After Shootings at Oakland College, a Scholar Urges a Nuanced Look at Stereotypes and Bullying

One L. Goh
One L. Goh

In discussing the tragic incident recently in which former student One L. Goh, a 43-year-old Korean immigrant, killed seven people at Oikos University, a religious college in Oakland, Calif. on April 2, professor Kevin K. Kumashiro suggests that we re-frame the conversation from “What’s up with Koreans?” to “What’s up with the way we view Koreans?” Oikos-Daily reported that after the Oikos shootings, conversations in the fields of Asian American Studies and Multicultural Education focused less on the fact that the shooter was Asian. Instead, their concerns were about bullying — and its potential repercussions, said Kumashiro, who is a professor of Asian American Studies and Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

For some Asian Americans, the deaths at Oikos University rekindled uncomfortable memories of another campus shooting perpetrated by a student of Korean descent. Five years ago this month, Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech before turning the gun on himself. In the weeks following the crime, Cho’s ethnic identity figured prominently in news reports as details emerged that he had felt ostracized on the Blacksburg, Va., campus.

The day after the shootings at Oikos, an unaccredited institution in an east Oakland office park that enrolls fewer than 100 students, professor Kumashiro urged colleges to view the incident through a different lens. Whenever a student lashes out with violent behavior, said Mr. Kumashiro, the “richer conversation” focuses not on quick observations about race, gender, or sexual orientation, but on other factors that may also have contributed to the outburst. The Oikos shootings offer an opportunity to talk about broader tensions in how students relate to one another, Mr. Kumashiro said. As the police investigation continues, for instance, more information about the gunman’s background has emerged that may explain his motive: A former nursing student, Goh is reported to have been angry at Oikos administrators over having been teased in class for his poor English-speaking skills.

As these facts came into view, Kumashiro said his conversations with colleagues in the fields of Asian American Studies and Multicultural Education have focused less on the fact that the shooter was Asian. Instead, their concerns were about bullying — and its potential consequences.

“Here’s another example of someone who’s experienced a pattern of harassment and then goes through this very traumatic act,” he said. “I know so many students at this university who hint, or who will discreetly share stories of being the targets of teasing — even light teasing — for all kinds of reasons. So you wonder, what’s under the surface that I can’t see? What kinds of problems are brewing that could lead to something like this?”

A Case of “The Others”:  Asian-owned Businesses in Black Neighborhoods

Protestors outside the Dallas gas station owned by a Korean American which in part, sparked the conversation of Asian-owned businesses in traditionally black neighborhoods.
Protestors outside the Dallas gas station owned by a Korean American which in part, sparked the conversation of Asian-owned businesses in traditionally black neighborhoods.

Commentator Kathy Khang weighs in on cross-cultural “othering” in response to former D.C. mayor Marion Barry’s comments about ousting Asian businesses out of black neighborhoods, as well as her own experiences as the daughter of Korean Americans in the dry cleaning business. Marion Barry, a recent victorious incumbent in a Democratic primary race for the D.C. council seat he has held since 2005, celebrated as cameras rolled by saying: “We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go, I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”

Khang comments on her blog, More Than Serving Tea: “It’s typical. A politician/public figure says something offensive, people offended speak up, figure claims it’s taken out of context and apologizes (in this case Barry actually says, ‘I’m sorry.’) … But the context is complicated and entrenched in broken systems run by broken people and then communicated to the masses by more broken people (myself included) who are missing each other because, in some cases, they aren’t even talking with and being heard by one another … I know this because as a newspaper reporter in Milwaukee I reported this story. A Korean American owned beauty supply store in a predominantly Black neighborhood became the target of a protest. Black community leaders wanted to know why Asian store owners were rude, didn’t employ anyone from the community, didn’t contribute to the community. Store owners didn’t want to talk. But I understood why they didn’t want to talk,” she said. Khang continued, “My parents owned a dry cleaning business for years. My parents, who hold degrees in engineering and accounting, turned to small business ownership to help pay for college and weddings and to provide so much more. They didn’t hire anyone from the community. Why pay someone when my sister and I could work for free and my parents were willing to be there everyday … my parents experienced many cultural clashes in an effort to make a living and provide a service that was in demand,” she wrote.

She continued, “Most customers were fine … but there were plenty of customers who looked down on my parents as if they were uneducated foreigners. Few of them ever had to say anything because those of us who learn to be invisible, blend in, assimilate, learn to read the looks, the tone, the small gestures because we learned to ‘speak’ American even though we continue to be questioned about actually being ‘American.’ So I took that experience as the child of one of those Asian store owners first to my White editors and then to the Korean American beauty supply store owners … We learned that we all considered each other as ‘the other.’ We learned about how exchanging money – one-handed, two-handed, eye contact, a nod or a look – can be rude to one and normal to another. We learned that the owners were Americans, just not American-born. We learned that there was great pain and suffering in the community, and community leaders wanted participation, not handouts …” She continued, “I hope we stop to learn about the corrupt, broken and racist systems and policies that limit Black entrepreneurship. I hope we learn that life is more than Black and White and that we all need to develop cross-cultural competencies. All of us.”

The BBC Profiles a Cambodian American Deportee

The BBC recently ran a piece on Sam [BBC withheld his last name], who two-and-a-half years ago, was deported from the US to Cambodia, a country he had no experience or memory of. Following the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime, the US granted asylum to thousands of Cambodians fleeing the anarchy in their home country. They set up home in America, got jobs, went to school, learned the language and became, in all but name, Americans, wrote the BBC.

Given permanent resident status, many never thought of applying for citizenship. But in March 2002, in the wake of 9/11, the US and Cambodia signed an agreement allowing any non-citizen refugees who had committed felonies to be deported back to Cambodia.

Since then, several hundred have been returned. Today deportees are stranded and lost, a long way from home.

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Sam arrived in the US one month old, with his mother, brother and sister. He had a stint in juvenile detention for refusing to help a police investigation and a couple of other short stays in prison, including one for stealing a car radio and speakers.

Sam in Cambodia. Photo credit: BBC.
Sam in Cambodia. Photo credit: BBC.

But by 2009, he was working, living with his girlfriend and caring for his young son. That was when the immigration authorities took him in. His earlier robbery of the car stereo made him liable for deportation at any time. After several months in detention, he was forced on a plane to Cambodia.

“Then we get out and it is hot. Hot!” said Sam. “And all I’ve got is the clothes on my back and 28 cents in an envelope. And I was like, ‘What the hell am I going to do? What the hell am I going to do?’”

Fortunately for Sam, the organization RISC, which helps new returnees, picked him up from immigration at the airport and gave him a bed for a few nights. But this support is unusual. Most Cambodians have not warmed to the returnees.

“People die every day to try and go to America and for you to come back here? They think you’re some kind of terrible person,” Sam said.

At first he spent a lot of his time with fellow returnees. Now he said he doesn’t want to -— that it doesn’t help him settle in.

Many, already suffering from drug dependencies and untreated mental illnesses, find themselves drawn back into crime. It is not uncommon for returnees to end up trapped in Cambodia’s bewildering and brutal penal system. The language barrier and cultural shock can last years for deportees and many cannot adjust.

Sam has tried to get work but in a country where the average monthly salary is considerably under $50 a month, it’s not easy to find a job to support himself. He told the BBC he feels like he’s in a “daze,” a feeling that he can’t shake, a sense of bemusement. “Although he knows it to be true, he can’t accept that America has shunned him so completely. That it won’t forgive him. Ever.”

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