Junot Díaz lectures on subtleties of racial politics

Díaz confronted an MU audience after pointing out its notorious attention from national media.
Author and activist Junot Díaz speaks at MU’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Jan. 22, 2018. “We’ve entered this stage in white supremacy,” Díaz said about the “alt-right” during his lecture, “that you can be a full-out public racist and a huge portion of a community thinks this is a really good idea.”

Author and activist Junot Díaz spoke in Jesse Auditorium on Monday night as part of MU’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.

Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and his writing, while not autobiographical, is personal. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells the story of a family’s emigration from the Dominican Republic to the United States and contemplates racial identity. He has also been active in community organizations in New York City, such as the Dominican Youth Union and the Communist Dominican Workers’ Party.

Díaz began his lecture by taking inventory of the audience, asking those of Caribbean, Latin, African American and Dominican descent to raise their hands. Díaz was impressed by the numbers.

“OK, Missouri,” he said over laughter, “I had to check, because you guys have been in the newspapers lately.”

The racial inequality that put MU in the media spotlight in 2015 and continues to shape the nation’s socio-political discourse was the focus of Díaz’s speech.

Like his writing, his lecture presented complex ideas punctuated with slang that kept the audience laughing and interested. Díaz focused his lecture on a type-specific racial bias that was practiced by members of his own community, which he called the “logic of authenticity.”

“Oh, you grew up in the suburbs?” he asked. “You ain’t black, yo. Your mom is white? You ain’t black. You can’t dance? Bueno.”

Díaz called on all audience members to assume the responsibility of their own privilege, which he insisted everyone had.

“Your privilege is there to help in others’ liberation, not to help perpetuate it,” he said.

Diaz pointed out that the racial bias that disenfranchised people themselves hold can be more difficult to confront than the obvious examples in the media.

“We’ll flip the hell out about Donald Trump all day, but all of the active reservoirs where white supremacy really lives, we scarcely are interested in pursuing, examining, exploding them,” he said.

Ouma Amadou returned to campus after graduating last year to hear Díaz speak. She felt encouraged by Díaz’s words to continue to pursue her academic interests.

“His speech reinvigorated my own academic thinking, especially when thinking about the diaspora,” Amadou said.

Senior Lorena Fernandez felt that Díaz’s message was one that was important for MU to hear.

“I think he brought up a lot of topics and questions that MU specifically needs to be thinking about, in terms of defining privilege and solidarity,” Fernandez said.

For Fernandez, who is a second-generation Mexican immigrant with an Italian mother, Díaz’s words hit home.

“These questions of identity and belonging, of not being Latino enough, of not being American enough, and his talk about what identity is was really personal for me,” Fernandez said.

When asked where home was for him, Díaz employed a softer tone.

“It is in the nature of diasporas often to live in a permanent condition of journey… I’m in the journey always, and that is home for me,” he said.

The lecture ended with Díaz warning against the fear that has been instilled in young people by the old.

“If you understand that this is the sea in which you swim, you can begin to resist,” he said. “The day that young people feel their power and their strength more than they feel fear, the world will begin to change.”

Edited by Skyler Rossi | srossi@themaneater.com

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