Korean-American Community Reacts to Shootings

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Edward Taehan Chang is a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California in Riverside. He wrote in the Los Angeles Times about the collective guilt the Korean-American community feels over the actions of Seung-hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

Right now, it's time for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. As we watch the horrific events unfold at Virginia Tech a week ago, many people waited anxiously to learn the shooter's identity. When the first news came that the shooter was perhaps Asian and then confirmed as a Korean-American, many in the Korean-American community heard the news with dismay.

Edward Taehan Chang is professor of ethnic studies at the University of California Riverside. He wrote in the Los Angeles Times about the collective guilt the Korean-American community feels over the actions of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. We'll hear from him in a minute.

But we want to hear from you, particularly if you're a member of an ethnic minority. Is there are a shared sense of collective guilt and responsibility when a member of the group acts outside socially accepted norms? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. You can send us e-mail at talk@npr.org, or join the conversation on our blog: npr.org/blogofthenation. Professor Chang joins us now from his office at the University of California Riverside. Welcome.

Professor EDWARD TAEHAN CHANG (Ethnic Studies, University of California Riverside): Hello.

ROBERTS: So what was your first reaction when you realized the shooter at Virginia Tech was Korean-American?

Prof. CHANG: Well, it's a disbelief and somewhat shock, just like anybody else. And I think you feel some degree of cultural connection with the person because he is a Korean-American background. And I think in the Korean culture and a lot of Asian culture, collective remorse, guilt, shame and responsibility is a very important cultural component of Korean culture that is a way to maintain a social order. For example, that's the way to deter an individual from committing a heinous crime, and that way, the society maintain law and order.

ROBERTS: So in addition to the sort of predictable reaction, almost anyone would have, oh my goodness, this was one of us who did this horrible thing, there's something specifically Korean about a collective response, do you think?

Prof. CHANG: No. I think that's more of a cultural component. More importantly, I felt, here we go again, and there might be some backlash against Korean-Americans or Asian-Americans - increased anti-Asian violence. These are the common concern by many minority groups in America because we had a long history of racial oppression and racial violence against minority group.

If there is a one act, supposedly one act, one person's act represent entire group. So I think that's the main concern that I had - a possibility of a backlash. Because 15 years ago in Los Angeles, the Korean-American community suffered a major, major violence during L.A. civil unrests of 1992. So we are commemorating 15th anniversary next week. And so because of that, of what happened 15 years ago, there were even more awareness of the possibility of a backlash.

ROBERTS: Well, you live in Southern California where, of course, there's an enormous Korean-American community. Have you been hearing any reports of the backlash from people there?

Prof. CHANG: No. Fortunately, this case did not turn out to be a racial issue at all. That was very fortunate. I think the media, in the beginning, were focusing on his immigrant background Korean-American identity, as well as his Asian background. So, you know, South Korea, they kept mentioning that particular point.

But what's race, racial identity, ethnic identity has got to do with this mass murder? There is no connection.

Therefore, media began to focus on other issues such as gun control or mental health. So that was very fortunate, and being far removed from Virginia in Los Angeles in California, we did not hear much about anti-Asian, anti-Korean-American violence.

ROBERTS: You wrote in your opinion piece that you were worried some of the coverage would fall back onto the stereotype of an Asian student under enormous pressure to succeed, you know, repressed emotions exploding under the pressure. That has not been borne out, you think?

Prof. CHANG: No because, you know, there are more than 100 million students in America under tremendous pressure to excel in school, but you know, this is one person and one act, a very rare act mind you, and so I mean, it's very difficult to connect being an Asian-American student pressured to excel in school and committing this crime.

So it's a very remote possibility. Of course, in the beginning when he came, eight-years-old, he may have faced such pressure or problem to adjust, you know, American society, and perhaps we may have done better to help him out, but I don't know. We don't know that. But you know, whole model minority stereotypical image of Asian-American, Korean-Americans a model minority, and this crime - I don't think there is a connection at all.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Tam(ph) in Minneapolis. Tam, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

TAM (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to quickly point out that as an American Muslim living in a post-September-11 era, I can completely relate to the Korean-American community and the Asian-American communities because what happened September 11 had quite a bit of backlash against American Muslims. And even though I think the majority of Americans understood and they were understandable that this was by a very small, tiny minority in the Muslim community - and actually they were not even American Muslims, they were people who were just coming to America for a specific thing. But nonetheless, it did gave the people who had prejudices and hatred toward the Muslims and probably generally all people who did not believe like them or look like them, it gave them a platform to go out and speak against Islam and Muslims.

But I can - what I would like to convey to the Korean-American community is that the majority of Americans, in my opinion, they are understandable. They understand that in each culture, each religion, each tradition, there are people who are extremists and they will commit an act of violence, but the majority of the people are understandable.

ROBERTS: And Tam, did you have a moment when you were first watching the coverage of Virginia Tech where you though oh please, please, please don't let the shooter have been Muslim?

TAM: Oh absolutely, absolutely I did have that. And actually I had the same reaction after September 11, when the planes hit the towers. And when the first one hit, I thought maybe the pilot was drunk. When the second one hit, you know, I thought maybe - I was pretty sure it was a terrorist act, and I was praying oh God, please don't let this be a Muslim. And I had the same thing during the college shooting, that I was praying that, you know, don't let this be a Muslim because it's going to bring another backlash against the American Muslim community.

ROBERTS: Tam, thank you so much for your call. We have an e-mail from Ellen(ph), who says: I'm sad but not surprised that other Korean-Americans are speaking out about their shared feelings of guilt after this most recent shooting incident. I know for myself as a Jew, whenever there's some public wrongdoing, if the perpetrator has a Jewish-sounding name, I feel disheartened, knowing there will be people who will use that incident as a way to maintain hatred for Jews.

It seems like this is a universal experience from ethnic minorities. They desperately don't want it to be one of them.

Prof. CHANG: Yes. I talked to many of my colleagues and students, and most minority persons feel the same way: I hope it's not one of us. And when the shooter was identified as a Korean-American, there was a big, huge sigh of relief for, you know, every other group except Korean-American.

So it's a shared experience and probably points out the current state of race relations in America. That we - that minority persons carry a heavy burden on their shoulder. And for example, I as an ethnic studies professor of Korean-American heritage, I have to represent an entire group of Korean-American community now just doing an interview, which is a tremendous responsibility and burden, and any misstep and any mistake I make is going to have negative consequences. So it's a burden that we carry all the time.

ROBERTS: Do you think the media coverage before the shooter's identity was known and then afterwards, in terms of describing as Asian or Korean-American, was fair? Do you think people hammered on that point too much? Do you think it was relevant to the case when the media was covering it?

Prof. CHANG: I don't think it was relevant, particularly when the media kept showing Cho Seung Hui from South Korea, and it shows that he's a foreigner, he's an immigrant, and there is a, you know, a suggestion that being immigrant and foreigner has something to do with this heinous crime. And if we jump a little further, then you could blame the entire immigrant community or anybody who is not a citizen, and I've heard some commentator asking: he's not an American citizen, how could he obtain a gun? And blaming his nationality.

And so therefore, they kept saying Cho Seung Hui instead of Seung Hui Cho, and looking at his background. He grew up in America, and he seemed to have culturally and linguistically assimilated very well. Therefore, he probably…

ROBERTS: He was an English major at Virginia Tech.

Prof. CHANG: An English major, yeah, and therefore he probably didn't know much about Korea or Korean culture. And yet we kept portraying him as an immigrant, as if he's a recent immigrant. But the fact of the matter was that he was American who grew up in American society, who culturally and linguistically assimilated.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

We have e-mail from Linda(ph) in Rochester, New York, who says: You don't have to be part of a minority to experience this. I feel it every time a white American commits violence against any member of another ethnic group. It's crushing.

Let's take a call from Richard(ph) in Chicago. Richard, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RICHARD (Caller): Hello.

ROBERTS: Hello.

RICHARD: Yes. I was calling also just to add I'm an African-American, and I understand the frustration that the Asian-Americans probably feel right now in how the media reports these things. You know, often they focus on the race or ethnicity of the person. And I'm not sure if they intentionally do it, but often it makes it feel as if other people, other Americans, will look at that group as somehow being responsible, possibly that at any point, that people in this group can do similar things.

It does kind of - and you know, you do feel collective guilt about it. I was mentioning the D.C. snipers when we found they were African-American. Even here in Chicago, we all like winced, like oh God, not they're going to think we're all, you know, joining the Nation of Islam, about to become, you know, (unintelligible), but especially in light of 9/11 with that also.

So I can definitely understand the frustration that the Asian community probably feels right now, because I myself, know that it seemed like there was a lot of heavy emphasis on this young man being an immigrant. And you know, I'm not saying that they were saying that this was what caused it, but it seemed like it was implied and inferred that it may have something to do with it, and I didn't think that that was necessary.

ROBERTS: And Richard, do you think that when the media's describing a criminal or wrongdoer of some kind, they use race too often, they describe them as an African-American or Asian-American more than they need to?

RICHARD: I think they do. I think they over-emphasize it. I mean, it's one thing if you're looking for a suspect that has done something, and you have a general description of him. But it seems like a lot of times when they lead into stories about crimes that have happened, they make it a point in saying, you know, the ethnicity of the individual that committed the crime, and they seem to focus on it, in my opinion, just a little bit too strongly. It kind of, you know, well, this is what we can expect from this group, or this is what we can expect to happen from these people. I think it kind of infers or implies that indirectly.

ROBERTS: Richard, thanks so much for your call. And Edward Taehan Chang, professor of ethnic studies at the UC Riverside joining us from his office, thank you so much.

Prof. CHANG: Thank you.

ROBERTS: We have a link to Professor Chang's op-ed on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.