Nitasha Tamar Sharma on Recalibration and Balance

Nov 10, 2021

We’re reaching that time of year when the days shorten and we start to wonder if we’ll get everything done we wanted to this year. In this season, many of us yearn for more balance in our daily routines and the second year of an ongoing global pandemic has made that feeling even more intense.

What does balance even mean in this context and how can we cultivate it in ways that feed our collective desires for justice?

In episode 143 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Nitasha Tamar Sharma, whose scholarly, pedagogical, and creative work demonstrates the worldmaking possibilities that live at the intersections of movements for racial, gender, and sexual justice.

In their their conversation, Nitasha and Cathy chat about what balance means during a pandemic as well as across the course of interdisciplinary careers.

Nitasha shares how she has learned to recalibrate her work and life to better align with the impact she wants to have on the world, including privileging holistic mentoring and collective care in how she approaches publishing and book promotion.

Finally, they close out the episode with Nitasha’s vision for forging solidarities that can extend beyond the present and into more just futures.

In this episode

  • The limits of seeking balance during a global pandemic
  • Approaching balance at the scale of an entire life rather than just the day-to-day
  • Finding your way home through your research
  • Building broad-scale solidarities that can create more just worlds
Cover of Hawai‘i Is My Haven: Race and Indigeneity in the Black Pacific, with a person covered in pink flowers smiling blissfully

About Nitasha Tamar Sharma

Nitasha Tamar Sharma is a professor of African American studies and Asian American studies at Northwestern University and a faculty fellow with the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR).

Nitasha analyzes inter-minority relations to understand racisms across non-white groups and ethnographically chart models of broad scale solidarities.

She is the author of Hawai‘i Is My Haven: Race and Indigeneity in the Black Pacific (Duke University Press, 2021), an ethnography of Black life in the Hawaiian Islands that analyzes race and Indigeneity through Black and Hawaiian relations and documents anti-Black racism in “paradise.”

She is also the author of Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness (Duke University Press, 2010), a cultural studies ethnography that charts the lives and music of South Asian American hip hop artists whose racialization illuminates alliances among Black and Asian communities in the US.

Teaching and learning resources


Click to read the transcript

[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise.

[00:00:19] I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:00:22] We’re reaching that time of year when the days shorten. And we start to wonder if will in fact get everything done that we wanted to this year, in this season in normal years, many of us yearn for more balance in our daily routines. And of course the second year of an ongoing global pandemic has made that feeling even more intense than.

[00:00:42] What does balance even mean in this context and how can we cultivate it in ways that feed our collective desires for justice to help us think through this question, I was excited to bring on the show today. Natasha Tamar Sharma who scholarly, pedagogical, and creative work demonstrates the world, making possibilities that live at the intersections of movements for racial gender and sexual justice.

[00:01:06] In our conversation, Natasha and I chat about what balance means during a pandemic, as well as over the course of interdisciplinary careers. She shares how she has learned to recalibrate her life and work to better align with the impact that she wants to have on the world, including privileging, holistic mentoring, and collective care in her approach to publishing and book.

[00:01:29] Finally, we close out the episode with Natasha’s vision for forging solidarities that can extend beyond the present and into more just futures.

[00:03:17] Thank you so much for being with us today.

[00:03:19] Nitasha Sharma: Thank you, Cathy. I’m so glad to be in conversation with you.

[00:03:23] Cathy Hannabach: So I was very excited to have you on the show this month to talk about balance or all of the ways that we structure our daily practices, routines, and plans so that we have the energy, resources, and time to do the kind of things that we want to do.

[00:03:38] Obviously the pandemic has upended this quite a bit over the last year and a half. How is the concept and practice of balance showing up for you these days?

[00:03:48] Nitasha Sharma: I actually think about balance a lot as a Libra, balance is really important. And I would say that I’m not always the best at sort of crafting a balanced life, especially, you know, as an academic and then as a mother of two kids who are in elementary school, which means that they were home with us for the last two years, and with a partner who has kind of a hectic up and down career.

[00:04:10] Balance is definitely something difficult to attain. As a concept, I actually think it’s underrated in the way that folks think about the principles of life.

[00:04:20] I think balance is actually at the center of things in a lot of ways. Of course, during COVID, to aspire to balance might be something that is just theoretical, but to actually achieve it, I don’t think was very practical for most people. But we did recenter and that’s kind of another way of balancing: recentering around family, not going out as much, really sort of nesting. But it really felt overwhelming.

[00:04:45] I thought about life before the last two years, which have been really out of whack and not balanced where everything was happening at home.

[00:04:52] Two kids at home, mother had surgery, trying to finish writing, and doing so much service work at work. You know, there was not a lot of balance.

[00:05:02] But I thought about life before that it was also not really in balance. And so now I’m actually coming to the point where having this discussion is great, because I’m really trying to be much more attentive to that.

[00:05:12] But that’s because one of the things that you mentioned, which is energy, resources, and time. I finally have that, as a result of where I am at work.

[00:05:21] Cathy Hannabach: I find that the concept of so-called work-life balance or some perfect equality between these two areas, just doesn’t really work, does not account for messy, embodied, and real lives.

[00:05:35] But it also tends to erase the racially gendered labor involved in creating and maintaining that balance. I’d be curious to hear how you found yourself approaching balance differently as you’ve moved through your career. Has it changed for you? Are you coming back around to previous understandings of balance or are you creating new approaches to it?

[00:05:56] Nitasha Sharma: I really like that question and as you were asking it, I was thinking it’s mostly cyclical. My ideas of what I want life to look like, where I really do prioritize work and I do prioritize keeping my children alive at the minimum.

[00:06:12] How to do that has recurring ideas of what I want my life to look like with regard to health and attentiveness to family and ambition and career. Those things all require a lot of effort.

[00:06:26] I’m also recalibrating my ideas about what I want at different stages in my career.

[00:06:32] I’m often ruled by this desire for balance as a Libra, but also by Jewish guilt, I have to say, and I find guilt very motivating. So I have this sense that I can aspire and sort of take practices to lead a more balanced life because of the resources I have and the time I’m given because of the specific job that I have. That’s at a private university, so they give us time, they give us resources and then it’s what we do with that.

[00:07:01] So I just started my second month of sabbatical and I feel so much more recentered, but that would have been impossible if I didn’t have sabbatical.

[00:07:09] And if I didn’t have sabbatical, I think I would have run myself to the ground. It would have not been a good situation because, like a lot of people, I was really run ragged. And I think that’s exactly to do with what you’re talking about, the gendered and racial dynamics both at work and in the home.

[00:07:26] You know, in families is a really uneven division of labor, no matter how enlightened you or your partner is. I’m responsible for a lot of the management of the house.

[00:07:36] And then at the university, a lot of the dynamics, especially in ethnic studies. I’m in African American studies and Asian American studies.

[00:07:43] I had a lot of service roles, which is a lot of, in one way, mothering and mentoring roles. I directed a program and I was a director of graduate studies for another program and I co-directed a third program while I have my kids at home.

[00:07:57] And my approach to mentoring is not balanced.

[00:08:00] It’s actually fully holistic. I like to see students, I ask them how they’re doing, how their families are doing. And then I mentor them pretty intensively with their work too. So it’s not balanced. It’s very holistic, but a lot of that is gendered.

[00:08:14] So the service work at the university is not balanced because a lot of times it falls on women of color and COVID has really amplified the need for care in the university. I think that that was another theme of one of your podcasts. I think it’s amplified care, but other people have been able to pull back and pull back from home duties, whereas for me, it’s really doubled.

[00:08:36] Cathy Hannabach: That’s hard, too, particularly when you’re mentoring folks and you want to embody or to demonstrate to them what it would look like to think carefully and think holistically about the kind of world that you want to build and the kind of life you want to build but it’s hard when you still have to get all the stuff done.

[00:08:54] Nitasha Sharma: That’s totally it. That’s totally it. At the end of the year, my chair in African American studies checked in with everybody, the faculty, and said, how’s the year been, how’s the two years been, and I said, you know, I did my work and I think I did it well, and I did it well, despite my children, meaning that I pulled back from my care, love, and playfulness with them in order to do my work well.

[00:09:18] There’s only a finite amount of time and energy and I had given it to work instead of my family. So that’s a lot of feelings that again, brings up this notion of guilt that I started with.

[00:09:30] Cathy Hannabach: I think that concept of recalibration that you were talking about really speaks to this kind of thinking about how we distribute our energy and our time across different things in different moments, and then have an opportunity to adjust, to redistribute, to be like, I can pull back over here so I can give more over here. And there’s no right process for that.

[00:09:57] Nitasha Sharma: Totally, absolutely. I think balance for me is not something I can think of attaining in the day-to-day. I think some people are more mindful or better about that or need that more.

[00:10:08] But I think in terms of life and my career and my time with my kids as a marathon. There are moments, which might include years, in which I really emphasize putting my attention in one area more than the other, never to fully neglect the other.

[00:10:24] Right now I feel like I’m in a place with my work and publications and things where I can pull back on that. And my desire now is to really focus on my body and my house and my kids. So that’s things that I have not focused on, so the recalibration that you’re talking about.

[00:10:40] Cathy Hannabach: I know one big project that you’ve just closed out is your really amazing new book Hawai‘i Is My Haven. That book is making quite a splash across a huge range of interdisciplinary fields, which is really exciting to see.

[00:10:53] What was your journey into studying the role of blackness in Hawai‘i and the Black Pacific more broadly?

[00:10:59] Nitasha Sharma: I’m from Hawai‘i, born and raised in Mānoa as the kid of two professors. My previous work was on South Asian American racial dynamics, Asian–Black relations, hip hop, and really focused on the continental US.

[00:11:12] But actually went to grad school wanting to study mixed race studies. This was back in the 1990s and it wasn’t really a field. Neither was hip hop. And so this book, which is my second book, really took me back home and to some of the things that I’ve really wanted to study from a place of passion.

[00:11:30] And this book really gave me the opportunity to, as you really kindly talk about, talk to debates in a number of different fields, including critical mixed race studies, putting that in conversation with Black studies. That’s not always an easy conversation to have, thinking about Asian settler, colonialism and questions of race and Indigeneity that are really at the forefront of a lot of conversations across ethnic studies and the relationship between Black studies and Native studies.

[00:11:59] I’m really thinking about the position of Hawai‘i in US empire and imperialism with a particular focus on militarism and thinking about the Pacific and a place of home. So, these are sort of the intellectual debates and the desire to go home.

[00:12:14] Over the past 10 years, as an anthropologist, as a trained ethnographer, I’ve been able to take my kids home with me.

[00:12:21] So this book is an ethnography of Black life in Hawai‘i and it speaks across these fields of mixed race studies, Black studies, Native studies, and Pacific Island studies.

[00:12:30] It literally brought me home and allowed me to be in the house that I was raised and had my kids go to the same pool and the same parks. That really has to do with balance too. I needed to do a project that brought me home literally, and that felt full circle because I feel so far away from home being in the Midwest.

[00:12:51] Cathy Hannabach: So as the author of this new book, I know that one of the things that you’re balancing right now, in addition to celebrating and being glad that it’s out there it’s finally done, you’re now in the midst of book promotion.

[00:13:03] This is something that a lot of our listeners have questions about. They’re not sure how to do it. They’re not sure if they’re doing it right. They’re not sure when they’re supposed to be doing it. We get a lot of questions about this.

[00:13:13] How are you approaching book marketing now and has the pandemic and our shift to online and virtual spaces shaped the way that you’re approaching book promotion?

[00:13:25] Nitasha Sharma: I think this is such a good question. And I think that authors asking Ideas on Fire makes a lot of sense. I talk about my really good interaction with Ideas on Fire, where you folks read the intro and give really good feedback so I’m not surprised that people are asking these kinds of questions. Ideas on Fire has worked with so many Duke authors which is part of the reason why I contacted you folks as well.

[00:13:49] You know, the big and small of it is this is this. We can’t control the fact that we don’t have in-person conferences right now and that there aren’t book exhibits that we can go to. It would be super exciting to celebrate and see my actual book with people at the booth and have a book party, etc.

[00:14:06] But the fact that the matter is, is any new author right now, whether it’s your first book, your second or your fifth, we can’t do that right now.

[00:14:13] So I think about, how are people going to come across our books and the other beautiful books that you folks touch. And I think social media is really a primary site of that promotion.

[00:14:25] The thing that I’ve always told junior colleagues, even in the academy and this goes the same for books, is that we have to self-promote. Because if we don’t, other people may not.

[00:14:35] Having beautiful covers is important. Doing interviews, I think, is really important. Then, ideally, if it’s a good book, it will have legs of its own and people will talk about it.

[00:14:46] Cathy Hannabach: So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I love to talk with folks about, which really gets at that big why behind all of this amazing work that you put out into the world.

[00:14:56] What’s the world that you’re working toward?. What kind of world do you want?

[00:15:00] Nitasha Sharma: I love this question, Cathy. I’m so glad that you asked. It’s similar to a question I was asked in a recent interview with Black Agenda Report’s book forum.

[00:15:09] I think about it a lot because it motivates me. Working toward a more just world for all people in it is exactly how I end my book. It’s how I end every class that I teach. It’s the reason I’m in ethnic studies and not in another kind of field. It’s the reason why I’m a professor.

[00:15:26] I think, in order to get to this more just the world in light of how much inequality there is, we first have to understand how systems of power operate and that’s what really motivates the courses that I teach and the research that I do.

[00:15:42] The world that I think that we’re trying to get to is one in which sometimes we have to take a stance that is not based on what is the norm out there, even if that’s called being a radical or a progressive or unrealistic.

[00:15:57] I think we have to take political stances, but they can’t just be ideological. I think it really depends on where we choose to live and which coffee shop we choose to spend our money at and where we send our kids to school, if we have kids, along with who we vote for and the fact of voting.

[00:16:14] We really have to forge broad-scale solidarities to change things including economic precarity and inequality that overlaps with closeness to death as Ruthie Gilmore talks about with regard to Black folks, to a nexus of issues.

[00:16:29] So it is a big question. And I guess my synopsis or small answer would be, we have to understand how power operates historically. And we do that through reading or through research.

[00:16:40] I think we have to cultivate broad-scale communities of folks who are like-minded and wanting to address these inequalities. That’s the second part.

[00:16:49] And then I think the third part is we have to act on it.

[00:16:52] So it’s a multi-pronged, balanced approach to really thinking about new worlds.

[00:16:58] Cathy Hannabach: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of these amazing ways that you imagine otherwise.

[00:17:04] Nitasha Sharma: Thank you so much, Cathy. Enjoyed speaking with you.

[00:17:07] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by me, Cathy Hannabach. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at, where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.

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