The panel discussion “Perceptions of Asian Americans Today: Post Virginia Tech Shooting” sparked animated and concerned dialogue in the crammed Harbor Room of the UCen yesterday evening.
Audience members lobbed questions at four panelists for nearly two hours in an open forum aimed at making sense of the campus shooting that left 33 dead, and the role that the race of the Korean American shooter Seung-Hui Cho played in the aftermath.
The discussion, hosted by the UCSB chapter of the Korean American Coalition and sponsored by the Asian American Psychology Association and the Office of Student Life, opened with a slideshow commemorating the victims accompanied by a moment of silence, and was followed by a timeline depicting the stages of the campus massacre.
Chair of Asian American Psychology Association Debra Romy Fan said that prior to the dialogue many individuals had internalized commonly shared feelings that did not emerge until last night’s discussion.
“You could see from the panel speakers and the students that many people felt ashamed, guilty and some partially responsible,” Romy Fan, a fourth-year psychology and Asian American studies major, said. “If we didn’t have a [forum] feelings would still be inside ourselves. Our intention was to unite people of all races, to bring them together to create a safe environment to discuss what happened.”
Throughout the event the issue of race was continually emphasized, specifically targeting the reactions of the Asian American community, potential prejudice backlashes and the obsession and portrayal of race in the media.
“As a Korean, in my heart I felt a sense of responsibility for this heinous crime, and embarrassment. Later I realized [the shooting] was not racially motivated and that he was a very sick individual,” Panelist Sook Lee, Ph. D., Stanford, said. “But I had mixed feelings because my parents in Korea and my whole country back home was bowing in shame.”
Likewise, Dr. Steve Ino, Ph.D. University of Michigan a Staff Psychologist at UCSB said his response was also derived from his background as a Japanese American. He later produced a sign that read, “I am not Korean!”
“My first reaction was ‘Oh shit! An Asian!’ That shocked me,” Ino said. “My second response was ‘Oh shit, I’m Asian, followed by worry and fear.’ It was a very complicated feeling of guilt and a kind of ownership.”
However, panelist John S.W. Park, Ph. D. Berkeley, said he was puzzled by Asian Americans’ need to apologize for Cho’s individual actions or defend the race as a whole, as Caucasians seldom engage in such behavior.
“If whites commit a heinous crime, we don’t ask them to represent their race, explain why one of them went crazy or apologize on behalf of the race. It is a double standard,” Park said. “The fact that the South Korean president [felt obliged to] apologize three times proves a post-colonial relationship. The guy was obviously crazy and clinically insane; those people come in all shapes and sizes.”
“If an African American commits a crime there is no shock because they are connected with crime. But an Asian American, the model minority, a geeky Asian kid, that is what makes this different.”
Stemming from this commentary, audience members articulated their fears of racial profiling on campus and harmful misdirected stereotypes.
In response, Dr. Ino said that he too feared the development and harboring of such resentment that could potentially effect future perceptions.
“Stereotype images are being formulated right now that are going to operate socially,” Ino said.
In addition to the topics of collective reactions and unwarranted prejudices, the panelists emphasized the role of media in immortalizing Cho, which sets a dangerous precedent for others in unstable frames of mind.
“The media plays a huge role. Cho has become a role model for some Asian men, an empowering figure because of his demonstration of such violence and the power he asserted,” Ino said. “That frightens and disturbs me.”
Romy Fan encouraged those students lacking an outlet or fearful of potential prejudice backlashes to confide in others or seek professional support.
“Open up, seek help … I have sought counseling,” Romy Fan said. “It made me feel better to open up and I have no shame about that. I encourage others to use that – particularly those feeling judged.”