I have watched the unmasking of CV Vitolo and Jessica Krug from afar. But when an old friend pointed me to the twitter bio of Dr. Kelly Kean Sharp, currently an Assistant Professor at Furman University, I now had a similar example on the edges of my own circles. I had distantly known Kelly while she was a PhD student at University of California, Davis, and was more than surprised to find out that she was now describing herself as Chicana.
This discovery led to multiple conversations and a flurry of research on the part of people who had known Kelly at UC Davis. They approached me to help publicize her fabrication and strategic use of a Chicana identity. Though it remains unknown exactly when she took on this persona and how much she has used it professionally, many who previously knew her are quite confused. She had only ever identified as a non-Hispanic white woman as far as they knew. Allegedly, when some colleagues asked about her newfound identity she claimed that her paternal grandmother had been from Mexico. Okay, fine, we know that identity can be quite fluid and many of us did not want to embark on a project of gatekeeping that would not allow Kelly to celebrate her grandmother. Perhaps this grandmother had just never been a topic that she felt comfortable bringing up in the numerous conversations she had with friends and colleagues about her family and upbringing.
But when some of us looked into genealogical records, we found that Kelly had no grandparents who were born outside of the United States or had Hispanic names. This is much more in line with how Kelly identified at UC Davis. The maternal grandmother who she claimed was from Mexico, was born in LA to white parents and was residing in the US during all the census records of her upbringing. A servant was even employed and living at the home according to census records. This grandmother eventually married a wealthy, white lawyer from Iowa. After that question was settled, we wanted to know to what extent she had claimed Chicana heritage since leaving UC Davis. This research has only brought new questions:
She described herself as a #Chicana Asst Prof in her Twitter bio. This was later changed to #Chicana at the end of the intro. Then, it was ultimately removed after a faculty member from the UC Davis History Department allegedly spoke with her due to numerous complaints from former graduate students. She has now made her twitter channel private.
She has made numerous tweets further implying Chicana identity, attaching various hashtags to communicate this identity, like #Chicana, #Chicanapride, and #Chingonasunite. Were these hashtags meant to further promote this claimed identity as a Chicana Assistant Professor? Even more, in one tweet Dr. Kean Sharp referenced the cooking habits of her “abuela” and in another she claimed this “abuela” came to the United States during WWII and “worked hard” to make Kelly’s career possible.
Part of this ethnic tale has included an exploitation of her California heritage. She comes from the city of Encinitas, known to anyone from California for being a wealthy beach community, essentially a white suburb North of San Diego. On her current faculty bio page for Furman University, she highlights this background, even claiming that this hometown has a “majority-minority population”. Supposedly growing up in this white minority town inspired her to study the antebellum US South, because it too had a majority-minority population. Encinitas is not a majority-minority city. According to the 2010 census, it is 79.5% non-Hispanic white. The median income is $113,175, higher even than San Francisco. Perhaps the city was less white during Kelly’s childhood? But no, in 2000, when Kelly was about 10 years old, Encinitas was 86.6% white, with only 14.8% Hispanic of any race.
Considering all these inconsistencies, we are left to wonder, how much did Dr. Kean Sharp benefit from such claims? What we do know is that Kelly immediately found a tenure-track job after graduating, a rare commodity in academia today, especially in the field of U.S. history, which produces, by far, the most PhDs out of all fields of history. Part of the reason for her quick success was that she astutely applied for a job in African American history (there are many less PhDs in this field). She managed to immediately move into a tenure-track professorship in that field, working dually in the Africana Studies and History departments at Luther College. This job was made possible by a Mellon Faculty Diversity Fellowship from the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. This Mellon promises to provide tenure track positions to those “whose backgrounds and life experiences will enhance diversity on the ACM campuses”. Perhaps she won the job simply because she investigated the role of slave women in shaping consumption and markets in the antebellum South. But is it possible that the complex identity provided by her imagined Mexican immigrant grandmother helped her to secure this diversity hire? We also must ask, how could this sort of position, meant to encourage diversity on campuses in this region, go to a wealthy white woman who had suddenly decided she was a specialist in African American history?
To her credit, Kelly did seem to enthusiastically throw herself into mentoring diverse students during her time at Luther College, 2018–2020. She was the faculty advisor for the student club, Latines Unides, and was highly involved in many Latinx-oriented events. But why Latines Unides, instead of something related to her new academic field? Indeed, the way she broadcast a Latina identity at some of the club’s events paints a very troubling picture. In a story in the online newspaper Luther Chips, Sharp commented on being the faculty advisor for Latines Unides: “I really love and I’m honored to be the advisor for Latines Unides, because I didn’t have a Latinx heritage and culture group when I went to college.” Dr. Kean Sharp attended Willamette College, a small private liberal arts college in Oregon with a white majority campus and two clubs for Latinos: Alianza and CAUSA. As a non-Hispanic white woman, did she even notice the existence of these clubs, or was she involved with them in any way? Moreover, by highlighting that she herself missed having access to such a club, did members of Latines Unides understand this to mean that she had a similar heritage that craved this fellowship?
Still, in another article about the club’s events for Hispanic Heritage Month in 2019, Kelly spoke of the importance of such a celebration, “it is important for us because it’s an intentional time to slow down and claim our history as part of the American story.” The “us” and “our” is impossible to ignore in this interview. To colleagues who knew her at U.C. Davis, we are left wondering how Dr. Kean Sharp presented herself to the Luther campus and the students of Latines Unides. Did she fully claim an “us” that inserted herself into a Latinx space based on lies?
Seeing Dr. Kean Sharp as a moderator for a panel on Latinx experiences at Luther College seems to reiterate this claim to Latinidad. Kelly’s face appears on “a panel of Luther College students and faculty who self identify as Latinx.” We must wonder if she claimed a Chicana background in order to take charge of such a panel. The advertisement itself seems to include her in this identity.
In many aspects of Kelly’s professional life, such as on her personal website or on the websites of professional organizations she is a part of, there doesn’t seem to be any claims to Hispanic or Chicana identity. Yet through these other clues we are left wondering, how far has Dr. Kean Sharp exploited this identity? Perhaps hiding behind a vague Mexican heritage helped her feel more secure as she entered her new academic field of African American history. Certainly by using such an identity, she might not have to come to terms with her systemic white privileges. Maybe she imagined this would gain her more access to anti-racist and diverse spaces? Her previous colleagues from UC Davis asked me to make these concerns public to ensure that Dr. Kelly Kean Sharp can no longer lie to students or colleagues. Her mentees deserve the truth so that they can make a decision whether or not to trust her. Going forward, we also want to protect Latinx spaces from her deception and manipulative deployment of their identity. Overall, as someone who claims to be interested in racial justice and making disadvantaged students more comfortable on college campuses, she should have known better than to claim a Chicana identity in any way. Dr. Kelly Kean Sharp, you owe your communities an apology.
But more than that, we must also ask ourselves how we can do better. Why are so many departments and hiring committees falling prey to this sort of manipulation? Why, we must ask, are privileged upper middle-class white women so successful in taking advantage of diversity programs? I call on the broader academic community to learn from these repeated stories instead of treating them as unusual peculiarities.