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.”
All of this takes a toll on real Asian-American men, how they are perceived and how they perceive themselves. That doesn’t justify the violence, of course, but rather is a way of understanding the undeniable influence of race, power and masculinity on all of us.
For black men, Daniel Y. Kim argues that in these exaggerated portrayals, the hypermasculine male is ultimately “castrated”—by lynching or self-destruction, in a gun battle with rival gang members or with police.
For Asian men, that slaying of the proverbial dragon occurs in such characters as Fu Manchu. The fictional master criminal represented a threat to whites but was also a simpering, effeminate character. The heroes, Smith and Petrie, always thwarted him.
The struggle for men of color to claim their masculinity in the shadow of mainstream media depictions was the subject of a documentary by filmmaker Byron Hurt. I saw “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes” in April 2007 at Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia. By coincidence, Hurt showed his film about violence and masculinity in rap music the same day that NBC released the disturbing video and photo “manifesto” that Cho sent to the network before carrying out his murderous scheme.
It was impossible, watching the film, not to think of Cho.
“That’s what accounts for a lot of this hypermasculine posturing by young men of color,” he says. Then, as an image of Donald Trump flashes on the screen, he continues: “Men who have more power—men who have financial power and workplace power and other forms of abstract power like that—don’t have to be physically powerful because they can exert their power in other ways.”
Indeed, in Cho’s manifesto, he holds guns in both hands with arms outstretched, and then pointed at the camera, reminiscent of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Two years later, Jiverly Wong would also pose for photographs holding his gun and gun license before going on his murderous rampage.
Another thing all the aforementioned men share, other than being Asian American, is that they were all immigrants or refugees—some more recently arrived than others, but all hovering in some way between identities and homes.
Immigration—or even more so, the experience of being a refugee, which Wong was—makes most immigrants feel “low and small,” as Wong’s sister described to the New York Times. It is not uncommon for former doctors and lawyers to become janitors and busboys, and for high school- or university-educated men and women to have their communication abilities reduced to those of a small child, without the cute factor.
As many immigrants learn, a voice and the ability to communicate have as much power as a gun in this society. In fact, the voice may be the nation’s other most important phallic symbol.
Andrew Lam, an editor at New America Media, wrote in a post-Binghamton commentary, “For some who feel powerlessness and marginalized but desiring change, the gun can be seductive. It provides power. It speaks in a language everybody understands.” Whether with bullets, spoken words or—nowadays—multimedia manifestos sent to television stations, men who feel low and small desperately reach for their weapons to claim something for themselves. Only when we all, as Nadia Kim suggests, take media stereotypes seriously can we understand their damaging legacy. Armed with that awareness, we can hope that men of color will seize power in ways that do not lead to the annihilation of themselves and others.
Angie Chuang is an assistant professor of journalism at American University School of Communication.