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Nitasha Sharma, PhD

Director of Graduate Studies of the African American Studies Program

Nitasha Sharma, PhD

I find my research, and almost all the things that I do as a faculty member, enormously rewarding because I am allowed to pursue my passion. As my work has shifted, I have been supported with the time, money, and autonomy to pursue new areas. ”

Dr. Nitasha Sharma is the director of graduate studies (DGS) of the Department of African American Studies in the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences. She is also an associate professor of African American studies and Asian American studies and director of the Asian American studies program. Her research is based on an interdisciplinary, comparative, and ethnographic approach to the study of difference, inequality, and racism. The central goal of her teaching, research, and writing is to develop models for multiracial alliance building by zeroing in on cultural phenomena that unearth and challenge the factors that structure contentious race relations. 

How long have you been in the DGS role?
1 year

What is the most rewarding part of being a DGS?
I have enormously enjoyed meeting with graduate students as I learn about their research projects, but also about their experiences in graduate school at this university. I scheduled meetings with every student in our program (including those who are out of state), and this has given me a snapshot of their overall concerns, helped me loop those who are writing and who may feel more disconnected from the daily life of students who are still in coursework back into communication.

What advice would you give to someone just beginning as a DGS?
I would suggest reaching out to meet with, Skype, or speak with all graduate students in your department. I found this particularly important for those students who have not been on campus for a while or who are in the solitude of writing their dissertation without the structure or community of their earlier years in graduate school. I was also anxious about "doing the job well," which included communicating with faculty and learning the online systems. However, the people at TGS are incredibly responsive, helpful, and clear. We have quite an infrastructure for helping us do this service work!

What have you learned from being a DGS?
I understand more thoroughly our requirements for earning a PhD, as well as the various mechanisms and opportunities for graduate students at NU. For instance, students in PhD programs can also apply to enter our MFA programs, just as we have a JD/PHD Program. However, this also means that I've learned a lot about how motivated this generation of students is. They want all the degrees! I try to ask them to think about their life holistically–asking them if they have experienced (and enjoyed!) Chicago, if they have taken the time to return home, if they have planned for trips out of state during the coldest months here. It has helped me learn both about our students as well as the processes and online services of TGS at Northwestern.

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
I am a comparative race studies ethnographer – I write books that focus on interminority relations in order to understand and ideally work to eradicate interminority racisms. In the past, my research has focused on South Asian American hip hop artists; my current research is on the experiences of Black residents of the Hawaiian Islands, where I am from. Overall, I've been interested in bringing Asian American studies into conversation with African American studies and, more recently, with Native studies and Pacific Island studies. My courses stem from this scholarly interest: I teach classes on hip hop, Asian and Black relations in the US, critical mixed race studies, and race and indigeneity in the Pacific. 

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
I have long been concerned about the ways that non-White groups have adopted racist ideas which are advanced by White supremacist ideas that have been developed to "justify" colonialism, enslavement, dispossession, and labor exploitation. More specifically, when I moved from Hawai'i to California for college, I was really disturbed by Asian Americans' antiBlack racism. As a result, my work has focused on historicizing these patterns and ethnographically illustrating models that fight such dynamics. My work on Asian American hip hop artists highlight how and why some Asian Americans contest Asian antiBlack racism in their communities and families as they develop racialized identities that are informed by Black histories of resistance. In my current work, I want to highlight the political cross-fertilizations that (can) inform Black and Native Hawaiian relations – relations that seem nonexistent. I focus on detailing these contemporary on the ground relations, which I think contributes to those analyses that focus on literary or historical exchanges. 

What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
I find my research, and almost all the things that I do as a faculty member, enormously rewarding because I am allowed to pursue my passion. As my work has shifted, I have been supported with the time, money, and autonomy to pursue new areas. It has been extremely rewarding to work in both Asian American studies and African American studies, while doing research that brings these fields into conversation. My work on my most recent book, Hawai'i is my Haven: Race and Indigeneity in the Black Pacific has been rewarding because it has allowed me to engage current debates in Black and Native studies, while also allowing me to return home – often with my children – who are able to see where I grew up and experience a way of life different from what we've established in Chicago. 

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
The biggest contribution of my research is to add a daily, on-the-ground ethnographic account of phenomena that other scholars often speak of at a historical distance and/or with abstraction. While in the Twitterverse people are more than willing to offer their hot takes on opinions and experiences, which may be valid, the ethnographic research that I conducted for a decade that culminated in a book has much to say to these sometimes decontextualized views. Now, whether or not people still have the patience to read books is the question!

What books have been especially important to you?
When I am writing, I read very closely to my project. However, once nighttime comes, I devour novels--things that, at least based on appearances, seem far from my work. This year I've read astounding books by Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon, Celeste Ng, Tommy Orange, and Louise Erdrich. But if I think about it, these authors speak to African American studies, Asian American studies, and Native American and Indigenous studies, all fields I'm part of. Reading novels also reminds us of the beauty of writing. A beauty I am far from mastering!

What do you like to do for fun?
I read novels and love television. I travel a lot, often abroad to Europe or home to Hawai'i. At the end of a long and stressful day, I look forward to some afternoon beers with colleagues to debrief and excellent meals with my husband. One of the most exciting opportunities from the last few years has been joining my husband as he tours the world (he is a musician). Last year I was able to go to Japan, Denmark, Austria, France, England, Holland, Spain, Hawai'i, Turkey, and Russia and other places--for fun, rather than for work! 

Published: January 7, 2020


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