Prof. Palmie: “Race is a figment of the classificatory imagination”

In an event organized by the Chicago Society, the chair of anthropology describes the paradoxes of race.

By Raymond Fang

In light of recent racially charged events around the country, Stephan Palmie, chair of anthropology and professor of social sciences in the College, gave a lecture Thursday evening on the complex origins and meanings of “race.”

The talk, entitled “Paradoxes of Race,” was sponsored by the Chicago Society, an RSO dedicated to encouraging campus discussion and debate on a wide variety of social and political issues.

Palmie opened his talk by highlighting the difficulty of explaining what exactly “race” means.

“Like pornography, we seem to know race when we see it, but like the Supreme Court judge who…coined that famous phrase about pornography, most of us would find it to be very hard to explicate what exactly it is that we are seeing or think we are seeing,” he said. “In fact, from a certain point of view, it is not clear at all what the ontological status of that object that we call race, really is. In other words, while we certainly think that race exists in some fashion, we don’t exactly know how it does so.”

The “paradox of race,” Palmie argued, arises when one locates the reality of race in the appearance of the human body. The paradox is that by locating race in the body, one is actually, counterintuitively, locating race in language.

Racism, Palmie said, is a sort of “default program,” which acts “like a fog that rolls in and takes over people’s minds.” Palmie cited the 2013 arrest of a University of Chicago graduate student as an example of this “default program” at work.

“Think of the trauma center protest two years ago,” he said. “What an embarrassment it was to the University of Chicago police to discover that one of the arrested protestors was not a ‘member of the community’—of course, you know what that euphemism stands for—but a Ph.D. student in good standing in the history department, who simply could not be charged with trespass on University grounds—but was so charged.”

Palmie used this example, among others drawing from his experiences in Cuba and Latin America, to stress the contingency and arbitrariness of our ideas of race, and to argue that there is no universal human nature driving us toward racist violence.

“Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Darrien Hunt, John Crawford III, and Dontre Hamilton,were not fated to die because of some transhistorical or transculturally valid reason. Racists killed them. But racists, too, don’t have to be racist because of who or what they are…This is…called ‘racecraft,’ so as to expose its artificial, and contingent nature rather than its alleged grounding in some primordial human proclivity towards ethnocentrism.”

Palmie argued for a distinction between “race” and “racism,” the former being merely a classification, and the latter being the cause of real violence.

“Race is a figment of the classificatory imagination, and it motivates nothing. Racism is not a figment. It’s real, and it kills. Race is not ‘out there in the world,’ but racism is. Race may be a social construction…but racism is not a social construction,” he said. “It is out there, and it is the truck that runs you over at the intersection, even though you have a green light.”

Palmie concluded his talk by calling on the audience to investigate the way they helped to maintain the idea of “race” in their own thoughts, actions, and advocacies.

“The way in which ‘racecraft’ stabilizes specific orders of privilege and inequality is by giving everyone involved a stake in upholding the fiction of race… Until and unless we all recognize our investment in ideas, and their histories, that wreck some—and in that sense, all—of our lives, we just simply won’t be able to move on one single bit.”