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Ethnic stereotypes and the Oikos shooting: A candid online panel discussion

A crime scene investigator last week at Oikos University in Oakland.
A crime scene investigator last week at Oikos University in Oakland.
Photo by Jonathan Gibby/Getty Images

In the week since a former student opened fire at Oikos University, a small Christian vocational college in Oakland, the seven people who died have been mourned in at least half a dozen countries, including here, where they made their home. A memorial service was being held in Oakland today.

With the exception of one victim, a young Korean American woman, all of those who died were immigrants. They came from South Korea, the Philippines, India, Tibet, Nigeria. So was the gunman, identified as One L. Goh, 43, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in South Korea and a former nursing student at the school, who reports indicate suffered emotional problems.

The reaction to the tragedy has involved more than mourning among Asian Americans. It has, for some, resurrected the specter of an ugly stereotype that's endured since five years ago this month, when troubled Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people on campus before taking his own life. It has raised questions about mental health outreach in minority communities. In the Asian American blogosphere and beyond, it has prompted a by-now-familiar speculation about social pressures, and expressions of that universal collective sinking feeling that occurs among minorities when a high-profile perpetrator is deemed "one of us."

It has also raised questions about why a mass killing of this level has received relatively scant national media attention compared with similar incidents, and whether race plays a part.

A few days ago, I asked UC Irvine's James Lee, chair of the university's Asian American studies department, if he'd help me tackle some of these issues in a Q&A. He responded with a better idea, suggesting we crowd source the answers from several of his colleagues around the country. The seven experts - professors of Asian American studies, psychology, ethics, world religions and English - convened via Facebook for an impromptu panel discussion to address several questions. The result was a lengthy but candid conversation, shared here.

M-A: There's an unpleasant ethnic stereotype that has come about in the years since the Virginia Tech shooting. What is the stereotype that has developed, and how far off base is it?

James Lee, UC Irvine: I think that stereotype was best summed up by Andrew Lam in the immediate aftermath of the Virginia Tech catastrophe: "Many of us - including myself - used the word (Asian) to refer to any other Asian besides us. In the end it wouldn't have worked for very long. To be a minority in America, even in the 21st century, is to be always on trial. An evil act by one indicts the entire community."

The stereotype that has emerged is the one of immediate guilt by association. The fact that the killer at Virginia Tech was of Korean descent allowed the media coverage to mobilize a range of assumptions to "figure out" Seung Hui Cho: that he wasn't really an American (though he lived for 15 years in the U.S.), that as an Asian American he was reluctant to utilize mental health services (though he and his parents had availed themselves of counseling as early as eight years of age), that he was somehow culturally and perhaps intrinsically anti-social in an American context.

I think the focus on Cho's race and ethnicity speaks to the larger vexed relationship that U.S. popular culture has with Asian American masculinity: Asian American men are by turns asexual, sexually perverse, geeky, violent; they are math whizzes and gangbangers; they are model minorities and potential criminals.

The stereotype is no more true than if these assumptions were placed on other men from other cultural groups. This isn't to say that none of what I listed were operative - clearly Cho's soul was deeply troubled, as is Goh's. But the anxiety of immediate mobilization of "all" of these images, (which) threaten to overwhelm what actually might be operative in the respective men's profiles and stories. All this to say: The danger is that Cho has become an easy template on which to map another terrible event of violence, in which an Asian American is the agent of death and violence.

Grace Kao, associate professor of ethics, Claremont School of Theology: The comparison to Cho is understandable, but there appear to be very significant differences. Also, I'd like to hear more about the gendered dimensions regarding the stigma in AA* communities re: seeking professional help (counseling); women turning violence inwards (suicide); men externally? Don't know the data on this (just speculating), but gender would be an important dimension to consider.

Min Hyoung Song, associate professor of English and Asian American studies at Boston College: Oddly,  I've felt very disconnected from this case, and actually had to read an article to get the details. It may be partly due to the fact that I'm so swamped this semester. It's of course tragic. But at the same time this incident hasn't inspired the same attention at VTech.

I wonder why? What I've read seems to be pretty neutral about this case, and there's much less attention to race than at VTech. Perhaps it's because all the victims are Asian Americans as well as the shooter, so there isn't that contrast that VTech so dramatized?

Given this dynamic, I wonder if stereotypes are playing much of a factor here...curious to hear what everyone else says.

Kao: Why not as much attention at VT? Cho had that "multimedia manifesto" that became media "wallpaper" (as they call it) - you couldn't avoid hearing snippets of audio/video or seeing photos of him everywhere. Also, politically, S. Korea was negotiating "most favored nation" status with the U.S., which may have contributed to the Korean gov't's interest in providing all of those public apologies. I, too, haven't followed this case as closely as I did VT, but as Jim knows, I was actually on faculty at VT when the shootings happened (so my interest in that case was obviously much greater).

VT dead in 2007 had the highest body count by a lone gunman in U.S. history. That alone brought the coverage and of course, the manifesto and setting (rural Blacksburg) certainly helped.

Lee: The lack of attention to this shooting is striking. One wonders whether it is because Oikos is a small, fundamentalist college run by Koreans, serving a largely Korean/Korean American student body. Recognition in either the shooter or victim is important for resonance.

I do think, Grace, that the question of mental/emotional health and the response by men to lash out is a good thing to think through: To what extent is Goh's shooting an extension or version of the more tragically common acts of domestic violence that men inflict on women within their households?

Erin Khue Ninh, assistant professor of Asian American studies at UC Santa Barbara: I find it striking that "bullying" discourse has been so pervasively attached to Goh; considering the intra-ethnic context, this seems to me an odd new wrinkle in the racial typing.

And that the response is different -- if not necessarily in scale (I'm not going to venture to measure), definitely in affect -- I agree with the trending of the conversation that this is being read more as a (male) "domestic" violence. Condemnable but othering in a way that doesn't threaten the majority.

In  that light, is it too much a stretch to say that the domestically violent, angry Korean male figure is even somewhat reassuring to the larger/Western public, for reasons gendered/racial/Orientalist?

M-A: Reaching out to a mental health professional is a difficult step for many in several minority groups, including Asians and Latinos. Can you discuss the need that exists? Is there any outreach that can/should be done to better provide culturally sensitive help for minorities who need mental health services?

Sharon Suh, associate professor of world religions at Seattle University: Can we talk about why Korean American communities felt the need to apologize for Cho??!!!

Lee: Sure Sharon, but this begs the question: Are Korean Americans apologizing for Goh?

Kao: Sharon, I have no data, but isn't collective shame the flip side of collective pride? Also, the community wanted to dissociate with stigma? Also everyone not just Koreans wanted to do something....

Grace Kim, assistant professor of psychology at Wheelock College: I am just learning the details of this case, and from what I read so far, this case is tragic in so many different levels. Although it is hard to get a clear sense of what was going on, it seems like there are some losses in Goh's life (recent death of brother and mother), financial problems, academic and interpersonal issues at school (although people say that he was a hard working student).

There is also some report of feeling disrespected because of his poor English and possible problems with younger female students, according to a professor at school (who denied the report about the maltreatment because of language skills). Certainly, it seems like he might have been in a lot of stress and pain.

Overall, though, I feel like we need a lot more information. With mental health issues, seeking mental health care (i.e., talk therapy) is so culturally foreign, and many Asian Americans and immigrants seek help when they feel like the problems are severe. In addition, the access piece (language, knowledge about how to get help) and stigma are huge barriers. FYI - AAPA** is also beginning to discuss this incident, as well.

Lee: Grace and Grace: points well taken. I do think we need to moved beyond the "Asian Ams don't seek mental health counseling/help because of shame" meme. Isn't it so much more complicated than that? What other factors does this meme miss?

I'm thinking, at the very least, the following: cultural/linguistic competency of the professionals, the extent to which said professionals interact with community leaders, and the extent to which said leaders are willing to engage the mental health community in healthy/productive ways.

I'm thinking esp. in this context of Korean American clergy, who are notoriously BAD at engaging the mental health community and, conversely, the skepticism that the mental health community pay to religious leaders.

Russell Jeung, associate professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University: I'd like to chime in on a few of these issues:

?1. Lack of media coverage: I think the fact that most of the victims are non-white, and that the incident occurred in Oakland where people "expect" violence, reduces the media attention to the tragedy.

?2. Lack of mental health: Asians don't seek mental health because of shame, but because the concept of mental health is a Western idea, is foreign, and is frankly, not necessarily effective. Mental health professionasl need to develop different, culturally appropriate paradigms of wellness and well-being that incorporate Asian perspectives of healing, holism, and community.

In L.A., the Pacific Clinic has developed a lot of culturally sensitive and competent programs for APIs*** that include Asian modalities of spirituality. As one example, Hmong health workers worked out relations with hospitals to allow shamans to come and practice ceremonies on-site. The shamans were also trained to identify serious conditions when they would encourage people to get emergency services first. This approach is much better than what was described in Fadiman's "The Spirit Catches You."

Suh: I totally agree with you, Russell, about the lack of media coverage. That most victims were non-white is also related to lack of KA**** communal apologies. The image of the gun toting KAs on rooftops, corner delis and schools simply must be addressed and critiqued within KA communities rather than apologized for.

M-A: Every case is different, and One Goh had his own unique issues. But as it's happened before, soon afterward we began to see media and other speculation about the particular weight felt in the U.S. by Asian American men; some have even brought up the Korean term “han." How much bearing does any of this have? Any? None?

Suh: I am sure that we could find ways to argue Goh's inherited han, an inescapable embodiment. But in some ways I find it less helpful in providing series analysis, critique, solution. Where's the agency in Han?

Kao: I agree with Sharon - if Goh's action could be reduced to han, and if han is supposedly a trait that all Koreans have (as some Korean American theologians have argued), then that explanation would not bode well for the KA community (since all would be seen as potential Gohs).

M-A: Finally, that “ugh” feeling that's fairly universal among minority groups when a high-profile perpetrator turns out to be "one of us." How do incidents like these affect the Korean American community, or the Asian American community at large?"

Suh: I am owning my ugh as a KA.

Jeung: This is the minority's burden, the ugh question. If we distance ourselves from Goh and the ugh feeling, we are accused of selling out, assimilating, and abandoning our community by becoming individualists.

If we identify with Goh as a coethnic or fellow Asian American and thus the ugh feeling, we are left with a real sense of shame and sadness for some sort of responsibility.

I actually prefer the latter, that we do own some corporate responsibility for the actions in our group - I think that's even biblical in some ways.

Kim: I love Russell's comments. Going back to the mental health issues, the mental health utilization is an issue not only just for AsAms, but for many others, in general.

The stigma is a real problem - not just because of the shame and cultural meanings in the AsAm contexts, but also about how mental health is viewed differently from physical health. And, as we know, the mental health/therapy culture has been that of middle/upper class, White European American, and people who are generally used to verbal problem-solving/"talking about emotions," and it doesn't fit for many people (including non-AsAms).

Believe me, many psychologists, especially psychologists of color, have been critiquing and working on changing this. In relation to a tragedy like the one we have here, we need to make sure that race and culture are incorporated into the dialogue, but also note that it is not necessarily all about race and culture (and issues like 'han'). My 2 cents.

Kao: I also wanted to say that I agree with Russell Jeung: If we AAs want to celebrate with Jeremy Lin - even bask in reflected glory - we must also share the corporate pain of events like these. Back to Cho: I agree that the communal self-flagellation may have been excessive in some cases (and politically motivated in others), but the spirit behind it - the idea that the corporate body feels remorse for the actions of one - is something that I actually like.

*AA = Asian American; **AAPA - Asian American Psychological Association; ***APIs = Asian Pacific Islanders; ****KA = Korean American