Leti Volpp


When do we call behavior "cultural"? And when do we not? Why do we distinguish behavior in this way? And what are the consequences of this difference in recognition and naming? This Essay examines narratives that emerge in cases of forced and voluntary adolescent marriage. These narratives suggest that behavior that we might find troubling is more often causally attributed to a group-defined culture when the actor is perceived to "have" culture. Because we tend to perceive white Americans as "people without culture," when white people engage in certain practices we do not associate their behavior with a racialized conception of culture, but rather construct other, non-cultural explanations. The result is an exaggerated perception of ethnic difference that equates it with moral difference from "us."

In this Essay, I examine discursive representations - the narratives that underlie public perception, legal discourse, and scholarly writings. I interrogate the way in which identity casts certain individuals outside the boundaries of our social body. Differentiation can occur through numerous identity-based distinctions - class and sexuality, for example. Here my focus is on race and immigrant status.