Student-Run Conference Highlights the Multiracial & Multiethnic Experience

Earlier this month, the student-led Compass: Navigating Multiness conference brought together both students and academics in hopes of transforming the way that individuals understand their multiracial/multiethnic experience.

The three-day conference, funded by a Mellon Grant and the Cooper Series, was hosted by MULTI, a Swarthmore club for students who self-identify as having multi-heritage. It was spearheaded by Casey Lu Simon-Plumb ’18, a biology and neuroscience special major from Hampden, Mass., and Christopher Malafronti ’18, a critical mixed race studies special major from Newark, Del. 

"Two years ago this conference was just a thought in our heads, over the past four semesters we have worked tirelessly to bring it into reality, to share this experience [of navigating Multiness] with all of you," Simon-Plumb said prior to the conference.

"We are bringing together diverse groups of mixed individuals from schools across the East Coast with the hopes that we can promote community and foster connections between peoples of diverse experiences and backgrounds," said Malafronti.

Highlights of the weekend included a keynote talk from Pulitzer Prize-winning author and 2012 MacArthur ‘Genius’ recipient Junot Díaz, a public talk and exhibit by artist Laura Kina, an open mic hosted by Afroboricua poet Noel Quiñones '15, and a panel with multi-identifying alumni from Swarthmore. Quiñones, recently named one of New York State's 40 Under 40 Rising Latino Stars, also performed one of his own spoken-word pieces before welcoming Díaz to the stage. 

Díaz, a Dominican immigrant, began by thanking the Compass team and expressing his admiration for the conference as a whole. “Immigration is a joyous word,” he said, before reading an excerpt from his short story “A Cheater’s Guide to Love” and a selection from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, his only novel.

alt text "I never expected my art to take care of me," Díaz says. "And because I wanted nothing from my art, it gave me everything."

Commenting on multiness and the demands of being ‘authentic’ in identity, Díaz rejected the idea that one has to be fully African or Chinese or Dominican to claim an identity. “Either the African diaspora has room for me, or there is no African diaspora,” he argued. “You can’t deny me my presence in a community.”

Asked about how he engages with his community back home in New Jersey now that he is entrenched in the academic world, Díaz recognized that communities like his have historically been oppressed and exploited by those with a college education. There was a reason his community was hostile to him reading.

“I wasn’t gonna blame them for that,” he said, adding he hopes they don’t blame him for having the privilege to get a college education. “I think we like to condemn our communities because that way we don’t have to be in conversation with them."

Díaz saved the last part of his talk to respond to an essay he recently published in the New Yorker, in which he discusses a trauma he experienced when he was eight years old: he was raped twice, leaving his childhood destroyed. He admitted that he was anxious talking about it and had considered not coming to Swarthmore because he had not expected the piece to be published so soon. 

In his essay, he also refers to trauma as a time-traveler: it can jump into your present or pull you back into its time. But, insisted Díaz, “We can’t let our trauma be the only time-traveler. The love and support of those near you can travel back to that space and give you strength if you share your story."

With the conference now in the rear-view, Simon-Plumb and Malafronti both hope that this is just the beginning of the conversation for the Multi community.

"We hope that this conference is only a starting point to continue to work towards justice, liberation and fosters community within our own Multi community on campus and beyond to the Delaware Valley."