There's a crucial moment early in many crime investigations when the first description of the assailant comes out. When the attack happens on campus, like it did Monday at Virginia Tech University, the initial question is obvious: student, faculty, staff or outsider?
Then come the details. Student. Male. Black coat. Stoic. Maroon hat. Determined.
When the gunman is identified, there's the possibility of more tense moments when, after all rumors and accounts are sorted out, the ethnicity is announced. In this case, the first official word came that the shooter was an Asian student, but it was unclear whether he was an international student studying in Virginia or, as it turned out, an Asian immigrant who grew up in Virginia.
Then, finally, confirmation: the killer was Korean. That news -- along with a face plastered across television sets and tabloid-style Web pages -- arrived early Tuesday and was repeated in nearly every account. Soon, the conversation had turned to heritage. Facebook groups started with titles such as "I'm Korean and Have a Gun, Don't Be Scared," "Why did the Virginia Tech shooter have to be an ASIAN" and "This is Not About Ethnicity."
South Korean government officials expressed their dismay that a native son would commit such a crime. National Korean groups sent their condolences. Korean student groups created message boards to both express grief and prepare for the venom likely coming their way.
Brian Choi, the newly elected president of the Korean Student Association at the University of Michigan, said he was surprised to learn of the gunman's identity. "We tend to be known as the model minority; you don't expect Asians to act in that manner," he said. "There is a sense of shame and disgrace -- we don't want to be associated with that."
Some were displeased with the attention being given to Cho Seung-Hui's background. The Asian American Journalists Association released a statement saying that it is "disturbed" by the prominent mention that Seung-Hui is an immigrant from South Korea when "such a revelation provides no insight or relevance to the story.... To highlight that suggests his immigration status played a role in the shootings; there's been no such evidence," the statement says.
But by Wednesday the gunman's "resident alien" status had already emerged as a major storyline. The student in charge of the Korean Student Association at Virginia Tech, who did not return messages for comment, told Newsweek that he had received calls from multiple Korean students on the campus telling him they felt "horrified and scared." A Korean college student told Inside Higher Ed that her non-Korean roommate's parents warned her that, to avoid any danger, it would be best not to eat at a Korean restaurant.
Hugo Schwyzer, a history and gender studies professor at Pasadena City College who writes frequently about ethnicity, gender and student life , said he is concerned that as a result of the attention given to Seung-Hui's background, Asian students will be teased and further typecast as socially awkward and introverted.
"I'm sure you'll hear comments like, 'Hey, Johnny, bring your gun today?,' " said Schwyzer, who wrote about the ethnicity issue in a blog entry titled "Wishing Cho Seung-Hui had been Billy Bob Johnson: the VA Tech shootings and anti-Asian stereotypes."
"I expect many will respond by looking at Asian males and wondering what sort of rage-filled fantasies these guys may be harboring," he added. "We're not used to Asians being anything other than quiet, compliant and hardworking -- the old stereotypes. Any time you have a minority group identified with an act of violence, the subset gets stuck with the blame."
The reality, says Eun Sook Lee, director of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, is that had the shooter been white, no one would have made a big deal out of his background after the first reference.
"What I'm saying is that in Columbine, the whole white community didn't have to apologize and take responsibility," she said. "We need to extend our hand and extend our condolences because it is a tragedy. But it will also be a tragedy if this comes to symbolize Korean Americans."
Added Audrey Yamagata-Noji, vice president of student services at Mt. San Antonio College and a board member of Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education: "Many of our students are quiet and do not communicate or express themselves well. This should not be seen as a thing to fear, rather, it should be viewed as something to more fully understand."
Some said they are particularly concerned about the student reaction at Virginia Tech because only 1,655 of the 26,370 students at Virginia Tech are Asian, and only a fraction of them are Korean.
Elaine H. Kim, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California at Berkeley, said that Korean students are more likely to speak out about the recent events if they are surrounded by a significant number of fellow Asian students. "I don't think Korean Americans need to apologize about what happened. I don't think they need to hide, either," she said.
Choi, the Korean Student Association president at Michigan, said that his group has no plans to address the events publicly, in part because the academic year is closing. He said he has received an e-mail from a national Korean student group informing students at Michigan and others how to handle and report cases of discrimination.
“I think people tend to blow things out of proportion," Choi said. "But I’m not worried about any outlash from student groups. It’s not a race thing to me.”
Michelle Choi, external chair for the Michigan group, said her dad left her a message after the shooting saying she should "be careful as a Korean American about my actions in the next little while." She said there is heightened awareness among Asian student groups, but that Asian students at Virginia Tech should be careful not to detach.
“[Seung-Hui] was an American sociopath who committed a crime," she said. "That's nothing to do with what we're about."