Thank You, Ambassador Lee
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. _ For ethnic Koreans, hearing that the Virginia Tech killer was also a Korean was shocking in an almost physical way. Although I can speak only for myself, I feel a primeval sense of horror that someone connected to me by ethnicity could commit such a foul act against everything we hold sacred and decent in our common humanity.
Of course this was an act of a lone, disturbed individual who could have been from any race or ethnicity, but I cannot deny that his being ethnically Korean somehow brands me with a mental Scarlet Letter that is visible only to me but nevertheless seethes painfully against the screen of my self-identity as a Korean. While being an ethnic Korean neither automatically qualifies nor obligates me to speak to this horrible heartbreak any more than any one else, there is a terrible connection here that is inexplicable yet all too easy to feel. Judging by the outpouring of anger, condolences, and grief from Koreans everywhere, I am apparently not alone in feeling a terrible connection to this tragedy.
However, I was surprised at the angry resentment that many Koreans, while sympathetic to the victims, feel at this terrible connection forced upon all Koreans by the killer’s ethnic identity. This resentment could be felt in the reactions at Ambassador Lee’s words at an emotional gathering the day in which the world found out that the killer was a Korean. His use of the word, ``apology,’’ elicited a heated public debate. Many felt that, given his position, it was inappropriate. Some felt that he actually put Koreans in danger by somehow painting all of us with collective guilt. Still others felt just angry that he would apologize for something that we Koreans had absolutely nothing to do with.
All these criticism are valid. Perhaps Ambassador Lee did go overboard in his choice of words. However, we must consider the context. This was the evening of the day in which we found out that the perpetrator of the worst mass killing in the U.S. history was a Korean student, and Ambassador Lee was speaking as the representative of all Koreans living in America.
You would be lying if you, as a Korean, did not feel a certain sense of dread and fear upon hearing the news. You would be lying if you, as a Korean, did not recall the violence of LA riots 15 years ago or the fear of Brooklyn boycotts. You would be lying if you, as a Korean, did not feel more vulnerable and targeted than just a moment before.
Of course, you have every right to feel resentful over having to feel more vulnerable just because a crazy killer happened to be a Korean. No one likes to feel powerless. But that does not change the fact that you do feel more vulnerable. As a Korean American who emigrated to the United States in the third grade _ exactly like the perpetrator _ I certainly felt all these and more in the hour that I heard the news of the killer’s identity.
I felt the fear because I know how racially divided American society can be just underneath the surface. Just because it’s unfair for a group to be collectively labeled by the actions of an individual, it does happen all too easily _ for example, just examine how we Koreans generally think about African Americans to realize how powerful and widespread racial prejudice can be.
I felt the dread because I know how the perpetrator’s ethnic identity could lead, in the irrational emotions of the moment, to wrongs against those Koreans who had nothing do to with this horrible incident. We know that racial prejudice can be powerfully harmful and subject innocent people to unfair treatment. There are always those who will seek to confuse and divide us by using such tragedies as a podium for their hate and prejudice. And there are always who listen to the hate.
This is why my first thoughts went to my parents working at a small drycleaners in a New York suburb and how scared they might feel listening to the news. Not because there were any specific threats. Not because the neighborhood has been nothing less than safe and welcoming for them. But because hate and prejudice will seize upon any excuse to do violence.
I know that Ambassador Lee does not technically represent me since I am a naturalized citizen of the U.S. But I also know that someone looking for an excuse for his anger will not be checking my citizenship papers. In a pluralistic society, it’s our appearance that defines us first. We, as Koreans, are connected to this tragedy through the identity of the killer, whether we like it or not. And this leaves us feeling more vulnerable, even if only in our own minds.
Therefore, I thank you, Ambassador Lee, for your apology. While you may have gone overboard in your choice of words, I know that you spoke out of your concern for the safety of all Koreans living here in the U.S. I know that you sought to show mainstream America that we Koreans were as devastated by the tragedy at Virginia Tech as anyone else and, thereby, prevent Koreans from being singled out by the inevitability of racial profiling of today’s American society. I thank you because I know your words made a difference.
Jason Lim is a graduate student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Administration.