Me and Kelly Kean Sharp, or My Life as Someone’s Costume

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Left: Kelly Kean Sharp’s now deleted Twitter bio. Right: Teachers at Middleton Heights Elementary School in Idaho, 2018. The photo was shared on the Middleton School District Facebook page and the teachers were placed on administrative leave.

It is fitting that in the days leading up to Halloween, yet another white female academic was revealed as having pretended to be a woman of color. In this case, historian Kelly Kean Sharp claimed to be a Chicana despite being a white woman without any Mexican ancestry. Unlike historian Jessica Krug or communications graduate student CV Vitolo-Haddad, Sharp did not shape her entire life around her invented persona. Rather, she created a costume that she put on for personal gain and removed when it suited her. And the costume that she chose was me. I actually am a Chicana professor of African American history. Moreover, as far as I am aware, I am the only non-Black Chicana professor of African American history in the U.S. I am sure that Sharp did not purposefully assume my specific identity, à la the 1992 movie Single White Female, in which a murderous woman attempts to take over the life of her roommate. Nevertheless, I am left feeling violated over the fact that she apparently reaped rewards for claiming an identity that I continuously struggle to inhabit.

Sharp apparently assumed a false Chicana identity only after graduate school in order to obtain a Mellon Diversity Fellowship (intended to increase the number of minorities among the ranks of tenure-track faculty at liberal arts college) that funded her first tenure-track job. There she mentored Latinx students and spoke on a panel about the experiences of Latinx students and faculty. Two years later this experience helped her to land a second tenure-track position, a feat that in today’s history job market is akin to winning the lottery. After having accomplished this, Sharp took her costume off, except for the occasional cringe-worthy, historically inaccurate tweets about her mythical “abuela.” Once she was comfortably employed, she never had to grapple with the reality of being a Chicana professor at a predominantly white college.

Having attended a truly minority-majority university in my native California for graduate school, I was shocked when I arrived at my job in the rural Midwest to discover that I was the only Chicana/o faculty member in the entire university. (When I was interviewing, the university had a pie chart on its web page that purported to show the presence of many Latinx faculty. I soon found out that the university counted Spaniards as Latinx to inflate their numbers.) This fact, compounded with the small numbers of faculty of color overall at the university, led to my profound feelings of isolation and loneliness during that first year. The following year another Chicana was hired in a different department and we quickly became close friends. However, for the thirteen years since, some of our faculty and staff colleagues at our small college have mistaken us for each other (despite the fact that we look nothing alike and work in completely different disciplines), going so far as to have entire conversations with each of us while thinking that they are talking to the other. These experiences and others have led me to feel simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible. On the one hand, my colleagues do not see me enough to know what I do or even what I look like. On the other hand, as the most senior Chicana/o faculty member (there are now all of three of us), I am called upon to diversify committees and explain Latinx issues and concerns to administrators and faculty, even though that is not my area of scholarly expertise. Most of the time, however, many of my colleagues seem to prefer that I be seen, but not heard. As a tenured Latina (less than 1% of all faculty nationwide) and the first person of color tenured in my department, I am proof of the university’s improved faculty diversity efforts. But when I raise critiques about structural racism within the university and point to the lack of diverse representation in the curriculum or persistent issues with the retention of faculty of color, I am dismissed or accused of being “too aggressive.”

With Sharp’s ability to remove her Chicana costume, I imagine that she did not have to confront students’ racialized expectations of her based on her name or appearance. Given the small number of Latina faculty in the U.S., we are usually the first Latina teachers (or often, first teachers of color) our students have ever had. Moreover, we are often the first Latinas in positions of authority that our students have ever encountered. Our students are more familiar with Latinx people in the service industry or as manual labor. Their expectations of us are thus often shaped by their stereotypes and biases about Latinx peoples. Perhaps reflecting their assumptions of Chicanas as existing to take care of their needs, students frequently expect me to be nurturing and maternal. For example, a male student once wrote on his course evaluation of my teaching that I should be denied tenure because I didn’t give him advice about his girlfriend when he had asked four months previously. Some students also don’t expect me to be as academically rigorous as their white male professors and when they discover that I am, they express their anger in their evaluations, to administrators, and to my face. Since I didn’t have any Latina mentors at my university, during my first year on the tenure-track I sought the advice of a senior white woman colleague about how students were treating me in the classroom. She promptly dismissed me, saying, “We all have issues,” before walking away. These are challenges that Sharp was never forced to confront. Rather, she was able to perform Chicanisma by wearing a Mexican embroidered blouse to a Latinx student event and then removing it — and her Chicana professor costume along with it — without considering how (or caring that) appearance and racialized expectations affect the careers and wellbeing of women faculty of color.

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Sharp at a Luther College event. Source: https://producingwhiteness.medium.com/kelly-kean-sharp-chicana-54ea6a866af

In her now-deleted Twitter bio, Sharp proudly declared herself to be a “#Chicana professor of African American history.” Whether because she falsely believed that she could not get hired in African American history as a white woman (despite the numerous, respected white historians who have done so) or that historians of color get some sort of edge in the pursuit of funding and jobs (a dubious claim, at best), Sharp decided to don the costume of Chicana. I can only guess as to why she chose to present herself as Chicana rather than some other identity (I suspect that the biggest reason was that she knew that she couldn’t pass herself off as Black), but I am sure that she never thought about the potential difficulties of navigating the field of African American history as a Chicana. My dissertation and first book were on the relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and the United Farm Workers, a union of predominantly Mexican American agricultural workers led by Cesar Chavez. My work, then, is at the intersection of African American and Chicana/o histories. Nevertheless, when I was still a graduate student, I was devastated when a prominent Chicano historian criticized me for not focusing on “our” history. Family members also questioned my decision to study African American history. On the other side of the coin, when I began my tenure-track job following the completion of my doctorate, a Black administrator refused to speak to me or even make eye contact with me because he didn’t think that I should have been hired to teach African American history, contributing to my feelings of isolation and loneliness that first year. More recently, when the Ethnic Studies Department of Mills College in Oakland, California invited me to speak this past spring about my research on Black student activism at the college, a local online publication promoting Black culture posted my photograph on its Instagram page and publicly said that I should not have been invited to speak about Black activism because I am not African American (the Ethnic Studies Department and the Mills Black Student Collective, to their credit, stood up for me and pointed out that I am the only historian of any race who has ever written about Mills).

Happily, I do not experience this level of rejection from my fellow scholars. The Chicano historian who had criticized me has become a fan of my work and is now one of my biggest supporters. My first book, based on my dissertation, is highly regarded and is regularly assigned in university courses across the country. However, when I am asked to speak on panels at history conferences or to review books and article manuscripts for historical journals, it is almost always in the field of Chicana/o history, even though my training and teaching are in African American history. (Similarly, when I was in graduate school, a white male fellow graduate student asked me to guest lecture to his class about Latin American women’s history and he looked dumbstruck when I told him that that wasn’t my expertise. Because I’m a Chicana, that’s all he thought I knew and could do.) At the same time, I absolutely understand and agree that Black voices should be centered when telling Black history. However, if African American history and Black Studies are to be taken seriously as legitimate academic disciplines with their own methodologies and canons, then they must be open to everyone. Furthermore, I believe that if more Latinx peoples learned about African American history, it would help to reduce anti-Blackness in our communities. Trying to navigate that tension with sensitivity has been a necessary and an admittedly challenging aspect of my career for which I wasn’t adequately prepared. Sharp apparently thought that being a Chicana in the field of African American history would somehow make her life easier, but she had no idea of the ways in which it has complicated mine.

Sharp strategically chose to only put on her Chicana costume around non-Latinx peoples who would not have seen through her charade. She didn’t try to live her life as a Chicana nor to infiltrate Chicana academic circles. There are so few Chicana U.S. historians that it’s no exaggeration to say that we’re all within one degree of separation and we all at least know of each other. (At just about every history conference I attend, I’m greeted like a friend by at least one other Chicana/o. We ask each other how we’re doing and what we’re working on. We have never met, of course, but that doesn’t prevent us from knowing each other.) When news of Sharp’s fraud broke, my Chicana/o historian colleagues expressed surprise, in part because none of us had even heard of her. She didn’t join our professional associations, attend our events, or attempt to network with us — or get to know us — in any way. Because we weren’t her intended audience. Her costume was solely for white hiring committees, senior faculty, and funding agencies who could reward her for checking a box for them and then breathe a collective sigh of relief when she removed her costume, presenting herself as the Anglo woman she actually was. In doing so, she took significant opportunities away from real Chicana historians and other historians of color.

In many ways, Sharp was no different than someone donning a serape, cheap sombrero, and fake mustache to pretend to be what she thought was Mexican/Mexican American on Halloween. Her performance as a Chicana professor was a mockery, played not for laughs but for financial and professional gain. But now her costume has been permanently removed (not by her own volition, but by the public revelations of her colleagues) and her career as a historian is, I expect, over. The cruel irony, of course, is that what she did was unnecessary; she could have produced excellent scholarship in African American history without committing ethnic fraud. Rather than taking opportunities from Chicanas, she could have tried to be an ally to underrepresented historians. But she chose to put on the costume instead, and for that she must face the consequences. As for me, now that Halloween is over, I am relieved to no longer be anyone’s costume.

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