Remembering Ruth Frankenberg

Remembering Ruth Frankenberg Video Link

Transcript (September 2019):

My name is Caren Kaplan and I am Professor Emerita in the American Studies Department at UC Davis. On the occasion of the department’s 50th anniversary, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to be invited to remember Dr. Ruth Frankenberg who was a dedicated core member of the faculty from 1993 to 2004. She had been hired as an Assistant Professor after teaching for several years in the department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle and she had been promoted, first to Associate Professor in 1994 and then to Full Professor in 2002. In 2004, she retired and moved to Bangalore, India.

I first met Ruth in the fall of 1979 when we both arrived to begin our studies in the interdisciplinary History of Consciousness PhD program at UC Santa Cruz. Ruth had just completed her undergraduate and MA degrees in social and political sciences at Cambridge University, and she brought a great love for reggae music and a deep knowledge of Marxist feminist theory and praxis with her to the United States. As I recall my first impressions of her, I remember a lanky, un-selfconsciously beautiful young woman, with the coolest, most intelligent gaze you can possibly imagine. She was, I thought, then and always, utterly brilliant. We took seminars together with a lively group of smart young women that included - among others - Chela Sandoval, Katie King, Zoe Sofoulis, Lata Mani, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Lisa Lowe, Carole McCann, and Gloria Watkins (who also went by her nom de plume, bell hooks). Our graduate cohorts in HistCon and a few other grad programs at UCSC were energetic and fond of organizing events big and small. If we couldn’t find something that we thought was needed, we tried to invent it, start it, work with others to do it. Very much in this spirit, Ruth worked with a small group of students and professors to produce a journal, Inscriptions, dedicated to the study of what we then called “colonial discourse.”

We were influenced profoundly at this time by post-structuralist thinkers like Michel Foucault, Gayatri Spivak, and Edward Said but we were also dedicated to the investigation of authoritarianism and political violence undertaken by the Frankfurt School, the emergence of critical race analysis by Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Hazel Carby and others in the Birmingham School in the UK as well as by US feminist scholars and activists of color such as our cohort-mate bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, and Gloria Anzaldua, along with feminist Marxist writers and thinkers such as Sandra Harding, Nancy Hartsock and Nancy Chodorow. And, of course, perhaps our most important mentors were our extraordinary graduate school faculty: Hayden White, James Clifford, and Donna Haraway. Those years were clouded by the presidential election and re-election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, respectively, but we were inspired by the dynamic possibilities of interdisciplinary cultural studies and the proliferation of numerous approaches to the study of race, sexuality, gender, class, and religion among other subjects and subject positions.

Ruth’s deep commitment to anti-racist activism and analysis resulted in her PhD thesis which became the basis for her highly acclaimed first book, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1993. This groundbreaking study won the American Sociological Association Jessie Bernard Award as well as the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in North America award for work on intolerance in North America.

James Clifford, who was one of Ruth’s primary advisers at UC Santa Cruz during graduate school, remembers that he was a bit concerned when first she proposed her dissertation topic to him. In an email to me he has written: “Whiteness didn’t exist then, as an analytic, political or sociological category. And Ruth seemed to be mixing in all sorts of extraneous things like class, sexuality, gender, nationality…I recall thinking that this project sounded promising but needed some pretty radical focusing. Ruth resisted, with characteristic stubbornness, my advice to think small.” And Jim continues, “Well, dissertations are learning experiences for both students and advisors! I now see the richness in Ruth’s conception—it’s ‘articulation of crucial constitutive elements. I was just learning to think in a ‘cultural studies’ way, and Ruth’s brilliant project showed me how.”

Ruth showed many of us how to consider the unmarked as well as the marked categories in our world and to bravely take on unpopular or controversial subjects. As she wrote in her book’s introduction:

“My argument in this book is that race shapes white women’s lives. In the same way that both men’s and women’s lives are shaped by gender, and that both heterosexual and lesbian women’s experiences in the world are marked by their sexuality, white people and people of color live racially structured lives. In other words, any system of differentiation shapes those on whom it bestows privilege as well as those it oppresses. White people are ‘raced’ just as men are ‘gendered.’ And in a social context where white people have too often viewed themselves as nonracial or racially neutral, it is crucial to look at the ‘racialness’ of white experience.”

Here whiteness, like any racial category, is hardly monolithic. But the complexity and powerful operations of this subject position were understudied, most often unacknowledged, and therefore highly mystified and recalcitrant to deconstruction and dismantling of privilege and power. As another key mentor, Donna Haraway, has written of Ruth’s first book, among her interviewees “Whiteness was a self-invisible norm that many of the women could not identify with; to identify as white in any concrete way seemed racist to most of them. None the less, they benefited structurally from the unspeakable norm, as ‘difference’ was cast as either culturally enriching or pathological and dangerous, but not fundamentally about power. Drawing from a popular humanism that could not recognize itself as a ‘white’ perspective, some women would insist that they did not care whether someone were ‘green, striped or purple,’ because we are all ‘human.’”

I am reminded sadly that these beliefs and attitudes are among those that many white feminists in the US and elsewhere continue to espouse, remaining unchallenged, pointing to the relevancy of Ruth’s work even now, perhaps more so than ever. Ruth dedicated her book to “those who struggle for a day beyond racism—to a time when this book will be read as history and not as a study of the present.” That day has clearly not yet arrived.

As an interdisciplinary scholar teaching in public universities, Ruth continued her inquiries into gendered whiteness, editing an important volume titled Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism published by Duke University Press in 1997. This work was followed by a monograph, Living Spirit, Living Practice: Poetics, Politics, Epistemology, also published by Duke in 2004. Based on in-depth interviews with fifty women and men of diverse races, ethnicities, national origins, classes, ages, and sexualities, this work explored “the making and living of religious lives as well as the mystery and poetry of spiritual practice.” This book project did not only represent a scholar’s inquiry into the deep importance of religious and spiritual practices in the US, it also reflected Ruth’s exploration into and commitment to spiritual practices following many years of illnesses and her participation in meaningful new communities of care, concerns and commitments continued even now by her life partner, Lata Mani.

I never had the opportunity to work with Ruth at UC Davis—she moved to Bangalore with Lata in 2004, just before I arrived on campus—although I am so grateful that I had the chance to spend a little time with her when I came for my job interview the year before. I reached out to Prof. Kent Ono who was her colleague in American Studies for some years before he moved to the University of Utah and asked him for a few comments. Here is what he wrote:

“Being a superb theorist did not prevent Ruth from being an amazing colleague. If hard work was required to do an innocuous but required task, Ruth would nevertheless volunteer to do it. She cared deeply about her colleagues, and about the American Studies Program, and supported them and it and their work behind the scenes with tremendous passion, care, and subtlety. She was an exemplary colleague who always showed up. And, when I say “showed up,” not just being physically present but being all there intellectually. She strived toward excellence, which meant her colleagues strived to match her habits of mind, which is one way of saying her very presence made us all better intellectuals, and better people.”

Another former colleague, Prof. Jay Mechling, wrote of Ruth in 2004 that what he would most miss would be her “ability to see through to the essence of a problem or issue,” adding that it was great to have a colleague at a faculty meeting who brought a “great deal of wisdom to deliberations” and who could “help us get unstuck.” Jay also noted Ruth’s “generosity of spirit” and “her sincere interest in educating the whole student.”

Ruth taught many of the core courses in the American Studies curriculum at the time including Introduction to American Studies, Religion in American Lives, American Lives Through Autobiography, and the Senior Thesis seminar as well as Feminism, Racism & Anti-Racism, and Living in Bodies/Body Politics. Ruth also taught the introductory seminar for the then-brand new PhD program in Cultural Studies. She was certainly a key collegial figure in the Hart Hall Interdisciplinary Programs which include African and African American, Asian American, Chicana/o, Gender, Sexuality and Women’s, and Native American as well as American Studies, cross-listing courses and working closely and collegially with so many faculty and students.

Not surprisingly, she is remembered as an extraordinary and inspiring teacher. For example, Tania Hammidi remembers that although there were many amazing feminist thinkers at UC Davis when she was an undergraduate, Ruth absolutely stood out—while attending a talk based on Ruth’s first book, as she puts it, “my Appalachian/Arab-American brain exploded”! In an email to me she adds that she was so fortunate to enroll in Ruth’s AMS 200A (Feminist Reading Group) seminar and then to work with Ruth on her master’s thesis on lesbian ‘transgressive’ clothing styles and community sustainability. Working with Ruth, Tania writes, fostered in her a “feeling of self-worth,” and “community” and gave her the tools, in this case an “axe,” to “sharpen” her “feminist ideas, writing, and practices.”

Jennifer Watanabe, who not only studied with Ruth in American Studies as an undergraduate but followed in her footsteps to graduate school in the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz, remembers Ruth as a teacher and mentor in this way:

We rarely think about educational journeys once we’ve graduated. Introductory courses, electives, degree requirements, all get homogenized into our history, filed and buried away with ‘life experience’ and it’s just an unspoken part of life….we move on and hopefully, forward, carrying with us the teachings that have helped mold and shape us as young adults, mostly unaware of how all the little parts come together in the end. We establish our careers, we forget. Some moments however, some departments – some professors – stand out. Ruth was one of them. Her undergraduate courses on race, whiteness, gender, disability and LGBTQ politics were bold and difficult topics nearly twenty years ago, nearly radical in hindsight comparing them to how commonplace and mainstream words like “white fragility” and “white privilege” reside in the current vernacular. Additionally, her work on gender identity and disability studies were prescient in many ways, recognizing the marginalized politics of the underrepresented transgender community and drawing attention to how we define “able bodied.” These were not easy topics, requiring a certain finesse to having students self-reflect and think critically about how they viewed the world without feeling judged or threatened. Ruth’s classroom presence was epic!! Her calm and quiet demeanor belied the steely control she had in the classroom. Her slow, deliberate speaking cadence demanded full attention and she engaged students humbly, making accessible new ideas through inspiration instead of lecturing. She was a beautiful soul, encouraged rigorous thought, loved debate and questioning, and truly engaged purposeful self-reflection. She shared the gift of presence and I miss her every single day.”

Many of Jennifer’s sentiments are shared by everyone who knew Ruth in so many capacities. In closing, I would just add that Ruth was one of the most principled people I have ever met. She was utterly committed to anti-racist and anti-homophobia work, to social justice for everyone everywhere. We remember her wry sense of humor, her elegance combined with an earthy zest for life, her brilliant mind, her loyalty and compassion, and her deep soulfulness.

When Ruth left Davis in 2004 she had told an interviewer that her goal was to “change her work environment and create a new space with room for all of one’s goals.” As an independent scholar, writer, and teacher she was in the midst of more book projects and living life to the fullest with Lata in Bangalore in 2007 when she was diagnosed quite suddenly with lung cancer and died shortly thereafter. She was 49 years young. The American Studies department lost a dedicated and significant colleague—such a good friend to so many of us— and the world lost a brilliant interlocutor and interpreter of social, political, and spiritual matters. May her memory be a blessing.