Her name is Srividya “Srivi” Ramasubramanian (pronounced: Shree-with-yaa “Shree-vee” Raa-muh-soob-ruh-money-ahn). Whether teaching, conducting research, presenting, writing, or speaking, Ramasubramanian tackles pressing contemporary global issues relating to media, inclusion, and social justice head on. She uses an interdisciplinary, action-oriented, critical, and data-driven approach to her research and work with students and faculty across the discipline and higher education. Ramasubramanian is the founding director of the Difficult Dialogues Project and CODE^SHIFT (Collaboratory for Data Equity, Social Healing, Inclusive Futures, and Transformation), which brings together data scientists with social justice scholars. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Media Rise.
In January 2023, the longtime NCA member became editor-in-chief of the Association’s journal Communication Monographs. Ramasubramanian is the first woman of color to serve in this role.
You are from South India. Talk about the family and community in which you grew up? Did those lived experiences shape your views on race and identity?
Most definitely. I grew up in Chennai, formerly Madras, a big metropolis and cultural center in South India. I learned about race within the context of the Indian freedom struggle. I am ethnically Tamil, and we are often racialized within broader Indian culture. In the 1990s, India went through massive cultural shifts due to globalization and market liberalization when I was in college. We suddenly had access to brands and media from the West such as Coca-Cola and MTV. I also had a diverse group of friends in college, including resettled refugees from Sri Lanka and Tibet and visiting students from Kenya and Tanzania whose experiences shaped my understanding of race. When I moved to the U.S. and especially living through 9/11 terrorist attacks, I was racialized as “Other” in ways I had not experienced before. These experiences shaped my scholarship on racial justice.
Why did you choose to study Communication and what did you plan to do with the degree?
It’s a funny story. I was never planning to go into Communication as an undergrad. I was a science/math major in high school, though I was also a musician and artist. Communication was still very new in our country as a discipline. It was only offered in one college in our city, Loyola College, which was a Jesuit men’s college where Communication alone was a co-ed course. My neighbor was interested in taking the qualifying aptitude test for Communication. However, she was reluctant to go alone to a men’s college as a woman. As a good neighbor and friend, I gave her company and took the test with her. I completely forgot about it after that. Later, she told me that I had topped the aptitude test. At that time, my father, an engineer himself, told me that instead of being one of thousands of engineers, it is better to be one of 40 Communication majors in the city, especially since I obviously had an aptitude for this subject. That is how I became one of 18 women studying Communication in a men’s college.
What or who inspired the work you do and the award-winning Communication scholar you became?
Growing up, I heard that my great-grandfather was a journalist who walked alongside Mahatma Gandhi on his famous Salt Satyagraha March across India. He was born an orphan, raised by a kind aunt, and worked hard to become educated. My grandmothers were both strong women—both musicians and music composers. My mother taught me to stand up for myself, prioritize education, and be financially independent.
Witnessing intersecting violences due to race, gender, social class, religion, and caste in India and the U.S. has deeply shaped my scholarship. These include the Dravidian self-respect movement in my hometown, the Tamil Eelam struggle in Sri Lanka, 9/11 terrorist attacks and its aftermath in the U.S., Black Lives Matter movement, and other resistances especially during the Trump regime have impacted my work.
However, what I find most inspiring are the micro-resistances in everyday life. The ways in which everyday people use their voices, stories, and media to stand up to those in power and authority within their families, workplaces, communities are what I find most inspiring.
Transnational and feminist scholars of color within Communication, Women’s & Gender Studies, Ethnic Studies and Indigenous Studies have also deeply influenced my thinking and politics.
You speak often of being “first” in many spaces and places. Why are those acknowledgements important to make and what does it say about identity?
I am the first woman Ph.D. in my family. I am the first woman of color in my department to earn tenure and become a full professor while at Texas A&M University. I am the first woman and person of color to hold the prestigious Newhouse Professorship, which is an endowed chair position. I am also the first editor of color of Communication Monographs.
I want to mark these moments as a part of the history that we are creating right here and now. They are ruptures within a largely white discipline that allow for others to break through the glass ceiling. More importantly, it is about what you do with this privilege of being first—it is very important to acknowledge all those that helped you get to where you are. The support from my family, research collaborators, and mentors have been crucial to my success. Plus, it is also important to lift up early career researchers by sharing my own experiences and lessons with them.
You have used terms like "geeks, dragon ladies, and perpetual foreigners” to describe how Asian-Americans are often portrayed in the media. Does the struggle to counter such stereotypes continue? Are there signs of change?
Progress has hardly ever been linear. History has taught us that it is always zigzags. We see this with Asian-Americans in the U.S. culture as well. The dotcom boom of the 1990s saw us being stereotyped as geeks and “model minorities.” Yet the 9/11 terrorist attacks racialized South Asians and Arabs as dangerous terrorists in the early 2000s. Throughout these moments, we have been seen as “perpetual foreigners” and not as “American enough.” With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw the rise of hateful anti-Asian crimes and attacks against those racialized as East Asian and Chinese. Therefore, these representations continue to be underrepresented and discussed even within topics of race and media.
Bonus Question: What books may people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Great question (laughter). Hmmm…let’s see. You are going to find tons of books on Indian music since I come from a family of musicians and music lovers. You’ll also find many vegetarian recipe books from multiple cuisines since we are a family that enjoys experimenting with food cultures. There are also some children’s story books that I have collected through our travels to other countries.
B. Denise Hawkins, M.A., NCA Director of Communications and Public Engagement