Does Silicon Valley Have A Caste Problem?


Google was recently in the news for backing out of a talk on Indian caste-based discrimination by Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the founder and executive director of Equality Labs. To give you some context, caste in India speaks, as race does in America, to centuries of social, cultural, and economic divisions. And Dalits are one of the Scheduled Castes in India.  

The controversy again opened up the debate on diversity or lack of it in the US tech sector. But in this case, it seems to involve only Indian and Hindu employees of Google.  

This incident is just the tip of the iceberg. As you dive deeper you can easily see the lack of Blacks and Latinos in the American tech sector. At Google, Asian-Americans are vastly over-represented which is impacting any diversity initiatives taken by the company.  

Why did Google not conduct the talk?  

According to a recent Washington Post report, seven of Google’s Indian-origin employees opposed an in-house talk on caste by Soundararajan. Employees opposing this talk cited strange reasons like how they “felt harmed” and that their “lives will be at risk by the discussion of caste equity.” Soon, these views were spread in an internal email group of 8,000 South Asian employees, where most of the respondents opposed holding the event. 

Google finally decided not to hold the talk, leading to the resignation of Tanuja Gupta, Google News senior manager, who had taken the initiative to organize the talk. Responding to the media coverage of this controversy, Google’s chief diversity officer, Melonie Parker said that “a large group of employees felt that they were being vilified. And this resulted in a lot of internal concern, heated threads, as well as escalations.” 

Have there been other instances?  

In 2020, a Dalit graduate from India’s prestigious IIT Bombay filed a suit in the US against Cisco Systems Inc. and two of his fellow alums saying that he had experienced caste-based discrimination at their hands when all three were employed at the company.  

The accompanying publicity led to a wave of complaints about caste discrimination in American tech -previously hushed allegations.  

While American law protects workers from disparate treatment based on a handful of characteristics, including race, sex, religion, and disability status. This was the first time, that anyone had argued to extend the same protections to Indian Dalits.  

This case inspired a multitude of tech workers to tell their own stories. The US-based Dalit advocacy group, Equality Labs, told the Washington Post that more than 250 tech workers had come forward in the wake of the Cisco suit to report incidents of caste-based harassment. Thirty Dalit engineers, all women, also shared a joint statement with the Post that said they’d experienced caste bias in the US tech sector. 

In Conclusion  

It would be naive for US companies to assume that most of the Indian hires leave their prejudices back on the subcontinent. To put it bluntly, this instance by Ram Kumar, a Dalit alum of IIT Delhi, sums up caste-based discrimination in a nutshell. Kumar has worked in the tech industry for more than two decades, with companies such as Cisco, Dell, and others. As told to Bloomberg, when he arrived in Silicon Valley in the early 2000s, he found “another mini-India arranged by clusters of Indian hierarchy,” he says. Whereas dominant-caste Indians might see expat communities as sources of professional networking and support, Kumar avoids them. “People will try to segregate you once they find out your caste,” he says. As a matter of self-preservation, “I’ve avoided good opportunities when I see that the CEO or CTO is Indian.” 

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With over 6 years as a content contributor for various media houses and budding companies, Varsha has created a niche for herself with her well-researched pieces. She loves to write about current events, public policy, healthcare, finance, and many other genres. A trained artist and curator, she also dabbles in writing concept notes and creating profiles for upcoming local artists.