Leti Volpp leads ‘exercise in reading’

Written by
Sarah Malone, Program in American Studies
Oct. 22, 2018

What can be learned from the placement, repetition and variation of a phrase?

Leti Volpp, a 1986 Princeton alumna, and the Robert D. and Leslie Kay Raven Professor of Law in Access to Justice and director of the Center for Race and Gender at Berkeley Law, spoke at Princeton on October 18, 2018 as part of the 2018-19 Asian American Studies Lecture Series.

Volpp led the audience through what she termed “an exercise in reading,” examining instances of the term “honor killing” in the January 27, 2017 and March 6, 2017 executive orders “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” She noted that in the January 27 order, the term is included in the purpose section of the order, indicating centrality to the document’s intent, and precedes mention of the category of which it is cited as example (“forms of violence against women”). The placement, she said, suggests greater emphasis on the example than on the category — a point borne out, she went on to say, by policies that have made addressing sexual violence a priority for no government agencies except the Department of Homeland Security, and that have barred women refugees from entry to the U.S.

She highlighted that in the January 27 executive order, “honor” is in quotes in the purpose section, and the term is mentioned without quotes in a “Transparency and Data Collection” section. In the March 6 revision, the entire term “honor killings” is in quotes, and is characterized as “so-called.” Volpp suggested that the “slippage” shows uncertainty about how to label a phenomenon, and perhaps uncertainty as to whether the phenomenon was in fact a phenomenon.

Volpp traced the origins of numbers that Jeff Sessions, as a member of the Senate, cited as coming from a Department of Justice report. The report, produced by a research firm, mentions but did not originate the numbers Sessions cited, which were generated for an unpublished study. Volpp detailed how, lacking source data for the U.S., the research firm extrapolated estimates, to present as proportional for the U.S. population, from figures for the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands. Volpp noted that the United Kingdom and Germany had no government reported data. The U.K. data was a remark by a police official in a 2003 speech; the German data was “a kind of post hoc generalization,” Volpp said, a category applied based on media descriptions of victims’ families as immigrant.

“Why do claims about characteristics or cultural practices stick to certain groups and not to others?” Volpp asked in discussion with the audience. She related logic about current immigrant groups to logic applied to Japanese immigrants during World War Two, and to Chinese men in San Francisco who were stigmatized for coming to the United States without their families. “There are ways in which people who behave in ways that are seen as troubling or non-normative will be evicted from belonging, whether it’s within the borders of the nation by immigration, whether it’s through being allowed to participate in certain kinds of government entitlements, and the very same behavior that someone else is doing who is not racially marked as disturbing or other will not be thought of as a product of that group-based behavior.”

The lecture was held in Lewis Library, Room 120. Anne Cheng, professor of English and American studies and director of the Program in American Studies, introduced Volpp and noted the lecture marked the 40th anniversary of the Asian American Alumni Association of Princeton. Alumni were well represented in the audience, along with undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, and members of Volpp’s family.