Patrick Henry Fellow Dr. Judith Ridner traces histories of ethnic stereotyping through material culture

By Erica Quinones

News Editor

The Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience announced Dr. Judith Ridner as the 2020-2021 Patrick Henry Writing Fellow in a May 26 Facebook post.

The Patrick Henry Fellowship awards fiscal support to writers who are exploring the legacy and history of America’s founding era and founding ideas, according to Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Adam Goodheart.

The fellowship itself was endowed twelve years ago by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and private donors. A large part of that endowment was provided by friends of Washington College who are descendants of the American Founding Father, Patrick Henry, hence the fellowship’s name.

Fellows are selected by a committee annually and are awarded $45,000 for the academic year, allowed to live in the Patrick Henry residence, teach a spring course at WC, and participate in the College and Chestertown communities, according to Goodheart.

While Dr. Ridner will still teach her spring course, which explores the history of immigration in the United States partially through a project in which students research their own family histories, she is not currently in Chestertown due to COVID-19. However, she hopes to be on campus for the spring.

The fellow application process is rigorous and competitive, according to Goodheart.

However, this year, Dr. Ridner’s scholarship stood out due to her study’s relevance to contemporary questions and politics, which also utilizes an uncommon source, material culture, according to both Assistant Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Dr. JaJuan Johnson and Goodheart.

The questions that affect her current project, “Clothing the Babel: The Material Culture of Ethnic Identity in Early America,” revolve around the formation and perpetuation of power dynamics through the categorization of others.

“Clothing the Babel” examines these categorizations through the beginning of white racial profiling as seen in Pennsylvania’s ethnic groups, primarily focusing on the Scotts-Irish, Germans, and Quakers, with possible chapters on the Jewish and French, as well as sections on Native Americans and African Americans. 

Many of the ideas which inspired “Clothing the Babel” come from Dr. Ridner’s background.

How Dr. Ridner first arrived in academia and to her current scholarship was through, as she said, “bits and pieces.” 

As a first-generation college student, Dr. Ridner said that she never considered higher education as an option. It was the faculty at Dickinson College, her undergraduate alma mater, who helped her realize she had both the talent and the work ethic to make graduate school possible.

But still she took cautious steps, entering a master’s degree program at the College of William and Mary as she was not convinced that a PhD was possible for her.

However, after when she held her own in graduate school, Dr. Ridner saw her future in academia opening.

“As a student you judge yourself a lot on your cohorts, and when you find you are able to hold yourself with your peers, you start to grow confidence,” Dr. Ridner said.

Her identity as a first-generation student not only affected her path to graduate school but her later scholarship.

Dr. Ridner said that if you push most scholars, you often find that the work they pursue is in some way autobiographical. The questions that they ask are about what informed their lives.

For her, that was socioeconomic status. Coming from a lower-middle-class family, Dr. Ridner recognized a separation between herself and some peers at Dickinson that stemmed from class dynamics. As an academic, she then took that background and began directing it in a more intellectual way, asking larger questions about the processes and institutions that drive disparities.

Dr. Ridner is not only using her background to inspire her scholarship but to inform her research methods.

Much of the sources behind “Clothing the Babel” are material culture, or aspects of culture that are grounded in objects. Dr. Ridner learned methodologies for studying material culture in graduate school, but had not used them until now. 

Dr. Ridner said that working with material culture, particularly clothing, has added a tangibility to the lives of the people she studies.

“There is a sensory quality to [clothing] that you cannot get at if you are just reading documents. Someone can describe a piece of clothing in a letter or a journal, but if you see and touch that garment, you get a sense of what it was like to wear it, you get a sense of the color and the feel, and that’s something you just cannot get from documents. It gets at that tangibility, the materiality of the material,” Dr. Ridner said.

This intimacy with the lives of her subjects is especially important for this work because Dr. Ridner deals primarily with ordinary people.

They were often illiterate, according to Dr. Ridner, and had their histories written by outside parties. Examining the clothing worn by common people gives a voice to what their lives were like.

One such example was a dress that belonged to a Pennsylvanian Quaker woman. Dr. Ridner said that the dress had multiple visible alterations, likely for pregnancies. So, seeing the dress and its alterations gave, as Dr. Ridner said, a “sense of the life of the person who owned this dress.”

But the other side of her studies is how these ordinary people were represented in a larger culture.

Dr. Ridner said that this question took her across the Atlantic to British history, where much of the ethnic stereotypes with which she dealt originated.

She said that satirical cartoons representing ethnic stereotypes have been helpful in her work, but more surprisingly, so have children’s books.

Dr. Ridner said she was surprised by the extent to which children’s literature instilled racial stereotypes in the next generation. She found an alphabet book which named each letter with a different ethnic group then featured a stereotyped drawing of said group on the page.

Often times this racial profiling was directly related to the subject’s body and apperance, according to Dr. Ridner.

Such aspects “are used to judge and categorize in ways that deal with determining social power,” Dr. Ridner said.

These physical aspects were then used to prompt questions of immigrant assimilation.

Dr. Ridner recognizes that those ideas are not exclusive to colonial America. Beyond exploring white racial profiling, Dr. Ridner’s work takes contemporary political debates of immigrant assimilation, which often revolves around clothing-based religious signifiers like hijabs, and connects them to that early American society.

Her study shows that such ideas do not come from nowhere; rather, this physical stigmatization dates back to the earliest moments of the United States of America. Dr. Ridner said that she hopes making these connections will allow for a better understanding of the political debates seen today. 

Featured Photo caption: Dr. Judith Ridner said that she followed one ethnic demographic throughout much of her scholarship, the Scotts-Irish. While they are a recurring thread in her studies, Dr. Ridner continues uncovering new discoveries about them, particularly regarding their depictions in British culture during the 18th century. Photo courtesy of Mississippi State University.

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