Post Virginia Tech Stereotyping: Students affected by backlash against Asian Americans

After Seung-Hui Cho's shootings, Asian Americans experience discrimination

Steffi Lau, editor in chief
El Estoque, Monta Vista High School Newspaper
May 23, 2007

Just a day after the heart-wrenching Virginia Tech shootings bloodied the campus and rocked the nation with grief, the identity of the shooter was revealed. It was in a hotel room on the border of Arizona and Nevada that senior Chris Lo and a group of his friends turned on the TV to see the angry face of Seung-Hui Cho flashing across the screen.

“Dude, if you shaved off your hair, you’d look just like him!” one of Lo’s friends joked to him. Lo and his friends burst out into laughter. Among the group of friends, it seemed hilarious and even ridiculous that anyone would ever mistake the Chinese-American Lo for a socially reclusive shooter, much less for a Korean one.

On April 16, Seung-Hui Cho, a student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, gunned down 32 students and then shot himself in the worse school massacre in US history. As news of the tragedy spread across the nation, some reacted with tears, some with outrage, and others simply asked themselves, Why?

Meanwhile, some looked at the photograph of Cho in their newspapers and reacted with the shame of being the same race as him. Thoughts of hate crimes and discrimination against Asian-Americans or Korean-Americans—much like those that Muslims and those of Middle Eastern descent had experienced after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—seemed all too possible.

Lo and his friends had traveled to the border of Arizona and Nevada on April 17, over spring break, on a trip to visit Yosemite. Having left the day after the shootings, they were unaware of the identity or the ethnicity of the shooter, not to mention what awaited them outside the comfortable Asian-populated bubble of Cupertino. On the morning of April 18, Lo and his friends left their room to eat breakfast in the hotel.

It seemed that their group of three Chinese-Americans and one African-American was receiving unusually long stares from the other predominantly white guests, but it was not until they entered the buffet that they realized why. There, Lo was told by the cashier to put his bag on the side of the room though all the other guests had their bags with them at their tables.

“Is it because I’m Asian?” Lo asked. The cashier, who was Caucasian, responded, “No, we’re just making sure.”

“I think he thought that I had weapons or explosives in my backpack,” Lo said. “My friend, who is black, was asking him, ‘Do you have a problem with people of color?’ The cashier replied, ‘Well, stuff just happened at Virginia Tech. The country’s in turmoil right now. We’re just trying to be safe.’”

“Then the manager came out and we told him, ‘We don’t like being discriminated against because of our skin color. Just because some random person at Virginia Tech did the shooting doesn’t mean it has anything to do with us.’ After that, they gave in by letting us sit with our bags and treating us nicely.”

Over spring break, senior James Kahng had a similar experience. On April 20, he and seven other people, all Asian, went down to Santa Cruz to celebrate his brother’s birthday.

“We were sitting outside of this restaurant eating dinner when this white man walked by,” Kahng said. “He let out a little laugh, like, ‘Ha!’ Just a really contemptuous laugh. Then he said, ‘Are you guys shooters, too? I’ll shoot you, too.’”

For Kahng and his friends, it took a while for it to sink in. “We were watching basketball on TV,” Kahng said. “So we thought he was talking about basketball and someone said, ‘Yeah, we shoot basketball.’ It was only until after he walked away that we realized what he meant. We started to wonder if the other people in the restaurant were scared of us. And then I began to feel really scared.”

Previous to his experience, Kahng hadn’t really thought about his connection to Seung-Hui Cho. “He’s Korean, I’m Korean,” Kahng said. “I saw a lot of articles about how ashamed Koreans were after the shooting, but I hadn’t connected it with myself before then.”

It is incidents of stereotyping and discrimination like the ones Kahng and Lo experienced that have left the Asian-American community in outrage. After the shooting, various hate groups began to pop up on networking sites such as Facebook, with titles like “I thought Asian kids were supposed to help you with your math homework, not blow your head off “ and “Who was shocked that the Asian kid done the massacre at Virginia Tech?”

In response, other groups were created, many of them joined by MVHS students, such as “Seung-Hui Cho does not represent all Asians” and “Yeah, I look like someone else. Is that a crime?”

Kahng said that in response to the backlash against Asian-Americans, some of his friends have blamed Cho, saying, “Stupid Korean guy, making us all hated.”

Asian-Americans have also responded by condemning the repeated identification of Cho as “South Korean” by media outlets, instead protesting that his race has nothing to do with his actions and emphasizing that Cho had been living in the US since the age of eight. Among the race-driven questions, is the speculation, “But what if it hadn’t been an Asian?”

“If it had been any other minority, there would still be a backlash,” Kahng said. “If it were a white guy, it would just be a tragedy.”

Kahng speculated, “People create assumptions of other people and when they come true a few times, they think it’s true all the time. I guess it has something to do with hatred. They’re angry at [Cho] and they need someone to take it out on…and we look like him.”

Though his experience was brief, it has left Kahng contemplating. “It makes me think more about how other Asians might feel in areas that aren’t like Monta Vista, he said. “Maybe they’re the only Asian in their school and they experience stuff like that everyday. For me, that was my first sincere experience with racism.”

Even though Lo and Kahng both felt angry after their respective brushes with racism, Lo tries not to lay the blame on anyone. “I guess it’s just how people grow up,” Lo said. “It depends on what you’re surrounded by. If you’re sheltered, it’s weird seeing someone of a different skin color. I moved to San Jose recently and there are a lot more Hispanics and blacks there. So whenever I walk to the gym, I tend to get stared at. If you’re different, it gives people cause to think you’re strange.”

While the nation has mostly moved on after the Virginia Tech shootings, the incident has left a slew of stereotypes and speculations within the Asian-American community in its wake. “It makes you realize that there’s racism out there,” Kahng said. “It’s not over. There’s a lot of hatred left in the world.”

©2014-2015 Steffi Lau. All rights reserved.