Korean-Americans Are Asking Hard Questions About Guns and Masculinity--Why Won't White America?
Nobody in Temescal’s Koreatown wanted to talk about Koreanness and One Goh. The head of the Korean Community Center of the East Bay gave me a lecture on how the subprime-mortgage crisis crippled the Korean community, and she implied that the problem with Korean rage lay in socioeconomic factors. I was politely escorted out of two separate Korean churches after I asked some members of the congregations if they had any concerns about the perceptions of the larger public.
Overwhelmingly, the sentiment among the older Korean people I talked to was this: The shooting was a shameful act that would bring trouble on the community if publicized and discussed. For now, nobody in the mainstream media was drawing the link between One Goh and Seung-Hui Cho, and although all the Koreans I spoke with were well aware that two of the six bloodiest school shootings in American history were carried out by Korean gunmen, most of the people here were hoping to bury that fact.
There was one person who wanted to talk about One Goh, Seung-Hui Cho and Korean anger. A week after the shooting, Winston Chung, a 38-year-old Bay Area child psychiatrist, wrote a blog post on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Web site titled, “Korean Rage: Stereotype or Real Issue?” In the post, Chung called for a more honest inquiry into the cultural factors, like the intensity of suppressed emotions within the Korean immigrant community, that might have contributed to these tragedies.
The label "model minority" as applied to Asian-Americans is ostensibly a complement that is actually a slur doing the work of colorblind racism.
The notion of a model minority creates a division between "good" minorities like "Asians" and "bad" minorities like Black Americans. The first group are hard-working and have "good" culture while the second group "fails" in America because of a lack of such qualities.
Here, and despite the available data, Whiteness is normalized with all of its assumed and virtuous qualities of thrift, loyalty, patriotism, "normality", and "real" American identity. All other racial groups are deviant from this standard; some can approach being "normal" by assimilating and identifying with Whiteness as a political and racial project.
The "model minority" is also a myth. Said label erases differences among Asian-American communities, as "Asian" is a broad category with any number of ethnic and cultural groups within it. The Hmong and the children of Vietnamese refugees are collapsed into "Asianness" along with Japanese, South Asian, and Chinese immigrants who often come to the United States with substantial resources. In total, the model minority label creates a minority group that does not cause "trouble" like those black folks, and are living proof for the white racial frame that racism is no longer an impediment on the life chances for people of color in the United States.
While the technical language may not be that common in the United States' public racial discourse, the phrase "there is no racism, Asians have made it, and why can't the blacks!" is one that most Americans are very familiar with.
Yes, "model minority" is a problematic phrase. However, in terms of how our Korean-American brothers and sisters are beginning a dialogue among their own about the relationship between gun violence and masculinity, they are throwing a wrinkle into that logic by offering up a model for how White America ought to be having similar conversations...but most in the latter group are loathe to even entertain the obvious need for such an essential intra-community dialogue.
The NY Times offers up some great insight on the relationship between mass shootings, masculinity, and culture that while applied in a narrow way there, is also quite illuminating for the mania that (perhaps) drives white mass shooters--a group of men who are only 30 percent of the population but 70 percent of those who commit mass killings with guns--and their murderous deeds:
Chung’s interest in One Goh and Seung-Hui Cho comes from a lifelong, personal investigation into han andhwabyung, two Korean cultural concepts that have no equivalent in the English language. By Western standards, the two words are remarkably similar. Both describe a state of hopeless, crippling sadness combined with anger at an unjust world. And both suggest entrapment by suppressed emotions.
Both words have been a part of the Korean lexicon for as long as anyone can remember, their roots in the country’s history of occupation, war and poverty. Perhaps the best way to distinguish between the two words would be to say that han is the existential condition of immutable sadness, whereas hwabyung is its physical manifestation. Those afflicted with hwabyung describe a dense helplessness and despair that always feels on the verge of erupting into acts of self-destruction.In the United States, guns are a fetish object and almost magical totem linked to the country's sense of national destiny and preeminence in the world.
Guns have such a powerful pull over so many Americans that they are willing to see many many thousands of their countrymen (and children) killed each year by gun violence in order to protect a sense that there is some type of "right" to have unrestricted access to firearms in a "citizens militia"--one that will magically be able to defeat the combined arms of the most powerful military on the face of the Earth and serve as a check on the the birth of a "tyrannical government."
Such rhetoric is compelling; it explains why so many Americans dream of playing G.I. Joe with their gun fetish totems against a fictive enemy who they imagine is waiting at the gates, coming for them any moment
As expert-scholars have worked through, America's gun culture is intimately tied to notions of masculinity. The willingness of Korean-Americans to confront the relationship between masculinity, culture, and mass gun violence is a challenge to the old, and still existing in the present, understandings of race and "culture."
Historically, as seen from the perspective offered by the White Gaze, Asians were a "feminine" race. They were not capable of the type of "manhood" that was part of Americans' and Europeans' blood, biology, character, and destiny-legacy in the 19th and 20th centuries. Modulated by time and evolving racial sensibilities, Asians were/are viewed as sneaky, masters of subterfuge, (ironically) both savage and lacking in honor, crafty, especially devious and intelligent, and an "other" alien outsider.
For example, Asian-Americans are often greeted with the question "what are you?" They respond, I am an American. A follow up question: "where are you from, really?" The answer: California. As Mae Ngai and Robert Takaki have brilliantly detailed, what does it mean for Asian-Americans to be unassimilable, the perfect and perennial alien? The answer is hinted at by the political work done by a view of American identity which links together being white with being American. What necessarily follows is a category of contingent citizenship for people of color.
The NRA and the Gun Right represent a particularly narrow set of White Masculine political interests and identity politics (and those who overly identify with them). I would suggest that it takes real masculinity and confidence to look in the mirror, ask hard questions, and live a life principle which is grounded in the practice of critical self-reflection.
In exploring the relationship between gun violence, mass shootings, and masculinity, the Korean-American community has a great deal to teach White America and the Gun Right. I hope the latter is listening and watching. In my heart I know better; what can "they" teach "real Americans?"