Middle Eastern men. At the time he said, “The first trauma is in witnessing with everyone else the suffering inflicted on innocent . . . people,” he said. The second, he added, is when Muslims are unfairly targeted.

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For Korean Americans, the sense of shame may be particularly acute because of their cultural commitment to interdependence. “Here in America, we think of ourselves as much more separate and autonomous,” said Stanford University professor Hazel Rose Markus, an expert in cultural psychology.

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Their concerns are compounded by the feeling that they haven’t yet made it into America’s mainstream, Markus said. “Koreans are very aware, especially in Los Angeles, that they are sort of looked at as Koreans first. They worry that they’ll be stigmatized.”

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But the Korean American community is by no means of one mind on the issue. “Many Koreans are upset that some members of their community are accepting this as a collective guilt,” Astudillo said. “They are saying: ‘This is an act of one person who may have some mental issues who may happen to be from South Korea. There is no reason for us to say we are sorry for that.’”

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