It appears as of this morning that yesterday’s horrific shooting at Virginia Tech began with a young man killing his girlfriend before moving on to massacre dozens of fellow students and at least one faculty member. As has often been the case in the past, a mass shooting seems clearly linked to one man’s colossal rage at an individual woman or women. There’s a long and evolving discussion of many aspects of this event at Feministe. Here’s the post I wrote after last year’s awful Amish school shooting; as the facts unfold about what happened in Blacksburg, these words may or may not prove relevant once again:
As a pro-feminist gender studies prof, if thereâ€™s one topic that depresses me more than almost any other, itâ€™s just how widespread male rage at women seems to be in our culture…We live in a culture where rape remains ubiquitous; where sexual harassment is a nearly-universal experience for many women in the workplace; where pornography that features the narrative of teenage girls being raped, overpowered or even murdered is ever more available and popular. I donâ€™t know what specific factors inspired these
two three shootings, but I do know that they are, in some as of yet inexplicable way, emblematic of a larger cultural problem…
The shooter has been identified as a young Korean-American man, Cho Seung-Hui. My first thought upon hearing that the killer had been described as “Asian” was “Damn, why couldn’t it have been a white boy?” Please understand, I don’t think the race of the shooter played a vital role in these tragic events. If he had been white, the horror of what happened would be no less (and no greater.) But I teach at a campus where over a third of our students are Asian or Asian-American. Pasadena City College awards more AA degrees to Asians than any other junior college in the United States. And I am deeply concerned about the possibility of anti-Asian backlash, particularly in those areas (and on those campuses) where Asians constitute more of a minority than they do here in the San Gabriel Valley.
In my men and masculinity class (I’ll be teaching it again in the fall after a two-year hiatus), we spend quite a bit of time talking about race. We talk about deeply-held stereotypes about men of various ethnic backgrounds (I’ll bet my readers can think of a few in a matter of seconds.) And over and over again, I’ve listened to the anguish of more than a few Asian male students. We live in a white-dominated culture that exaggerates the athletic and erotic capabilities of black males at the same instant that it denigrates those same possibilities within Asian men. We know the nasty stereotypes: Asian men are invariably near-sighted; always slight of build and small of penis; good at science and math; emotionally inarticulate (even more so than white men); inscrutable. These painful, cruel, inaccurate assumptions do real damage.
One other stereotype that may have a very small bit of truth within it is one I hear repeated quite a bit on my campus: young Asian men, particularly from competitive Korean and Chinese families, may be under tremendous pressure not only to do very well academically but also to keep virtually all emotion repressed. The last time I taught my men and masculinity class, a young Chinese-American fella said something like this:
Prof. Hugo, you ever wonder why Asian guys like video and role-playing games more than anyone else? It’s because black, white, and Hispanic guys get to express their anger so much more than we do. We’re supposed to not get angry. We’re not given the same outlets, not encouraged to play sports as much. So we — I — like video games. And I really like the violent ones.
This led to heated discussion — there were a number of Asian-American men and women in the room, and some vehemently disagreed with what their classmate was saying. Others vigorously supported him.
It’s obvious from the history of mass shootings that most killers — the Dylan Klebolds, the Marc Lepines — have been white males. And we almost never attribute their murderousness to their whiteness. We focus on their misogyny, their alienation, their easy access to guns. But whether or not there is any truth to the stereotype that young Asian men are often under particularly great familial and cultural pressure to succeed (and to do so without expressing any rage or frustration), I am very worried about the legacy of Cho Seung-Hui. I am worried that on many campuses — particularly those where Asians are a very small minority — other students will begin to shun their Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese male classmates. I can hear the jokes now, the ones that have an ugly edge to them: “Hey ____, did you bring your gun to class today?”
I saw what was done to many of my Muslim students after 9/11. And though what happened yesterday was no 9/11, these murders in Virginia are receiving an extraordinary amount of attention. “The worst mass shooting in American history” has a terrible resonance to it, and it will be all most of us talk about for the next few days. For some within our society, the temptation to displace some of their own feelings of anger, sadness, and powerlessness onto others will be overwhelming. And I am deeply worried for my students who share the shooter’s ethnic heritage and outer appearance. And though it wouldn’t change anything in the long run, I am wishing this morning that the trigger had been pulled by a good ol’ WASP boy named Billy Bob Johnson rather than by the late Cho Seung-Hui.
UPDATE: Please don’t devote your comments to a discussion of how white men are actually as victimized by stereotypes as men of other ethnic groups. If I were to do this post over, I would have titled it Wishing Cho Seung-Hui had been William Robert Johnson IV, in order to avoid the sense that I was stereotyping working-class white southern men. I’ve read through a lot of Colombine coverage (most folks are comparing this event chiefly to Colombine); I haven’t found many folks talking about how whiteness played a part in what Harris and Klebold did. I’m already seeing some anti-Asian commentary showing up in my comments section and elsewhere.
Folks, emotions are raw. Be kind, be judicious, and take a second before hitting the “publish” button. I’ll be moderating.
UPDATE II: I just checked my stats. At 2:10PM PDT, I already have more unique visitors and hits than I have had on any single day since I started this blog. Welcome, all of those of you who typed Cho Seung-Hui into a search engine.
UPDATE III: I’m done arguing in the comments section, at least for today. I just did a lengthy phone interview with Newsweek, and my comments may appear in a story there in the next couple of days. I’ve got a gym to hit and papers to grade…