Google Cancels a Talk About Caste Bias, Showing Casteism’s Prevalence Overseas
In late 2020, a group of 30 Dalit women penned an explosive letter published by the Washington Post. In it, they alleged rampant and systemic casteism in Silicon Valley, speaking out about a culture of pervasive and blatant discrimination and humiliation in workplaces across the region. “We are always having to dodge difficult caste locator questions about where we are from, what religion we practice, and whom we have married — questions designed to place us into the caste hierarchy against our will,” they noted.
The letter was published after one employee — an alumnus of IIT Bombay — sued Cisco on the basis of caste discrimination. It was one of the first high-profile cases in which employees settled abroad blew the whistle on how caste-based management and power dynamics operate in spaces where they are easily invisibilized.
And yet, less than two years later, another of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies inadvertently went on to prove exactly how essential it was to maintain the invisibilization. On Thursday, Google promptly canceled a scheduled talk by Dalit activist and executive director of Equality Labs, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, allegedly under pressure from employees who claimed their “lives were at risk,” according to The News Minute.
Indian leadership at the world’s biggest companies is a badge of pride that the nation likes to flaunt. Underscoring the narrative are vaguely distilled words like “representation” — thrown around to trumpet a post-racial narrative. Here are “people of color” CEOs who are leading the world’s innovation — it simultaneously paints a picture of supposed diversity, while also celebrating the people in question for “making it” as immigrants far from home. But their overwhelming location as privileged-caste, mostly Brahmin or Baniya men, is the missing link in the narrative.
“…high-profile tech CEOs and board members, such as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Amazon board member Indra Nooyi… [are Indian but] members of the highest caste,” Washington Post had pointed out
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Ironically, Soundararajan’s talk was supposed to be a part of Google’s Diversity Equity Inclusivity (DEI) program for employee sensitization. Predictably, employees who were opposed to the talk claimed that there was no caste discrimination in the US, that Soundararajan was “Hindu-phobic,” and even that claiming casteism was “reverse discrimination against upper castes.”
This isn’t the first time that attempts to address casteism overseas received fierce pushback from privileged-caste Hindus. Last year, Harvard became one of the first Ivy League universities to recognize caste-based discrimination and include caste as a ‘protected category’ — but not without much resistance.
That many of these companies serve as the final stop in a pipeline of private schools to IITs to Silicon Valley ensures that they remain caste-exclusionary spaces. It starts early on: students are socialized into casteism in elite private schools through symbolism, overt discrimination, and pedagogy. They are then pitted against one another during competitive college admissions and espouse an anti-reservation rhetoric in the race to be admitted to premier
Iinstitutes in the country. IITs, in themselves caste-exclusionary spaces, are often the final stop before plush opportunities in the biggest companies abroad. Just as IITs open doors, therefore, they also let casteism pass through.
As a result, people from caste-marginalized backgrounds find themselves entering “another mini-India arranged by clusters of Indian hierarchy,” as one Dalit alumnus of IIT Delhi told Bloomberg, about when they go abroad to pursue work and opportunities.
“Despite us now being away from our homelands, the horror of caste has shaped us both,” Soundararajan wrote in a letter to Sundar Pichai — encapsulating how casteism isn’t merely a region-specific phenomenon but is embedded in the psyche itself. Most significantly, casteism is a system of privilege closely guarded by the NRI elite — keeping it hidden to portray a narrative of castelessness and diversity is so important that any light thrown on the issue is, according to them, a risk to their lives. And indeed it is, in a way, because it threatens their position as gatekeepers of the mythical, supposedly democratic “American Dream.”