Author and activist Junot Díaz delivered a speech Wednesday afternoon on white supremacy, racialized immigrants and solidarity to about 300 people in Rackham Auditorium as a part of the University of Michigan’s annual symposium in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
Díaz began by discussing racial neoliberalism and its function in derailing how people talk about race. Racial neoliberalism, he argued, prevents people from addressing problems of racism and questioning if anyone can racist.
“One of the things that has become very clear to me is … the evolving derangement of race and racial politics in this country has been exceptionally problematic,” Díaz said. “Racial neoliberalism (is) perhaps best understood as an almost global racial gaslight, derailing our ability to speak about the way white supremacy works at a political and global level while permitting hegemony to practice white supremacy full blast.”
Díaz further explored how the United States is organized along white supremacist lines, something that was challenged during the question and answer session later in the afternoon.
“There is an enormous resistance both inside my own community and inside what we would call the larger, mainstream community … to thinking about the world in any critically, racially interesting way,” Díaz said. “Often, what we are asked to do is to have solidarity with a point of view (white supremacy) that erases our lived experience.”
LSA senior Juyeln Ha said Díaz’s voice as a Hispanic activist was new to her.
“I guess there aren’t that many Hispanic activists that I know of,” Ha said. “I thought that this was a really good chance to explore that kind of area and just educate myself more.”
Díaz’s speech drew parallels between the Dominican Republic and the United States and how each country racializes immigrants for its own political purposes. He emphasized that both have a border wherein the outside is viewed as inferior.
In the United States, he highlighted, Mexicans are framed as inferior, while in the Dominican Republic — where Díaz emigrated from — Haitians are deemed second-class.
Both countries, Díaz said, use racialized immigrants as a political touchstone, and use it to activate a shift in popular mentality from thinking about the world critically to being dictated by fear.
In recent history, politicians in both countries use immigrants to control political conversation.
In the Dominican Republic, Díaz explained, citizens rallied around a collective action in a fight for education funding until there was a sudden emphasis on Haitian immigrants, disrupting solidarity and creating fear of foreigners.
“This dream-like moment, of cross-class, cross-race, cross-geography, cross-age, solidarity begins to absolutely unravel when the political elites of the Dominican Republic awaken this very charged, very emotional issue of the invader immigrant,” Díaz said.
In the recent U.S. election Donald Trump created a fear of Mexican immigrants, which in turn controlled the political conversation and climate in the recent election, according to Díaz.
LSA senior Kennedy Clark said she valued the opinions Díaz voiced and issues he brought to light.
“He’s dealing with a subject matter that affects him personally—it affects many people personally—but that isn’t necessarily acknowledged by a vast majority of people,” Clark said.
Halfway through the lecture, the floor was opened up to questions, allowing audience members to ask about topics such as institutionalized racism and the books Díaz is currently reading.
“That sort of anti-Latino and anti-Islam rhetoric fits right back into anti-Blackness,” Díaz said. “What’s interesting is that our enemies have created antagonistic solidarities between our communities that we have not yet begun to equal.”
One question received shouts of disapproval from the audience and led to Díaz dismissing the questioner.
“I don’t deny racism exists, sure it does,” the audience member said. “But I do deny that America is defined and controlled by white supremacy — it seems to be real nonsense.”
Díaz repeatedly emphasized that gutted public education systems have led to a misinformed public and have undermined critical thinking.
“Nevertheless, I would simply point to the fact that the average American has been educated in a system that makes them fundamentally ill-prepared to defend their rights,” Díaz said.