Her large, silver hoop earrings catch the light of the projected PowerPoint slide to shine while her dark eyes sparkle with excitement. The great movement of her arms lures students in and a heated discussion naturally fills the classroom. When the whirlwind, conversational class is over, students’ mouths are brimming with words and thoughts. They linger after class to converse with the professor.
“Teaching is a performance,” said Nitasha Tamar Sharma, Assistant Professor of African-American and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. It takes up a lot of her energy, but Sharma does not let it control her life.
Her students appreciate her effort. Yoonie Yang, 21, is a student that appreciates Sharma’s interactive teaching style so much that she came back for more. Yang said she thought Sharma is a “dynamic teacher.”
Sharma grew up in Manoa Valley, Hawaii, where both of her parents were professors at the University of Hawaii at Manoa – her Jewish mother teaches anthropology, and her Indian father taught Asian History for 40 years before passing away last year. A bodyboarding, self-described “mediocre” high school student, she fit right into the multicultural community there. When attending the University of California at Santa Cruz, though, she was looked at as a “woman of color” for the first time.
Though she had her own struggles with racial identity – in India, she said, she is viewed as a “rich” American, even though she is biracial, or “hapa” – now her racial concerns are centered around her 15-month-old daughter, Maya. Sharma’s husband, a professional drummer of black and Hungarian descent, is also biracial, which makes Maya’s growing up in the “black and white” environment of Chicago challenging.
Sharma’s colleague and friend, Jinah Kim, said it was amazing how Sharma “balances her life and work.” Not only does she teach beautifully, using multimedia and discussion, but she also published a book called “Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness” recently. On top of that, Sharma still manages to be the “most amazing colleague and mentor,” to Kim and is a working mother who “tries to figure out ways to incorporate her baby into her life,” Kim said. Sharma brings Maya everywhere, said Kim, to outdoor concerts and to places like Hawaii, Paris and Hungary.
Sharma wants to keep being a scholar and teacher, as well as write more books. “I want to change the way people think about the world,” she said, by making people see how the operations of power work in terms of race and exploitation.
Race is a difficult topic to teach, but Sharma said racism is not about pointing out differences in skin color. It is about creating stereotypes of a specific race in order to have an excuse to exploit them. Many do not think to wonder why racism is so prevalent in this country. But Sharma was and is curious.
“For me, there is always a why behind it,” she said.