Junot Díaz talk discusses social activism in academia

Presented by the Brown Center for Students of Color’s Heritage Series, Junot Díaz came to Salomon auditorium Saturday night for a conversation about social activism in academia. Open to the public, the lecture was the keynote talk for the 2015 Latinx Ivy League Conference at Brown. The event was organized by the Latino Heritage Series Programmers, Lehidy Frias ’17 and Kiki Tapiero ’17.

Junot Díaz is the author of DrownThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and This is How You Lose Her, a New York Times bestseller. Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated with his family to New Jersey when he was six years old. Díaz currently teaches creative writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is an outspoken voice for social activism and justice.

Ignoring the lectern set up for the event, Junot Díaz walked up to the lip of the stage. He explained, “I do have comments prepared, you don’t get as nerdy as me and not come ready to roll,” but that he wanted to switch the order of the lecture, given what has happened this week on campus. Díaz transformed the structure of his lecture into a discussion, having students’ questions direct the conversation. Here is what we talked about:

With people who don’t seem to care, you must approach a conversation with compassion.

Díaz explained that “nothing is more politicized than the status quo,” and that many of us grow up weaned on status quo mentality. “Back then, when someone resisted the status quo, we were troubled by it. Remember how uncomfortable we were, how quickly we wanted the conversation to change.” Díaz reminded the audience that “we are not born activists,” and that it’s easy to forget how “messed up we used to be.” As such, Díaz explained his baseline for these types of conversations “always starts with compassion,” and that you must remember that the person you are angry at might have been you once.

Graduating is an act of defiance. 

One student asked Díaz how one might deal with racist and oppressive professors, given a situation where the instructor and student are in such an imbalance of power, with the instructor in control of the student’s grades and view of the world. Díaz explained that we must wrestle with the idea that this has “never been a safe space for us.” Díaz continued, “Where is safe? Where you’re from? Your neighborhood? You’re bugging if you think you’re safe in your home. We fight to get to college, thinking it will be a safe space, only to find out it was a lie.” Díaz explained, “You must recognize that we are in an educational system of deep scarcity. A couple students of color get in, and the door is shut.”

Díaz addressed the students of color in the audience: “My goal is that as many of you will graduate. There’s a million at home holding down the fort. The bench is full. We don’t need one more of you home, holding home down. We need you to be here, and to graduate. You survived growing up black, brown, yellow, Indigenous, and survived. This shit is cake… There are two options, fight or kneel. Our ancestors spent a lot of time kneeling, so we would have a chance to fight.”

Continue Reading