After VT Shooting, Ethnic Backlash?

As media reports of the Virginia Tech shootings have cast attention on the ethnicity of killer Seung-Hui Cho, a South Korean immigrant, some students are worried that the events might fuel a backlash against other Asian Americans.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Virginia Tech community first and foremost. Beyond that, a lot of us were cognizant that there could be backlash, some even feared physical backlash, for Asians and Asian Americans in the rest of the country,” said Edward H. Thai ’07, a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association (AAA) and the Harvard-Radcliffe Chinese Students Association.

In the days since last Monday’s shooting, groups have emerged on Facebook with titles such as “Guns Don’t Kill People, Asian Kids at VT do...” and “Asian dude + a gun = 33 killed and I’m pissed,” prompting concerned discussion on the AAA’s e-mail list.

“Some people were trying to report the groups and have them shut down. Others of us tried to engage in discussion with the more discriminatory Facebook users,” Thai said.

Other students interviewed by The Crimson were not concerned about a backlash on Harvard’s campus.

“Harvard students know it’s not about race but about someone who is mentally ill,” said Christopher M. Pak ’08, co-president of the Harvard Korean Students Association.

Pak said he thinks the Facebook groups are largely the work of high school students.

But Pak said he is concerned that mainstream media outlets have referred to the shooter as Cho Seung-Hui rather than the reverse, Seung-Hui Cho.

“They reversed his name in the way that you would say it in Korean, where you put the family name first,” Pak said.

“That’s not how he nor his family referred to him. The fact that they were doing that portrayed him as less American,” he added.

The Asian American Journalists Association, a non-profit organization that seeks “fair and accurate coverage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,” issued a statement urging media outlets to avoid unnecessarily identifying the shooter’s race.

“There is no evidence at this early point that the race or ethnicity of the suspected gunman has anything to do with the incident, and to include such mention serves only to unfairly portray an entire people,” the organization said.

“Columbine didn’t focus on how the two shooters were white; it focused on the fact that they were loners, whereas you can already see stories coming out where you have sociologists coming out saying that it has something to do with his Asianess or his immigrant status,” Thai said. “They usually don’t mention that he’s been living in the U.S. since age eight, which pretty much makes him as American as anybody else.”

Others on campus are less concerned.

“I haven’t been paying that much attention to the media coverage but I didn’t really see anything that I thought was particularly offensive or wrong, but I’m a very difficult person to offend,” said Weichen Zhu ‘07, a subscriber to the AAA e-mail list. “I can see more people are more sensitive to this issue than I am.”

—Staff writer Doris A. Hernandez can be reached at dahernan@fas.harvard.edu.