“You know what does worry me sometimes?” asks my father. “With all this stuff going on with North Korea, I worry about you and your brother. You know not everyone cares that there is a difference between North and South Korea.” We are in the car, and my father has just picked me up at the airport after I attended ACPA 2013 in March. We have begun talking about race and social justice in America.
“Yes,” I reply, “I live in pretty constant fear of getting sent to an internment camp.”
“Well, I don’t mean that. We know better than to do that again.”
“Do we, Dad? Do we?” I implore. You see, I live with a fear that my father does not.
As an infant, I was transracially adopted from South Korea by an adoring white couple. But, despite having a very close and caring family, there are some things that they will never understand. Love does not shield you from alterity. I am the Other.
Through this conversation, I am reminded of when my father told me that I was paranoid six years ago. Thoughts about the shooting at Virginia Tech bring with them the memory of paralyzing fear. Instantly, I am back in my residence hall apartment on the day of the shooting. I sit on my couch entranced by the news, which focuses on how the shooter is of Asian descent.
Please, I think, please don’t let him be Korean. No such luck. Because I know what we do to people who look like the Other. What will people do to Koreans now? I do not feel safe. Within a day, the South Korean President has apologized for the actions of Seung-Hui Cho. Shortly thereafter, Korean-Americans begin fundraising to help support the families and victims of the shooting. They too fear that we will be perceived as being like the shooter somehow.
My supportive team of (white) colleagues does not understand much beyond what they see in me: fear, loss, confusion, and grief. Knowing that they do not know, they offer to trade my on-call duty. They bring me food and ask if I want to get out of my apartment. My turmoil has also spurred our department to reach out to our international student population and cultural Asian student groups to make sure that they have resources in case they are harassed.
Even after my students have gone to sleep in the residence hall, I am huddled over my laptop in the darkness. I search for any news or information about the incident. Groups have appeared on social media denouncing and demonizing the shooter. They claim that he was predisposed to violence by watching Korean films. Say that Koreans are violent. Use slurs to describe his heritage. So, I search for ways I am not him.
After a few days, I begin to answer emails again. I start going into the office. Although, I still feel safer in the company of colleagues than walking alone on campus. My life moves forward. I was very fortunate and privileged to be surrounded by student affairs colleagues and who were supportive as I was coming to understand my identity and my standing as a Korean-American.
And, although, I am sad about the 32 lives that ended that day, there is one for whom we rarely account–that of the shooter. Who was he? What kind of support did he have? Was it adequate? What can we do better as student affairs professionals? How are we caring for the mental health of our students of color?
Some Korean-Americans may be familiar with a concept called han, about which I am just learning. It does not translate directly into English, but it could be described loosely as a feeling of being hopelessly trapped by circumstances and by the world. It is sometimes recognized in Korea as a psychological disorder that manifests as hwabuyng, possibly what psychologists may identify as something like depression.
I do not mean to suggest that we should be afraid of Korean & Korean-Americans. In fact, I fear even mentioning these concepts lest they be misunderstood. However, I think it is clear that all people can be affected by challenges to their mental health. With the litany of microaggressions that people of color in the United States experience, there is little wonder that we can use psychological support. So, how do we make sure that our students of color know that they can access services when there is such a stigma around therapy?
Mental health issues do not mean that people shall not be held accountable for their actions. Nor does it mean that the shooting on April 16 was a simple case of depression. What I mean to suggest is that we can do better, for our students and for ourselves.
As I think about my social justice journey, including my experiences around this tragedy, I leave you with a quote from poet Nikki Giovanni, given at convocation just one day after the shooting. It inspires me to do better, to be better, and to keep growing.
“We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities. We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all our sadness. We are the Hoakies.”
Keisha Janney works in the Center for Multicultural Academic Excellence at the University of Oregon. Keisha is passionate about her work as a social justice educator and hopes to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology. In her spare time, Keisha enjoys cooking and spending time with her Miniature Schnauzer called Bella.