I join the analysts.
Perhaps the finest academic work that might contextualize Cho’s actions is Anne Anlin Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis. Assimilation, and Hidden Grief.
We are a nation at ease with grievance but not with grief. It is reassuring . . . to believe in the efficacy of grievance in redressing grief. Yet if grievance is understood to be the social and legal articulation of grief, then it has been incapable of addressing those aspects of grief that speak in a different language—a language that may seem inchoate because it is not fully reconcilable to the vocabulary of social formulation or ideology but that nonetheless cuts a formative pattern. (x)
Even now the lawyers line up. Asked if he feels like a hero, a student breaks down. Grievance points a finger: it is his upbringing, his lack of assimilation, his mental health, the school’s negligence. Grief stutters and hiccups and cannot fill hours of television programming. We want statements punctuated with sobs. We cannot accommodate inarticulate expressions of pain.
What is needed is a serious effort at rethinking the term “agency” in relation to forms of racial grief, to broaden the term beyond the assumption of a pure sovereign subject to other manifestations, forms, tonalities, and graduations of governance. (15)
What if we were to understand the social as a site of perpetual wounding? Not to say that the “strange” kid in class does not know how to socialize, but to examine how the very ways we socialize may always contain a kernel of violence. A long time ago, a professor opened class by saying, “we are all middle class here.” Ostensibly a gesture of inclusion, it inevitably produced failure and fracture.
The chancellor of my university sent out an email that read “We are all family.” I register this attempt at inclusion through the metaphor of kinship as deeply problematic. In part because this “family” is predicated on hiding what Charles Chesnutt once termed the “dusty record of our ancestry.”
An understanding of melancholia as experienced by the raced subject must extend beyond a superficial or merely affective description of sadness to a deep sense of how that sadness—as a kind of ambulatory despair or manic euphoria—conditions life for the disenfranchised and, indeed, conditions their identity and shapes their subjectivity. (24)
One might think of melancholia as a psychic bedsore, on the condition that intersubjective relations are considered the bed. This is the ongoing challenge of Cheng’s work: to understand the continual production of psychic wounding.
While social and racial integration offer the preeminent American social myths, assimilation remains one of the deepest sources of anxiety in the American psyche. That is, while integration promises a socionational dream, assimilation as its cultural corollary catches all the material and immaterial anxieties inadmissible to that promise. Today, Asian Americans present one of the most charged contemporary focuses for the mainstream culture’s idealization and fear of assimilation. (70)
As more news comes in, we are learning that the dream of immigration and assimilation is just that, a dream: Cho is Korean. His actions were those of a Korean child. That he was a legal resident who had lived in America for over a decade must be effaced. He is evidence of the failure of assimilation. After all, we all know those people like to cluster together. Those people avoid mixing with proper white Americans. We can never trust those people. We forget, at our peril, the long history of Anti-Asian sentiment in American political and public discourse.
In small towns, one remains a newcomer after 50 years residence. In racial migrations, one remains a foreigner regardless of legal status.
We do not know yet what it means for politics to accommodate a concept of identity based on constitutive loss or for politics to explore the psychic and social anchoring points that keep us chained to the oppressive wounding memories of love and hate that condition that mutual enmeshment of the “dominant” and the “disempowered.” To refuse to contemplate these aspects of racial dynamics, however, has not been productive either, as is evidenced by the ongoing national drama of racial repudiation and reprisal. (25)
American campuses remain great social experiments, governed by ideas of academic freedom and social equality. But we forget at our peril that life extends beyond the classroom, increasingly so. Those who can forget that the drama between the “dominant” and the “disempowered” is played out every day.
What might it mean for a student to walk across campus and be confronted with racist paraphernalia in every direction? What does it mean that at my current institution many white students and their kin are mourning and protesting the university’s decision to retire an extremely racist mascot?
I envision a short story that riffs on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” In this version, a small town has only 24 hours before a complete ban on lynching takes place. Perhaps it has already been written.