What do race relations, hip-hop and indigeneity in the Pacific have in common? They’re all research passions of Nitasha Sharma, professor of African American Studies, Asian American Studies and Performance Studies. Winner of the Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence Award from 2013 to 2016, Sharma isn’t a stuffy academic, but is charismatic, open and more than happy to remind students that self-worth is not derived from how many meetings they attend. NBN caught up with her to discuss nothing less than finding meaning in life.
How were you able to incorporate your interests into your research?
I loved hip-hop in the ‘90s; it was really, really formative. I knew that it was not just music, but it really brought communities together, so I wanted to go to graduate school and study hip-hop. I’m also really convinced that if we look at people who cross particular racial boundaries, they’re going to tell us something about race more broadly.
It’s not just that I’m interested in mixed race identity because I have a mixed race background – it’s really about how we can understand race differently when we look outside of the continental U.S., when we look outside of a white context and when we look outside of a monoracial context.
How can students use their budding curiosities at Northwestern to drive their paths going forward?
It’s really about tapping into what makes sense for you. My lane is academics and teaching. I could do the same kind of work of anti-racism and understanding race as an artist, or an academic, or as a diversity worker in a corporation, but I like the academic lifestyle. I found the kind of occupation that aligns with my values and my lifestyle desires, then I found the questions that I’m interested in and then I found the methods that I’m interested in.
You really have to be conscientious about who you are in the world and not just be like, “I want to make a lot of money.” A lot of people do that, and the University pushes students towards that. But will you be super passionate about it? Maybe some people will, but a lot of people are not motivated to take that job because it’s not exactly what they want to do.
I’m really lucky because my husband and I always say that we get paid to do the things we love, and that really accounts for a lot of our happiness.
How does Northwestern’s institutional culture affect students’ ability to be conscientious about crafting their futures?
If you feel comfortable at Northwestern, there’s something a little wrong with you.
It’s making you very accustomed to overscheduling, working hard and playing hard. Students should not value busyness and self importance as being de ned in certain ways.
You guys should be a little more like slackers and chill. What are you guys doing? You’re not running the country. Why do you have to meet every month? You have to value just being.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.