Hung?

From the nutty mass murderer to the stereotypical street thug, how the media emasculate Asian and black men.

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ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP/Getty Images

Ahem. In case you didn’t notice, the cold-blooded killers behind two of the worst, most shocking shooting rampages in recent times—Jiverly Wong, responsible for the lives of 13 at an immigrant services center in Binghamton, N.Y., and Seung-Hui Cho, who took down 32 at Virginia Tech—had something in common.

And let’s not forget Haiyang Zhu, who stands accused of beheading a fellow student inside an Au Bon Pain cafe earlier this year on the Virginia Tech campus— while it was still raw from Cho’s 2007 outburst. Chai Soua Vang may not be a household name for those who don’t live in the upper Midwest, but many of us remember Wisconsin’s 2004 “Hmong hunter case,” in which Vang killed six hunters and wounded two in a dispute that included a trespassing dispute and racial slurs.

The mainstream media and people in polite company tend to dance around the issue, but I can tell you that Asian Americans don’t forget for a moment what these four have in common: All are Asian-American males. The black community likewise was chagrined when the D.C. snipers, John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, turned out to be two of its “own,” and the Muslim American community braces itself every time any act vaguely resembling terrorism is perpetrated.

Do the faces of severe mental illness and inexplicable murderous rage have a color? They shouldn’t, right?

It’s unsettling to focus on the Asian origins of Wong, Cho, Zhu and Vang—just as it is to confront crime statistics in which black men are disproportionately represented. These loosely defined groups, Asian-American men and black men, have been given starkly contrasting portrayals of masculinity, as they both struggle to find their place as men in a society that marks them as “Other.”

“Though it seems Asian men and black men are so different, they both get, in a sense, emasculated by racism,” Daniel Y. Kim, author of Writing Manhood in Black and Yellow and an associate professor of English at Brown University, said in an interview. “The similarity is that there is a reduction of these men to their bodies.”

Kim quotes the filmmaker Richard Fung, who puts it more succinctly. “Whereas Fanon tells us, ‘The Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis,’ the Asian man is defined by a striking absence down there.”

Recent headlines have drawn more attention to the plight of Asian males, but their mainstream demonizing is nothing new. A long history of mockery, of equating Asian men with deviant masculinity, traces back to 19th-century yellow peril. More recently, depictions of Asian males still rely on sexually freakish, broken-English-speaking caricatures like those of the North Korean dictator on Saturday Night Live and the 2004 movie Team America: World Police, according to sociologist Nadia Kim in an essay in the Racism Review entitled: “Why Kim Jong Il Jokes Aren’t Funny.