Who Does He Look Like?

I stare into his face. He is pale, solemn, drained of emotion. He is made of stone. Maybe it’s his heart that is made of stone. A student said that when he walked into the classroom, his face was very serious, very calm. The photo shows his eyes, dark and dull, behind his glasses.

His black hair is shaved close on the sides. His ears stick out. He offers no smile. His mouth is slightly open, as if he wanted to say something as the photo was taken. His eyes are as narrow as almonds, set beneath thick brows.

He is the killer.

He looks like me.

I don’t mean that literally, of course. I mean in a cultural sense. The broad features. The dark hair. The placid expression.

I can’t escape his face. It’s on the TV news. It’s on Web sites. It’s on the pages of many newspapers. It makes me feel sick, but I need to look. We all need to look. We need to know who the killer is. We need to know what he looked like. We need to understand why he did what he did. Will we ever find out?

I’m not in favor of omitting information. But I do want us to be alert in how we use the information, whether in headlines, captions or first references. We need to always provide more context.

That first night, when we began to understand the full extent of the horror, the TV news people said the shooter was an “Asian man.” I stopped and sat down.

It was wrong to identify him by his race in the very first breath. Just like it’s wrong to say “black man” or “Hispanic man” in a crime story. As a journalist, I believe that we shouldn’t identify people by their race unless it’s relevant to the issue at hand.

One example of how racial and ethnic identifiers can lead to trouble, as reported by Virginia Tech’s college paper: One of its staff photographers covering the massacre was stopped by police and made to lie on the ground. The police handcuffed him and searched his bag. According to the photographer, the police said, “We’ve got a suspect matching the profile.” He was released three hours later.

Now, you might think, what’s wrong with detaining the young man? The police were searching for the killer, for God’s sake. No harm, no foul. But what if, in those tense moments, the police had shot first and asked questions later?

To serve the public, we as journalists need to dig up as much information as we can, and share as much as we know. In a crisis, there’s pressure to go with what we’ve got, even if it’s partial information. But I would urge caution. We need to push for specific and accurate details. Going with a single descriptor like “Asian” doesn’t reveal very much. What, after all, does an “Asian” look like?

I’m not in favor of omitting information. But I do want us to be alert in how we use the information, whether in headlines, captions or first references. We need to always provide more context.

On the day after the shootings, the president of Virginia Tech gave this first official identification of the killer: “We know that he was an Asian male.” As reporters uncovered more facts, they identified him as a “Korean national” and “resident alien.”

But it’s not as if the killer’s Asian-ness, or nationality, or immigration status were a link to the massacre. It’s not like his description as an “Asian” would help us catch him. As an editor pointed out, there are 1 billion people who could answer to that description. Several hundred students and faculty members on the Tech campus alone could answer to that description.

In a crisis, there’s pressure to go with what we’ve got, even if it’s partial information. But I would urge caution. We need to push for specific and accurate details. Going with a single descriptor like “Asian” doesn’t reveal very much.

It’s not a numbers game, though. Even if there were only a handful of Asians on campus, there’s still an issue of fairness and accuracy when it comes to using racial identifiers.

In any case, the killer was dead by then.

I could imagine “Asian man” being used as short hand, intentionally or unintentionally. For outsider. Intruder. Alien. Alienated. Scheming. Inscrutable. Serious. Calm. Watch out for them. You can’t trust them. That is the danger of racial identifiers.

And yet. And yet.

I felt conflicted.

I wanted to know what he was like. I needed to know that he was born in South Korea. That he moved to the United States when he was 8. That his parents worked at a dry cleaners. That he was an English major. That he wrote disturbing stories. That he never spoke in class. That he was known as the “question mark kid,” because on a class roster he once filled in his name with a “?”

Why did I need to know these facts?

Because, in the face of a horrific, senseless act, the human mind needs to connect these random dots. It instinctively tries to create a pattern. The pattern is what we call stories. We need to tell ourselves stories.

The story I tell myself about the killer is the story I know about myself. I grew up in an immigrant family. I was a loner in high school. I was quiet. I wrote odd, if not disturbing, stories.

Like most kids, I grew out of that and came out of my shell. I made lasting friendships in college and discovered a passion for journalism, one that I eagerly share with others.

Yet I imagined that I understood some of the killer’s story. Maybe there’s a different story you told yourself about the killer. Maybe there was something in the random dots that merged into your own recognizable pattern.

The danger of racial identifiers, and racial stereotypes, is that they provide us with shortcuts to telling stories that turn out to be wrong. Ultimately, there’s very little of the killer’s story that we will ever understand.

All of this discussion pales in comparison to the immense sorrow we are all feeling for the victims and their families. Our hearts go out to the survivors, many of whom face a long road to recovery.

How much time, really, should we spend thinking about the killer?

Not much.

But maybe more than this: “We know that he was an Asian male.”

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