Building Academic Bridges

Nitasha Tamar Sharma - ASIAN AMERICAN STUDIES
by Ronald Roach,  February 23, 2011

Title: Assistant Professor of African-American and Asian American Studies, Northwestern University

 

Education: Ph.D., Antropology, University of California at Santa Barbara; M.A., Antropology, University of California at Santa Barbara; B.A., Anthropology, University of California at Santa Cruz

With a dual appointment in the African-American Studies department and the Asian American studies program at Northwestern University, Dr. Nitasha Sharma is well positioned to produce scholarship that bridges the two disciplines. Sharma’s forthcoming book, based on her anthropology dissertation, Claiming Space, Making Race: South Asian American Hip Hop Artists, examines the influence that African-American-inspired hip hop culture has had on young musicians of South Asian descent, developing what some scholars see as fertile ground in ethnic studies — cross-cultural and comparative inquiry on U.S. racial and ethnic groups.

In her third year as an assistant professor at Northwestern, Sharma is regarded as a skillful and popular teacher. Her courses have included “The Racial and Gender Politics of Hip Hop”; “Race, Crime, and Punishment: The Border, Prisons, and Post-9/11 Detentions”; and “Cracking the Color Lines: Asian and Black Relations in the U.S.” Sharma has also done considerable work on mixed-race populations, including those in the U.S. and Trinidad. The African- American Studies department has awarded its Outstanding Teaching Award to Sharma in both her first and second years.

In addition, Sharma’s dual appointment has attracted the attention of Asian American studies scholars as well as Asian American student groups nationally and has resulted in numerous speaking engagements for the young professor. “(These individuals and organizations) really want to have the framework to understand the collaborations that my appointment symbolizes,” she says.

Dr. Darlene Clark Hine, the chair of the African-American Studies department at Northwestern, says department members were excited to collaborate with the Asian American studies program to offer Sharma a dual appointment in 2006.

“We thought we would be quite enriched and be made a stronger department to have her as a member of the faculty. And we were right,” Hine says.

“Nitasha is especially attractive in the way that she complicates our understanding of how race is constructed … And she is very good at demonstrating the impact of African-American culture and history on diverse populations around the globe,” Hine adds.

Sharma’s personal background may help explain her rise as a young scholar. She knew as a youngster growing up in Hawaii that she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her parents, both professors. Her father, a retired University of Hawaii history professor and Indian immigrant, and mother, a still-active University of Hawaii anthropologist in Asian studies and Brooklyn, N.Y., native of Russian Jewish descent, met and married in the United Kingdom and settled in Hawaii. “I wanted the life that my parents had. They had summers off and traveled around the world; they were frequently at home during the week days … The talk at the dinner table was largely about academic life and their work,” Sharma says.

While undecided as a college student at the University of California- Santa Cruz on what she would pursue as a scholar, Sharma found the racial climate at her campus polarized and stifling, given her sensibilities and upbringing in multicultural Hawaii. “I had a really different framework coming from Hawaii in the way that people identified and formed communities. I was used to very mixed communities where people could acknowledge differences and still seek alliances and commonalities. Whereas in California in the 1990s, identity politics were so strong I wasn’t used to that,” Sharma explains.

Sharma found refuge in hip hop music and culture, an interest that eventually led her to consider the impact of hip hop on South Asian Americans. “It was later in grad school I thought I could study hip hop academically even though I faced a lot of resistance against that from professors…I saw (hip hop) as a potential place of alliance,” she says.

Dr. Ronald Takaki, a professor emeritus of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley and the nation’s pre-eminent scholar on multiculturalism, recalls meeting Sharma when she was a University of California at Santa Barbara transfer student doing much of her Ph.D. work at the Berkeley campus. “I found Nitasha in my Ph.D. seminar, and I was surprised to see her there. She said ‘I came all the way to UC-Berkeley to study with you,’” he says. An appreciative mentor, Takaki takes considerable pride in the direction Sharma’s career has taken. “What Nitasha Sharma wants to do is build bridges between these different studies of different groups. (She’s) trying to build academic bridges,” he says.



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