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Why Google’s crackdown on anti-caste speech reeks of bigotry

Caste discrimination at US companies grows with the growing South Asian diaspora


As part of Dalit History Month in April, Equality Labs founder and Executive Director Thenmozhi Soundarajan was scheduled to speak to Google News employees. After a wave of casteist backlash from Google employees, who called Thenmozhi ‘Hinduphobic’, the talk was cancelled. Tanuja Gupta, the then-senior manager of Google News, resigned in the wake of this incident. In her goodbye letter, Gupta cited several retaliatory and discriminatory actions that had been taken leading up to the event, including emails rife with disinformation and assertions that caste-oppressed people are “less educated.” On the heels of the Cisco case, which has garnered media attention since 2020, Google is yet another U.S. tech company embroiled in workplace caste discrimination.


The Washington Post reported that while Gupta circulated a petition to South Asian Google employees to hold the talk, she was met with responses that caste discrimination “does not exist” or even that caste equity is a form of “reverse discrimination” due to India’s affirmative action policies. Such language may seem credible to an audience that is totally unfamiliar with the dynamics of caste and may be unaware that caste follows South Asians into the diaspora. However, these arguments have been systematically parroted by the Hindu right for years corresponding with the rise of Hindu nationalism and Narendra Modi’s BJP rule in India since 2014. Misleading claims of “Hinduphobia” have been used to regulate speech relating to casteism, notably including a conference held by U.S. academics to discuss the rise of Hindutva in late 2021. Individuals associated with the event received death threats, rape threats, and bomb threats.

 

Tanuja Gupta | Former Senior Manager at Google News


While just over 48% of Google’s employees are white, the company’s 2022 Diversity Report indicates that Asians are the second largest group constituting over 43% of the workforce. While the data on employee caste origin is not public, Dilip Mandal writes that Google clearly suffers from a severe lack of caste diversity, while upper-caste Indian Hindu employees are likely to perpetuate racist hierarchies that exclude caste-oppressed individuals in addition to Black and Latinx people.


Anil Wagde, an anti-caste activist and member of Ambedkar International Centre, spoke to South Asian Today about the incident and his work writ large. He was involved with the amicus brief in the Cisco caste discrimination case and is working on incorporating caste as a protected category in the United States. “Universities are at the forefront [of talking about this],” Anil told South Asian Today. “Employee unions recognise that the problem exists, but management at these [tech companies] are resisting.” 


Anil advocates for affirmative action under the U.S. framework for US companies working in India. While India has an affirmative action framework for caste-oppressed people, the absence of such policies by the U.S. companies in India means these companies do not have people from caste-oppressed backgrounds. This occurs since so-called upper-caste people have the first movers' advantage, fortifying that advantage by creating "ghettos,” Anil explained. Hiring through the referral system also effectively keeps caste-oppressed people out of these US multinational companies. “If we can’t get that far, at least they should advertise that people of Scheduled Caste / Scheduled Tribe background should be encouraged to apply,” he said.

 

Anil Wagde | Activist | Ambedkar International Centre

 

However, the economic and social repercussions of revealing one’s SC / ST identity are serious. Anil described his own personal experience of being interrogated on whether he was non-vegetarian, his father’s profession, his state of origin, and other such personal details. “These are the markers,” he said. “They exclude you from social circles. People are trying to find out why you are non-vegetarian and why you didn’t come to the temple or festival, so people are extremely cautious. If an employee has a birthday party for their kid, they won’t invite the so-called low-caste Indians. But there are no issues with white guys who are non-vegetarian. This is their bigotry.” 


Ironically, the backlash and ensuing media spotlight on Google has thrown the issue of caste back into the national spotlight, following prior coverage from NPR and the New York Times in the past couple of years. “If the talk had taken place, probably a few people, maybe 50 to 100, would have joined that Zoom call,” Anil said. “Now, with Google having withdrawn, it has gotten a lot more visibility. There is talk about why Google is shying away, and the intentions of some of the senior management involved are also put into question.”

 

Sundar Pichai | CEO of Google


As the fight continues to incorporate caste as a protected category in the U.S. Constitution, companies across the United States must focus on developing robust anti-discrimination protections for caste-oppressed employees. Universities and labour unions are at the forefront of this wave of activism. The foremost priority should be cultivating an environment where caste-oppressed employees feel comfortable sharing their identities openly. “People of my caste want to hide, go into our shells,” Anil said. “For no reason, people are made to feel that way.”


In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, many companies have implemented DEI training and other initiatives. Crucially, especially in companies with such significant South Asian populations, these initiatives should include competency surrounding caste discrimination for South Asians and non-South Asians alike. People, especially those in HR roles, must be able to recognise clear markers of caste discrimination and should be educated on the definition of caste discrimination and understand why speaking about this issue is not “Hinduphobic.” 


Google’s reprehensible actions have only shed light on the sheer panic many upper-caste Indian Hindus feel at broaching the subject of caste. As the Hindu right lynches and attacks Muslims across India, oppressive caste hierarchies and discrimination persist across oceans in the United States and everywhere else that the South Asian diaspora has settled. Savarna allies must capitalise on these conversations happening in workplaces, the media, and universities across the country to mobilise our communities in favour of recognising and protecting caste as a category. Casteism is a workplace safety issue and, at its core, a matter of human rights and equality. “The movement towards caste equity is one rooted in love, empathy, and justice,” Thenmozhi stated in a press release from Equality Labs. “I cannot find the words to express just how traumatic and discriminatory Google’s actions were towards its employees and myself…. Google must address the casteism within its workforce that allows for these attacks to occur and continue.”


Note: A conversation between Tanuja and Thenmozhi, hosted on YouTube following the original talk’s cancellation, can be found here.


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About the author

Ria Mazumdar is South Asian Today's US political analyst. A Bengali-American, she is originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. A recent graduate of Tufts University, her interests include politics, economic development, and postcolonial thought. Ria is currently working as a Research Associate in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Instagram: @ria.maz  / Tweets: @riamaz

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