Faculty Spotlight

Different lives but shared problems unite sociology professor and students

March 11, 2015 by Brandman University
Brandman University assistant professor Lata Murti's doctoral dissertation has been published in book form.

Assistant professor Lata Murti’s doctoral dissertation has been published in book form.

Dr. Lata Murti knows all about the juggling acts her students face daily – the juggling act of work, school, parenthood, daughterhood, wifehood. She knows because she faces them, too.

But as a sociologist, she also sees the way people handle that juggling act and the way they react to each other as a world waiting to be studied and analyzed.

A Brandman University, Santa Maria, assistant professor in the School of Arts and Sciences, Murti also knows she sometimes confuses people. She’s Indian-American, married to a “white boy from Kansas,” who speaks Spanish (it was half her double major as an undergraduate) in a city with a large Latino population.

“When I’m out and about alone, they assume I speak Spanish, but they quickly figure out I’m not Latina. When I’m out with my husband, who is very obviously white, no one talks to me in Spanish. I try not to read too much in the stares, but sometimes I think people wonder if I’m the nanny or if my girls are mine,” she said.

People’s assumptions based on ethnic appearance and how reactions change when information about occupation or ethnicity becomes known is more than a passing or personal interest for Murti.

Her doctoral dissertation in sociology from the University of Southern California looks at the “occupational citizenship” awarded to doctors from South Asia practicing in the U.S. and how that changes when their white coats and stethoscopes aren’t visible.

“When their occupation is clearly marked and visible, they have ‘honorary white’ status, full citizenship, and may even be seen as being better than regular American doctors. They’re like celebrities with their patients in their communities, particularly in Southern California with its fascination with Eastern and alternative medicine.  But outside that context  – out in public – they lose that occupational citizenship. Then they’re treated more like other marginalized people of color – Latinos or black men. They’re not readily identifiable as Asian or doctor but as brown or black,” said Murti.

Her dissertation has been published as “With and Without the White Coat: The Racialization of Southern California’s Indian Physicians.” It’s based on more than 50 interviews with first and second generation South Asian doctors. It looks at how the behavior of others changed with context and how their own perceptions about racism influenced their lives.

She said the second generation is much more likely to give back to the community at large and to work in poorer communities or communities of color while the first generation remains focused on causes in India. She attributes that to the second generation identifying more with other people of color.

“One of the reasons I decided to do this is there tends to be a lack of scholarship and research on racial minorities who are professionals,” she said. “There’s an assumption that if you come in at the top of an occupational ladder, you’re not facing any racism. I knew that to be different.”

No matter what the occupation is, people in the U.S. prefer to treat immigrants as “guest workers” rather than potential citizens, she said. “I don’t think everyone wants to reduce it to those terms, but that’s the message that’s being sent.”

Knowing that also helps connect her with her students, many of whom are Latina and whose families at one time or another came to the U.S. to work the fields in central California.

“I hope it means a lot to them to see a woman of color, who is a mom, who is teaching, being their professor. I may be the only woman of color they know who has a Ph.D. and I feel connected to them. They inspire me. When I’m struggling with work-life balance, being a working mom, a daughter of immigrants, I draw inspiration and energy from students. At the same time, I know my upbringing is so different than theirs. I have a much more privileged background. I try not to take it for granted that they will see things the same way I do,” she said.

Murti’s father came to the United States to study medicine, eventually serving in the U.S. Navy. Murti was born in Oakland but spent most of her grade school years in upstate New York, moving to Kansas just in time for junior high. It was not an easy transition. For Murti, a saving grace came in the form of a Spanish teacher.

“I was so lucky. I had the best Spanish teacher in high school. She loved that I was invested in the language,” said Murti who had begun studying Spanish while still in grade school.  It was while studying in Costa Rica and struggling with an identity crisis (“I was replacing my own cultural and racial and ethnic background with another,” she said) that Murti developed an interest in ethnic studies.

And it was while taking a woman professor’s class in Costa Rica, on the Nobel Prize winning Bengali poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore, that she discovered the rich connection between Latin American writers and the Indian writers and poets who inspired them.

Murti headed off to graduate school at USC, originally thinking she would write about the intersection of South Asian and Latino cultures in California in the late 19th century.  But adjusting to Los Angeles, graduate school and marriage all at the same time proved to be every bit as challenging as arriving in Kansas at age 12.

“I don’t think I would have made it through without my husband’s emotional support and him telling me not to give up,” she said. The more personal story of first and second generation South Asian professionals became her focus.

Life is easier now, despite the rocky years of graduating during the recession and wondering if she would ever land a job as a professor. Brandman, she says, is a perfect fit, allowing her to connect with students and reach out to the greater community. She enjoys helping out at school career days and playing the part of potential employer in mock interviews. She volunteers in her daughters’ classes, sometimes reading in Spanish.

She said she, and really everyone at Brandman’s Santa Maria campus, are role models for the students.

“I feel like I touch student lives every day. I feel like I do make a difference. I know I’m empowering students whose families never talked about higher education and I tell them they can.”

About Santa Maria
 2013 population
70.4: Percentage of Latinos
12.9: Percentage of residents with bachelor’s degrees or higher
34.7: Percentage foreign born
64.3: Percentage with language other than English spoken in home
Source: U.S. Census

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