Big Tech’s big problem is also its ‘best-kept secret’: Caste discrimination

After Google canceled a Dalit civil rights activist's talk, tech employees say their bosses aren’t doing enough to protect workers.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan poses for a portrait in Oakland, Calif., on June 1, 2022.Kristen Murakoshi / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

America’s most prominent caste equity activist, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, was slated to give a talk at Google in April, for Dalit History Month. She was ready, she said, to explain to one of the world’s largest tech companies that caste oppression is a problem — and that it probably exists under its roof, too.

She was armed with years worth of stats gathered through her civil rights organization, Equality Labs, which show that two-thirds of Dalits, those who have been historically oppressed under India’s caste system, have faced discrimination in their U.S. workplace.

But as news spread of her impending appearance, not everyone at Google was happy. A handful of Hindu employees said that they felt “targeted” on the basis of religion, a company statement and several anonymous interviews confirmed. They appealed to Google leadership asking that the speech be canceled, and so it was.

Soundararajan was informed her talk would not go forward, The Washington Post first reported. 

“It was very troubling that Google News management could not discern disinformation and bigotry,” Soundararajan told NBC Asian America. “We are seeing people who have multiple protected classes weaponize language of equity to avoid confronting the systems that have given them privilege.”

In a statement to NBC Asian America, a Google representative said the company is against casteism, but Soundararajan’s speech would have been too divisive.

“Caste discrimination has no place in our workplace,” the company said. “Here, there was specific conduct, and internal posts, that made employees feel targeted and retaliated against for raising concerns about a proposed talk… We also made the decision to not move forward with the proposed talk which — rather than bringing our community together and raising awareness — was creating division and rancor.”

Dalits, or those born into marginalized castes in India’s rigid hierarchies, have faced violence and oppression on the subcontinent for thousands of years. Though the system is now illegal in India, its impacts are still far-reaching and can manifest in every aspect of life. With the growing Indian diaspora in the U.S., the system has been brought to a new continent.

It’s been two years since California sued tech conglomerate Cisco and blew open conversations about casteism in the U.S. (The lawsuit alleges the company failed to protect an Indian Dalit employee who was being actively targeted by his dominant-caste Hindu managers.)

Since then, a dialogue that employees say was once in the shadows has stirred the entirety of Silicon Valley.

“No one wants to be the next Cisco,” Soundararajan said.

‘The best kept secret at Google’

Some things have changed. TwitterFacebook and YouTube have started moderating caste-based hate speech on their platforms. Dell, Apple and Amazon now include caste-proficiency in some employee manuals and trainings.

But Dalit tech workers say that’s not enough. While caste policies are sweeping some sectors, like academia, it’s still not an explicitly protected category federally or at the biggest U.S. tech companies. This means Dalits have little institutional support in the industry. It’s difficult for their complaints about caste discrimination at work to lead to disciplinary action, especially if their co-workers claim religious discrimination in response.

Religion, unlike caste, is a protected category in the workplace, and many non-Dalit coworkers aren’t aware of the starkly different work environment they face, according to an expert.

“If you don’t have recognition of a form of discrimination that’s happening, there’s little recourse,” said Sonja Thomas, an associate professor at Colby College who has studied and written about casteism. “You can’t even bring a complaint, and the burden of proof is always going to be on the survivor.”

What the incident at Google proves, Dalit tech workers and allies say, is that open caste discrimination runs rampant in their industry. Many still hide their caste in fear of retaliation, and Dalit support groups only form outside of the office, where bosses can’t single them out, experts say.

The onus falls on the marginalized to protect themselves, to find support and to advocate for their caste-oppressed peers, Thomas said, and those in power largely stand by and do nothing.

“Caste was the best kept secret at Google,” a current Google employee told NBC Asian America. “Nobody wanted to bring up the topic.”

Being called ‘less educated’ and other accusations

An unmoderated message board used by more than 8,700 South Asian workers at Google is home to attacks and disagreements, as well as discriminatory statements about Dalits, staff members said. Google employees that are on the group say some dominant caste members have called Dalits “less educated” and equated caste equity to reverse discrimination.

“A lot of this has just created a very unsafe and toxic environment for caste-oppressed workers or those who are speaking up against caste,” one of the Google employees said.

Both employees told NBC News that co-workers have been reported to Human Resources as “Hinduphobic” for speaking up about casteism.

“At the workplace, it’s tricky because religion is a protected category,” the second employee  said. “HR doesn’t have any competency around caste, and caste is not a protected category.” Google didn’t respond to a request for comment about the message board’s contents.

Other employees in the tech industry alleging caste-based discrimination say that what happened at Google is far from an isolated incident.

After her dominant caste Indian boss found out she was Dalit, a project manager, who has worked at some of the U.S.’s largest tech companies and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said she immediately began to pick up on hostility from him. Some of it was subtle — she stopped getting invited out to lunch, her ideas were getting shut down.

After a while, she said, it became much more blatant.

“There was a project that I volunteered for. In front of everyone, he said, ‘Don’t touch that project because you’re ill-fated,’” the project manager said. “I never thought caste would manifest this way in the U.S. … I was shell-shocked.”

The 2020 Cisco lawsuit against Cisco cites an unnamed Dalit engineer who came forward saying two of his upper-caste managers openly enforced caste hierarchies in the office.

The lawsuit says that when the when the employee went to HR about the discrimination, he was allegedly told caste is not protected in the workplace. He was even reassigned and denied promotions because of the incident, it said.

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