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  • “Look, an Asian!”The Politics of Racial Interpellation in the Wake of the Virginia Tech Shootings
  • sylvia shin huey chong (bio)

At the same time the story of the Virginia Tech shootings unfolded, a parallel news story was being constructed. Beginning with Asian American bloggers and journalists, this story focused on Asian Americans, and particularly Korean Americans, and their fears of a racial backlash caused by the furor surrounding the shootings. In these venues, many Asian Americans expressed a mix of shame and relief after Cho's identity was revealed—shame for the fact that he was Asian, but relief that he was not of their own ethnic group. Vietnamese American author Andrew Lam summarized the multi-ethnic anxieties surrounding him: "We'll be in deep if it's Chinese . . . I have a bad feeling. It might be Mi't (Vietnamese slang for Vietnamese) . . . If he's a Paki and Muslim, we might all just as well pack up and go home."1 On the other hand, after Cho was identified, the Korean American community entered the spotlight, and controversy arose from within when some, like Washington State Senator Paull Shin and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, issued apologies for the shootings in order to deflect the expected backlash. In turn, many younger Korean Americans angrily denounced the pressure to repent for something for which they were not responsible.2

Other Asian American groups took a more proactive approach, launching a media watch to police any potential bias in the news coverage of the shootings. The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) issued media advisories to other media organizations on best practices [End Page 27] and exhorted its members to monitor their employers' coverage of the shootings.3 Although the first reports of Cho's identity represented him as a resident alien and emphasized his South Korean citizenship, later details revealed that Cho had lived in the U.S. since he was eight years old, making him as much American as Asian, or more technically a 1.5-generation Korean American.4 Ironically, if these proactive measures did indeed heighten public awareness and prevent hate crimes and other reprisals against Asian Americans, the lack of any visible backlash led other commentators to point to an unfounded paranoia coming out of supposedly politically correct attitudes. The majority of the emails the AAJA received in response to its media advisories were negative, accusing them of perpetuating rather than preventing racism.5 When AAJA vice president for broadcast Jam Sardar appeared on The O'Reilly Factor to defend his organization's stance, host Bill O'Reilly slammed him for representing a "pressure group" trying to alter the relevant facts of the story. O'Reilly further suggested that fears of racial backlash were unfounded, claiming that even "after 9/11 there wasn't a backlash in this country against American Muslims."6

What do these various narratives and arguments about Cho and his racial identity mean? For many non-Asian American commentators, anti-Asian racism is practically invisible, limited only to a few irrational individuals who are ultimately unrepresentative of the American body politic. But even among Asian Americans, there is a contradiction between, on the one hand, the heightened racial consciousness exhibited by both the AAJA and many Korean American groups, for whom racial group identification forms the basis for action and, on the other hand, the disavowal of racial identity that ultimately lies behind the fears of an anti-Asian racial backlash. We want race to matter when we are fighting the onslaught of racial backlash and stereotyping, and yet we do not want race to matter because it is the consideration of race that produces backlash in the first place. We feel our racialization as Asian Americans most acutely when Cho's identity is revealed, but we do not want race to become a part of Cho's criminal profile.

These tensions, of course, predate the Virginia Tech incident, forming a central paradox for racial politics in the post-civil rights era. As we struggle to confront the continued existence of structural racism, the [End Page 28] topic of race has become increasingly taboo in the color-blind rhetoric of contemporary...