I got a big smackdown yesterday. I told some folks that I was very disturbed by the Virginia Tech president's press announcement that the shooter there was an Asian male student. My point was this: What earthly difference does it make whether the shooter was Asian or Caucasian or Martian? Where does race fit into this unless/until it is later proved to be a relevant factor in the killings? More.
I was scolded for inserting a racial element into a highly-charged, tragic situation. Ummm, could I just say that I did not insert the shooter's ethnic origin into the mix? It got there ahead of me. It was suggested to me that the president was likely reading from a police report, where such a description is standard. That he was most likely under immense stress and that we all should cut him some slack. I couldn't agree more. However . . . .
I do concede that promoting a racist agenda almost certainly was not the intention of President Charles Steger. But we are living in a society that is simmering in racist stew, morning, noon and night. So it probably isn't surprising that one of my first thoughts (on the heels of, "Oh, God, no, no, no!") was this: "Please let the shooter be a home-bred white guy and not someone from the Middle East!" Because you and I both know this fractured country would have been off to the races if that had been part of this tragedy.
One reason is that the Bush Republicans have played the fear card so often, for so long, that skin of almost any color other than Aryan white is deeply suspect. Yes, I know what I just said. It is what it is.
Within minutes of President Steger's announcement, there were escalating conversations about the militant nature of Koreans and how they are trained almost from infancy to be tough, yea brutal, militants. The hypothesis that grew quickly out of that was that the man we now know to be Cho Seung-Hui was a product of that warrior society. Likely they were thinking North Korea, but I'm not sure of that. And it's a fine point at best. Turns out Cho lived here for fifteen years, legally, which means he was roughly 8 years old when he arrived in the United States. Was he whole and sane then? We may never know. But chances are he was labeled "Korean" first and "child" last.
Make no mistake. I am not in any way defending Cho. Far from it. But we have gotten into some deplorable habits in this country of saying things, even in an offhand, police blotter way, that trigger stereotyping right off the bat. And this is a classic case in point. Cho was a person who had major, ultimately deadly, mental health problems. Didn't matter where he came from originally. Still doesn't.
My guess is that some Koreans did (still do?) wonder what mode of rage will be brought to bear on them. What epithets. What threats. You know the drill. We've seen it before. For starters, Muslims, Mexicans, Japanese, even the French. All of which speaks to a severe problem in our country. It is called racism. Its companion is intolerance. It's a terrifyingly knee-jerk thing.
The toothpaste is out of the tube to stay on this one. Photos of the victims reveal that Cho killed some of "his own." His own what? Fellow human beings? Other males? Student colleagues? Oh. Asians. People of color.
Here is how uncharitable I feel about all of this. I have even wondered if the "Asian male student" descriptor was said intentionally to communicate, "It wasn't a terrorist attack by radical Muslims." But there is no justice in scapegoating an entire region of the world and one nation in particular. And I really do believe that's what happened here. People will not remember Cho's name. I confess I had to go back and look it up. What they will remember is that Korean kid who killed.
There is immense power in language. Some of it is destructive in the extreme. And while the whole matter of Cho's ethnicity is altogether peripheral to the horror of the Virginia Tech massacre, it is tightly linked to it and to the shameful bigotry it reflects.