Why Did He Have to Be a . . . ?

Inside Higher Ed, April 19, 2007

There’s a crucial moment early in many crime investigations when the first description of the assailant comes out. When the attack happens on campus, like it did Monday at Virginia Tech University, the initial question is obvious: student, faculty, staff or outsider?

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Then, finally, confirmation: the killer was Korean. That newsalong with a face plastered across television sets and tabloid-style Web pagesarrived early Tuesday and was repeated in nearly every account. Soon, the conversation had turned to heritage. Facebook groups started with titles such as “I’m Korean and Have a Gun, Don’t Be Scared,” “Why did the Virginia Tech shooter have to be an ASIAN” and “This is Not About Ethnicity.”

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Brian Choi, the newly elected president of the Korean Student Association at the University of Michigan, said he was surprised to learn of the gunman’s identity. “We tend to be known as the model minority; you don’t expect Asians to act in that manner,” he said. “There is a sense of shame and disgracewe don’t want to be associated with that.”

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But by Wednesday the gunman’s “resident alien” status had already emerged as a major storyline. The student in charge of the Korean Student Association at Virginia Tech, who did not return messages for comment, told Newsweek that he had received calls from multiple Korean students on the campus telling him they felt “horrified and scared.” A Korean college student told Inside Higher Ed that her non-Korean roommate’s parents warned her that, to avoid any danger, it would be best not to eat at a Korean restaurant.

Hugo Schwyzer, a history and gender studies professor at Pasadena City College who writes frequently about ethnicity, gender and student life, said he is concerned that as a result of the attention given to Seung-Hui’s background, Asian students will be teased and further typecast as socially awkward and introverted.

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“I expect many will respond by looking at Asian males and wondering what sort of rage-filled fantasies these guys may be harboring,” he added. “We’re not used to Asians being anything other than quiet, compliant and hardworkingthe old stereotypes. Any time you have a minority group identified with an act of violence, the subset gets stuck with the blame.”

The reality, says Eun Sook Lee, director of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, is that had the shooter been white, no one would have made a big deal out of his background after the first reference.

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Some said they are particularly concerned about the student reaction at Virginia Tech because only 1,655 of the 26,370 students at Virginia Tech are Asian, and only a fraction of them are Korean.

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Choi, the Korean Student Association president at Michigan, said that his group has no plans to address the events publicly, in part because the academic year is closing. He said he has received an e-mail from a national Korean student group informing students at Michigan and others how to handle and report cases of discrimination.

“I think people tend to blow things out of proportion,” Choi said. “But I’m not worried about any outlash from student groups. It’s not a race thing to me.”

Michelle Choi, external chair for the Michigan group, said her dad left her a message after the shooting saying she should “be careful as a Korean American about my actions in the next little while.” She said there is heightened awareness among Asian student groups, but that Asian students at Virginia Tech should be careful not to detach.

“[Seung-Hui] was an American sociopath who committed a crime,” she said. “That’s nothing to do with what we’re about.”

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