Silicon Valley’s Hidden Discrimination

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Speaker 1: My name is Thenmozhi Soundararajan and I am executive director of A Quality Labs. And we are a civil rights organization that works on issues of caste in tech.

Lizzie O’Leary: 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. It’s the lowest caste in the historical caste system in South Asia.

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Speaker 1: And so my talk would have been about how caste bias impacts newsrooms and ways that Google News could help address those issues and bridge those gaps for our community. So it’s you know, it was a really fairly normal thing.

Lizzie O’Leary: This is the bread and butter of what Thenmozhi does. Diversity, equity and inclusion talks about caste and DTI training for big companies.

Speaker 1: I actually thought it was going to be a very simple talk because, you know, the Google News team is not that large. And I’d already spoken for Google about the issue of caste equity a year before. So it should have just been a normal process.

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Lizzie O’Leary: That is not what happened. According to Dan Mori and reporting by the Washington Post’s Natasha Tiku, a small group of Google employees began calling the Maori Hindu phobic and anti-hindu in internal message boards and emails. They told h.R that if she went through with her talk it would make them afraid for their lives.

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Speaker 1: And rather than look at their own, you know, vetting process, which had vetted me earlier in the company and even the factual, you know, evidence record to who I am and my work as a Devi and caste and tech expert, they decided to postpone the talk.

Lizzie O’Leary: Google told The Washington Post that they canceled the talk because it was creating division and rancour. A senior manager who had invited Dan Mori to speak resigned in protest. And once the story about what happened became public, then Mori says, things got worse online and in real life.

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Speaker 1: Massive, massive amounts of disinformation and direct calls for violence were unleashed on the Internet. Some of them, you know, had like discussing memes of me and terrible positions. There was there was, you know, calls to try to identify where my parents and I lived. There was people asking for weapons and, you know, how they could find us to cause us harm. People said they should take me out, you know, show her really what should be done and all of that information. Again, I am a DIY practitioner. The fact that the simply the conversation around caste could lead to us living in a safe house shows how much violence exists for caste oppressed tech workers in this space.

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Lizzie O’Leary: So today on the show, 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. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next? TBD a show about technology, power, and how the future will be determined. Stick around. For Americans who don’t have a lot of experience with the caste system, then Roy says 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 in 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.

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Speaker 1: It started in Scripture. And just like race was 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. And I think what’s important in context for American corporations is that you don’t need to be a historical expert in caste to understand when hostile working conditions are resulting from castes dynamics in your workplace.

Lizzie O’Leary: In the U.S., we often think about discrimination based on skin color, and that then, Morris says, can mean managers, especially white managers, can miss caste discrimination and its effects. Because caste is not a legally protected category in American law.

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Speaker 1: We are a minority within a minority. So we look like other brown people. But it’s, you know, the people who are discriminating against us look exactly like us.

Lizzie O’Leary: A lot of Dalits choose to stay under the radar and don’t disclose their caste at work.

Speaker 1: 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, you know, retaliation and siloing of work product and even, you know, 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. Discrimination in educational environments and two out of three in workplace environments.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Why is caste discrimination prevalent in tech? But what is it about tech? Do you think that that forces this issue compared to other workforces?

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Speaker 1: I think it’s who works in tech. Wherever South Asians are, they bring caste with them. That’s just the reality. And this is really, I think, like a learning edge for a lot of folks that are concerned about diversity and bias in in the tech sector is that we have so much in the United States, a very North American understanding of race, you know, so as long as we’ve got a diverse workforce that 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 global contexts. And so both our workforces are very diverse and the context that we work in.

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Speaker 1: You know, North American models of race aren’t going to cover all of the issues of inequity. Caste generally has not been legible to H.R. because for H.R., they’re really thinking about are we seeing, you know, exclusion on the basis of communities of color versus like white managers or other white staff? And so the understanding of like groups like us who are minorities within minorities in the North American context, but in the largest markets for these companies, because think about for Google, for Microsoft, for Twitter, for Mehta, their largest market isn’t the United States, it’s.

Lizzie O’Leary: Indian, it’s India.

Speaker 1: So they’re hiring Indian and South Asian engineers to help them penetrate that market. But without the legal protections to protect a global workforce that’s facing caste in all of its different dimensions.

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Lizzie O’Leary: There’s another issue that runs alongside caste discrimination, and that sometimes butts up against it or amplifies it. And that’s Hindu nationalism. While caste issues exist across multiple religions and multiple countries, the Hindu nationalist movement with India’s Prime Minister Narendra modi as its most recognizable face, seems to have amped up caste discrimination in tech. It showed up in some of those nasty comments that Maureen faced online, calling her Anti-hindu.

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Speaker 1: There is a distinction I want to make here from the religion. You know, the aspect of like religion as its own category of discrimination and caste and, you know, the reasons why we’re making caste, you know, asking for caste to be made explicit is that it spans of all faiths, and it’s really distinct from that. But I do think that, you know, separate from that conversation, we are in this moment where there are multiple ethno nationalisms that are destabilising the many democracies of South Asia, whether it’s Pakistan or Sri Lanka and India. And there is nothing within these companies human rights, you know, business practices or even the ways that they’re understanding practices or even their kind of, you know, duty of care towards users in those markets. That are really addressing what’s happening related to that.

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Speaker 1: And so if you’re talking about, you know, Hindu nationalism, for example, the deep challenge that I’ve seen is that we see a lot of ideological actors that are hired within companies, oftentimes in the moderation space, which means you kind of have the fox guarding the henhouse when it comes to disinformation from right wing actors. But again, these are separate conversations about bias and, you know, the human rights business impact of a corporation in like genocidal markets, which falls outside of the civil rights conversation around workforce issues.

Lizzie O’Leary: And while there are laws in the United States that protect workers from discrimination based on race or religion, beyond that, things get a lot trickier.

Speaker 1: There are no laws that says that they can’t be nationalists. There are laws that say that they can’t be bigoted and discriminatory towards me. But it really shows the kind of design challenge that we have with these companies working in markets that are declining with relationship to religious ethno nationalism. Is that all of the measures legally that should hold them accountable around their duty of care to their users and their employees are failing? I mean, the fact that you have a Brahmin CEO, you know, who’s from the topmost caste of Google being unable to assert that caste is a protected category throughout its company. I mean, that’s such a shame, you know, and it’s really, you know, and it’s a failure of their civil rights obligations because, again, if what happened to me as a contractor could occur, imagine what’s happening to caste depressed employees inside the company.

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Lizzie O’Leary: When we come back, the legal case that might change how caste is regarded in America.

Lizzie O’Leary: I’d love to get some 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 what percentage or who is from an upper caste background?

Speaker 1: So there are no numbers because companies are not collecting data. And this is why caste oppressed people are asking for caste to be added as a protected category. In our research, you know, over 40% of the Dalit techies that we interviewed, most of them were H-1B visa holders. So, you know, these aren’t just situations where you have shitty jobs. It’s actually that you could lose your immigration status as well, because that’s one of the painful parts of being an H-1B worker, is that your visa status is connected to your status of employment.

Speaker 1: So I think that as some of the most vulnerable workers in these workforces has suppressed, people’s are really appealing to management and to civil rights bodies to say, you know, give us some, you know, you know, some measure of taking away some of this discrimination and just add caste as a protected category.

Speaker 1: 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 are scrambling to conduct Karsi trainings and changing their policies because nobody wants to be the next Cisco and really, frankly, the next Google.

Lizzie O’Leary: In the case then Moore is referring to the state of California, sued Cisco and to upper caste employees for discriminating against a Dalit engineer, 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.

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Speaker 1: His supervisors were Brahmin and you know, they knew his caste because they all went to the same school back in India. And, you know, there, you know, there’s a network of schools. They’re called the ITC, which are kind of like our Ivy Leagues, you know, and a large amount of tech firms recruit from the ITC because of the, you know, the tech talent there. And and so because they knew his caste background, once they started supervising him, he started to really experience continuous discrimination from, you know, the outing of his identity to other team members, to him being less and less given, less and less work assignments. He was given bad reviews. Eventually, he was siloed from the rest of the team and passed over for promotion and eventually really on the track for termination. And the thing that is really interesting about his complaint is that when he reported it to h.r. To cisco, the cisco h.r. Person asserted caste is not a protected category.

Speaker 1: So, you know, we have these corporations that are multinational, that have managers that are dominant caste, who have huge markets in South Asia, who 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 UK, in the U.S. and they would not have caste as a protected category. So how does h.r. Make sense of that.

Lizzie O’Leary: After the cisco case? I gather that your organization heard from a number of people about caste discrimination in tech. I wonder if you could share some of those stories with me.

Speaker 1: When you live your life in the closet, there’s a part of you that’s never really human. You know, you’re always worried about getting caught. You know, you’re never transparent about all the parts of who you are, you know? And for Dell, it’s like you’re hiding a religious identity. You’re hiding where you’re from. Maybe you can’t share all the things about your family or your parents and you become a shadow of a human, you know? And I think that what was really hard for me to hear was how so many Dalits, you know, especially because they’re like some of the first people in their families to, you know, leave poverty and backbreaking oppression to get these jobs. They they were afraid to come out. And so they were going to stay hidden and that likely they would stay hidden for the entirety of their career, because once their caste identity would be found out, it would travel no matter what workplace you went to because of how tightly knit the managers networks are in the valley.

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Speaker 1: So hearing that just was, I think, really heartbreaking for me. I really you know, it’s a personal issue for me that I want to live in a world where Dalit people don’t have to live in the closet if they don’t want to. You know, we also heard, you know, experiences of discrimination and sexual harassment and hearing Dalit women who, you know, traverse both caste and gender and seeing them being targeted by dominant caste managers. Who would. Inappropriately touch them and forced them out of their jobs.

Speaker 1: And I remember this one woman saying, you know, 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 to hear stories where people are leaving the workforce or working in the closet or are just, you know, baring through, you know, inexplicable, hostile working conditions. I just I, I just felt that we have to be able to do better because the burden of dealing with these oppressive work conditions are not on the oppressed. It really is on these companies.

Lizzie O’Leary: One of the things I find most interesting and confounding here, though, is that these companies like Google operate internationally. They have huge markets in India where legally they have to comply with caste related anti-discrimination laws there. And 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 they aren’t addressing caste more?

Speaker 1: Well, it’s not just strange, it’s unlawful and it’s absurd, you know, because again, 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?

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Lizzie O’Leary: It’s not required in the U.S. as as you have pointed out.

Speaker 1: It’s not required. But but I think that they don’t they can’t say that they don’t know how to implement it because they’re already implementing it in one of their largest, you know, divisions. Right. So that’s why it doesn’t make sense. And so they’re pinching himself is a Brahmin. How does he not know this? You know, and and it was very interesting to me is is that again, it shows that you have these dominant caste managers and executives who are excelling in these roles in the C-suite, who are they’re targeted also not just for their excellence, but also because, you know, companies want to have diverse workforces, but they pull up the ladder behind them when it comes to the issue of caste.

Speaker 1: You know, 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. So there’s not in a situation where he can say, I’ve never heard of caste before, it’s completely new for me. You know, of course, he you know, he’s from one of the most caste, the states and one of the fastest cities in India. And Mother, I like where he’s from.

Speaker 1: 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 is it’s all just a game of smoke and mirrors. They can easily at 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 what should be, you know, just bringing their entire workforce into compliance.

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Lizzie O’Leary: You wrote two to Sundar Pichai about what happened to you if you got the chance to sit down with him. I mean, what would you say?

Speaker 1: I would sit down with them there and say, look, like you and I are in this unique, you know, moment of a tornado, of a conversation, of deep historical trauma that has put us on opposite sides of this conversation. But we don’t have to stay on opposite sides of this conversation. We could work together to actually, you know, help set an example for the field because it’s a very, very small change. It’s really about adding, you know, a word like caste to their policies that affects their global workforces and and the fact that there’s so much intimidation and trepidation to do so. I wonder how sometimes, you know, if that’s actually from a letter of management and lawyers or if it’s from centers own experience of fragility related to caste.

Speaker 1: And so being able to have like a personal conversation about each of our caste backgrounds, you know, who, who do we want to be? Because we both left India right where we’re in the United States. So there’s no reason caste should exist here. But just the way that I was treated is an example of the fact of how pernicious caste is here, and no one wants to have that be their legacy. You know, if I if I were sitting there 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 was, is that I shut down a civil rights conversation. Now, you know, you want to be you know, if you remember, everyone’s probably, you know, laughing at Google slogan, do no evil. But there’s a there’s an opportunity here to return to that, you know, even a little bit for a very important issue. And I would try to create a path towards him coming to the table to actually be a collaborator and change as a. Host to someone who’s being an obstacle to change.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Thenmozhi Soundararajan, thank you so much for talking with me.

Speaker 1: Thank you. Lizzie So glad to be here.

Lizzie O’Leary: Thenmozhi Soundararajan is the executive director of Equality Laps. We reached out to Google for comment but hadn’t heard back by recording time. That is it for the show today. What next? TBD is produced by Evan Campbell. Our show is edited by Jonathan Fisher and Natasha Power. Joanne Levine is the executive producer for what next? Alicia montgomery is vice president of Audio for Slate. TBD is part of the larger what next family, and it’s also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. We will be back next week with more episodes. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.