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

Kristen Murakoshi
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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. Twitter, Facebook 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.

A spokesperson at the time told Reuters that the company is pushing back hard against the lawsuit. “Cisco is committed to an inclusive workplace for all,” she said. “We were fully in compliance with all laws as well as our own policies.”

The case was ultimately dropped and refiled in a county court, but many Dalit tech workers nationwide say the allegations resonate with them. The project manager said she understands this fear of coming forward about harassment. When experiencing workplace discrimination herself, she said she considered going to HR too, but ultimately decided against it.

“The question was, how can I even take this to HR because HR wouldn’t even understand what caste is,” she said. “There’s no education about caste. I would have to start from scratch.”

Another Dalit tech worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said the stakes of coming forward are extremely high.

At a client lunch, he said he listened to his Hindu colleagues defending the caste system to a white co-worker. When he stepped in to advocate for India’s oppressed classes, he said the change in his treatment was instantaneous. He received lower performance ratings and was eventually reassigned to the company’s office in India.

“He knew that he was doing my green-card processing,” he said. “He promised me that he would do my green card and suddenly, I was told I had to go to India. My daughters ... one was in elementary school and one was in high school. I was planning for them to be educated here.”

Afraid of going to HR and being terminated, he took his family back to India. Eventually, he was able to find another job in the U.S., but his kids faced setbacks in their education and development.

Both Dalit workers said their stories highlight the necessity of caste being added as a protected category in the U.S. workplace. With the incident at Google compounding the public awareness, Silicon Valley is in another reckoning, the project manager said.

“You can actually see how casteist mindsets work,” she said. “How casteism really exists. You are seeing it happen in real time in front of your eyes.”

Because of the field’s heavily South Asian makeup, experts say tech has the potential to be a leader in equity. But without education on the far-reaching impacts of the caste system, Dalits and allies fear nothing will change.

“Now, I’m trying to hide my caste identity,” she said. “I don’t want the same thing to happen at my workplace. I just want to do my work. I want to thrive, not just survive.”

Employees and allies say they're left confused

Soundararajan felt like she was in the dark after her talk was abruptly canceled. She said she appealed to multiple managers at Google in an effort to get her talk reinstated, and was ultimately given little explanation as to why it was snuffed.

A company higher-up told her “‘caste is not a protected category, so Google isn’t mandated to have these conversations,’” she said. Google did not respond to a request for comment on this allegation.

A former Google News manager, Tanuja Gupta, pushed alongside Soundararajan, even starting a companywide petition to allow her to speak. But after being told several times that there was a further vetting process taking place to evaluate the potential speaker, Dalit History Month passed. Asian American History month passed as well. And neither woman received any updates.

Gupta declined to speak to NBC News.

In a widely circulated resignation email obtained by The Washington Post, Gupta said her advocacy put a target on her back. After circulating the petition, she said she was made ineligible for promotions and her performance rating was lowered, plus she was barred from contacting any other Dalit speakers, so she chose to step down.

Google confirmed in its statement that it gave an employee a formal warning about their job performance, but declined to divulge further details or answer questions about Gupta’s employment.

“Caste-oppressed people are minorities within minorities,” Soundararajan said. “It is very obvious that Google management completely lacks comprehensive basics around what caste equity is and does not know how to create a safe workplace for caste-oppressed workers.”

While these may feel like new conversations to dominant-caste folks, Thomas said Dalits have been having them for years.

“The burden of proof is on them, and we know that re-traumatizes people,” she said. “When it comes to caste, we ask people to re-traumatize themselves, to talk about their experiences over and over and over.”

Staffers ask dominant-caste Google CEO to speak out

Indian American Google CEO Sundar Pichai has long been vocal on issues of equality. In a note sent to the entire company in June 2020, he called out the “structural and systemic racism that Black people have experienced over generations.”

He committed to improving representation in Google employees of all levels, starting anti-racism programming, donating money to racial justice orgs and supporting Black-owned businesses.

But employees say when it comes to caste discrimination, the CEO, who is from a dominant caste, has been noticeably silent.

“It’s very odd and malicious,” one of the anonymous Google employees said.

Another said he sees a willful ignorance on the part of executives.

“Google as a company is very data-driven,” he said. “Internally, a lot of policies we’ve seen change have been, for better or worse, after some data about it was collected. With respect to caste, there is no official or unofficial data around representation. And Google has not shown any intent to collect any sort of data.”

Soundararajan and Gupta ended up holding their caste equity talk anyway. It wasn’t sanctioned by Google, as Gupta had to explicitly say at the beginning, but it was streamed on YouTube, where it has gathered thousands of views.

“The South Asian American community, we are in a reckoning about caste,” Soundararajan said. “And people who have always had privilege and who have dominated the microphone on this issue are very uncomfortable with having to share space for the first time with caste and religious minorities.”