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Dissecting racist iconography, the role of institutions and systems of oppression with WGS lecturer Shama Rangwala

A conversation with WGS lecturer Shama Rangwala

From Alberta Primetime to the Globe and Mail, women’s and gender studies lecturer Shama Rangwala’s voice reaches far beyond the confines of campus. 

Rangwala became a Women’s and Gender studies lecturer this past June after finishing her PhD at the University of Alberta in March 2019. Back in July, Rangwala notably used her Twitter to get local candy store Rocket Fizz to take down a sign depicting racist, Jim-Crow era imagery. Since then, Rangwala has continued to use her platform, talking about the implications of the Chicago Principles for the Globe and Mail, as well on her own online magazine Pyriscence. She is also a regular panelist on the political talk show Alberta Primetime.

For Rangwala, building her platform outside academia was not a coincidence, but rather a conscious choice to bridge the gap between knowledge and lived experience.

“I read about culture and politics, I teach it, I research it, but I also live as a person in the world,” Rangwala said. “I’m trying to find some way to make the research I do mean something in the world. If I can educate people about racist iconography, it makes me feel like I’m not just in an ivory tower.”

Helen Zhang

Rangwala also finds that the university’s role as an institution is in an interesting position in today’s culture of free speech. 

“A lot of my public work talks about this free speech issue and it’s really important to advocate for the university as a very particular space where knowledge is produced and analyzed in ways that involve the recognition of peers, it’s not a marketplace of ideas,” Rangwala said. 

“We say the university is an institution of critique and it’s under fire right now because people in power want to delegitimize the institution of critique. I think we need to use our platforms because expertise still matters.”

Rangwala’s commitment to using her platform stems from her work developing the concept of “ideological adaptation,” the idea that systems of power such as patriarchy or white supremacy are constantly adapting to manifest in different forms. Rangwala found the candy store incident the perfect allegory for how this can occur.
Rangwala’s tweet of the sign which has now been removed

“Ideological adaptation is relevant to this case because it’s racist iconography from the past that can signify today as something that is safely in the past, so it can be a joke — but white supremacy is alive and well in the present, it has just adapted to new forms,” Rangwala explained.  “If you’re not thinking about how these structures of power adapt then you can look at it and say it’s just history.”

Rangwala argues that the essence of the sign depicting a “Picanniny”, which is a Jim Crow-era caricature of a feral black child, has adapted to suit today’s society.

“We know that certain children are valued more than others; look at brown babies in cages right now,” Rangwala said. “There are reasons black children were made into a caricature — they’re not given the presumption of innocence that white children are given. Think about Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin.”

Overall, Rangwala hopes that her work with ideological adaptation will not only prove useful to society, but also inspire other academics to make their research socially relevant. 

“I really want my work to matter in the world,” she said. “I think that if the university wants to keep its critical function in our society, people need to start thinking about how their research and work relates to our current moment of crisis.”

Khadra Ahmed

Khadra is the Gateway's 2020-2021 News Editor, dedicated to providing intersectional news coverage on campus. She's a fifth-year student studying biology and women's and gender studies. While working for The Gateway, she continues the tradition of turning coffee into copy.

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