Future Tense

Silicon Valley Has a Caste Problem

A bicyclist rides by a glass-and-metal building; it's viewed through Google's red, yellow, green, and blue G.
Google’s Bay View campus in Mountain View, California Noah Berger/Getty Images

Thenmozhi Soundararajan is the executive director of Equality Labs, a civil rights organization that works on issues of caste in tech. Back in April, Thenmozhi was invited to give a talk at Google News for Dalit History Month. It’s a month she helped found as an activist who works to celebrate and promote people in the caste known as Dalits—the lowest caste in the historical caste system in South Asia. Her talk was going to focus on how caste bias affects newsrooms and ways that Google News could help address those issues.

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But what she thought was going to be a simple, normal DEI talk—after all, she had spoken at Google about the issue of caste equity a year before—became much more complex. According to Thenmozhi and reporting by the Washington Post’s Nitasha Tiku, a small group of Google employees began calling Thenmozhi Hindu-phobic and anti-Hindu in internal message boards and emails. They told HR that if she went through with her talk, it would make them afraid for their lives. Google postponed the talk, and once the story about what happened became public, things got worse—online and in real life. Thenmozhi and her family became the target of violent threats and harassment, which were serious enough to force them to live in a safe house.

On Sunday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Thenmozhi Soundararajan about why caste is such a fraught issue in Silicon Valley, and how tech companies—even those with large South Asian workforces—have tried to look the other way. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Can you explain caste, for Americans who don’t have a lot of experience with the system?

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: The best way to think about it is as a system of exclusion based on birth that goes back thousands of years. Its initial origins are an ancient Vedic society, but it came strongly into force in India during the Mughal era, which began in the 16th century. And then in the British Raj, Brahmins were at the top, Dalits at the bottom. It started in scripture and just like race, it’s based on a social myth, where some people at the top said that other people at the bottom are less worthy and therefore set up structures that excluded them from many institutions in society.

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In the U.S., we often think about discrimination based on skin color, which means that managers, especially white managers, can miss caste discrimination and its effects, because caste is not legally protected category in American law.

We are a minority within a minority. We look like other brown people, but the people who are discriminating against us look exactly like us.

A lot of Dalits choose to stay under the radar and don’t disclose their caste at work. What happens to those who do?

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Most people choose not to out themselves because it has terrible ramifications for their career and they can face harassment and bigotry like I did. From the harassment to the bullying to retaliation and siloing of work product and even sexual harassment. All of the things that caste-oppressed people are facing are acts of illegal discrimination in the workplace. And in our own research in Equality Labs, we found that one in four Dalits experienced physical and verbal assault on the basis of caste. One out of three face discrimination in educational environments, and two out of three in workplace environments.

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Why is caste discrimination prevalent in tech? What is it about tech that forces this issue compared to other work forces?

I think it’s who works in tech. Wherever South Asians are, they bring caste with them. That’s just the reality. In the United States we have a very North American understanding of race. As long as we’ve got a diverse workforce and we’re challenging white supremacy, we think we’ve got all of our boxes checked. But the reality is that these are American companies working in a global context. North American models of race aren’t going to cover all of the issues of inequity. Think about Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Meta—their largest market isn’t the United States. It’s in India. So they’re hiring Indian and South Asian engineers to help them penetrate that market, but without the legal protections to protect the global workforce that’s facing caste in all of its different dimensions.

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I’d love to get some numbers from you, or at least some sense of scope. Do we know, of the South Asians working in tech, how many are Dalits? What percentage, or who was from an upper caste background?

There are no numbers because companies are not collecting data. And this is why caste-suppressed people are asking for caste to be added as a protected category. In our research, over 40 percent of the Dalit techies that we interviewed, most of them were H-1B visa holders. So, these aren’t just situations where you have shitty jobs, it’s actually that you could lose your immigration status as well. I think that as some of the most vulnerable workers in these workforces, caste-suppressed peoples are really appealing to management and to civil rights bodies to say, “Give us some measure of taking away some of this discrimination. Just add caste as a protected category.” Making it explicit is completely lawful, but allowing this level of discrimination, that really is what’s creating employer liability across the board, which is why so many companies are scrambling to conduct caste DEI trainings and at changing their policies, because nobody wants to be the next Cisco. And frankly, the next Google.

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In the case you’re referring to, the state of California sued Cisco and two upper caste employees for discriminating against a Dalit engineer. The state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit saying that Dalit employee received less pay, fewer opportunities, and other inferior terms and conditions of employment. It also said he was expected to endure a caste hierarchy at work.

His supervisors were Brahmin and they knew his caste because they all went to the same school back in India. Because they knew his caste background, once they started supervising him, he started to really experience continuous discrimination, from the outing of his identity to other team members, to him being given less and less work assignments. He was given bad reviews, he was siloed from the rest of the team and passed over for promotion, and eventually put on the track for termination.

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The thing that is really interesting about his complaint is that when he reported it to HR, the Cisco HR person asserted caste is not a protected category. So, we have these corporations that are multinational, that have managers who are dominant caste, that have huge markets in South Asia, that have patchwork policies. So if you’re an employee, for example, that works in India, you might have caste as a protected category, but your manager might be in the U.K. and the U.S., and they would not have caste as a protected category. So how does HR make sense of that?

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After the Cisco case, I gather that your organization heard from a number of people about caste discrimination in tech. Can you share some of those stories with me?

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When you live your life in the closet, there’s a part of you that’s never really human. You’re always worried about getting caught. You’re never transparent about all the parts of who you are. And for Dalits, you’re hiding your religious identity, you’re hiding where you’re from. What was really hard for me to hear was how so many Dalits were afraid to come out.

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We also heard experiences of discrimination and sexual harassment and Dalit women who traverse both caste and gender and seeing them being targeted by dominant caste managers who would inappropriately touch them and force them out of their jobs. I remember this one woman saying, “It doesn’t matter what all I’ve succeeded. I don’t want to work and live in conditions like this.” And she left tech.

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Companies like Google operate internationally. They have huge markets in India, where legally they have to comply with caste related anti-discrimination laws there. So the idea that they aren’t focused on caste or that they don’t understand the significance of caste discrimination seems strange to me. Why do you think companies like Google aren’t addressing caste more?

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Well, it’s not just strange. It’s unlawful and it’s absurd. If they have the legal compliance measures to add caste as a protected category in their policies in India, how hard is it to actually expand it to their global workforce?

Though it’s not required in the U.S., as you have pointed out.

It’s not required, but I think that they can’t say that they don’t know how to implement it because they’re already implementing it in one of their largest divisions. And [Google CEO] Sundar Pichai himself is a Brahmin, so how does he not know this? It shows that you have these dominant caste managers and executives who are excelling in these roles, in the C-suite, but they pull up the ladder behind them when it comes to the issue of caste, and you can’t be progressive on the issue of race and regressive on the issue of caste. You have to be able to understand both, particularly if you have the cultural context and understanding. Sundar’s not in a situation where he can say, “I’ve never heard of caste before. It’s completely new for me.” He’s from one of the most casteist states and one of the casteist cities in India. Where he’s from, Dalit activists routinely have scars on their face from knife attacks that dominant caste people have inflicted on them as they fought for their rights. I just think of it as it’s all just a game of smoke and mirrors. They could easily add it. There’s nothing unlawful about adding caste as a protected category. I just think that it’s bigotry and discrimination that’s making them reticent to move forward on bringing their entire workforce into compliance.

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You wrote to Pichai about what happened to you. If you got the chance to sit down with him, what would you say?

I would say, “Look, you and I are in this unique moment of a tornado of a conversation of a deep historical trauma that has put us on opposite sides of this conversation, but we don’t have to stay on opposite sides. We could work together to actually help set an example for the field because it’s a very, very small change.” It’s really about adding a word like caste to their policies that affects their global workforces. And the fact that there’s so much intimidation and trepidation to do so, I wonder sometimes if that’s actually from a tier of management and lawyers, or if it’s from Sundar’s own experience of fragility related to caste. And so being able to have a personal conversation about each of our caste backgrounds, who do we want to be—because we both left India. We’re in the United States; there’s no reason caste should exist here. If I were Sundar and I was the head of a company that had a big fiasco like this, I would look to my children and say, “Do I want my children to know that one of my legacies is that I shut down a civil rights conversation?”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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