Recently, Google came under fire for caste-based discrimination against Indian employees. The Indian caste system is a form of hierarchy dating several thousands of years. Its four main classifications derive from occupations within which Hindus lived: Brahmins, who were priests and scholars; Kshatriyas, warriors and rulers; Vaishyas, merchants and traders; and Shudras, who were laborers. Although these occupations have evolved over the centuries, the caste system continues to be utilized to segregate job and educational opportunities, both in India and abroad.
Google came under scrutiny when Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the executive director of prominent Dalit civil rights organization Equality Labs, revealed several instances of workplace discrimination after the cancellation of a scheduled talk. Equality Labs is a South Asian organization based in the United States committed to ending the “oppression of caste apartheid, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and religious intolerance” by promoting the leadership of South Asians with marginalized identities in a time when the South Asian identity is ever-changing in both home countries and diasporas. The organization’s efforts are sustained by providing accessible information both online and through in-person events.
The recent event at Google, which was to take place during the Dalit History Month in April, was canceled after allegations were made against Soundararajan accusing her of “anti-Hindu” rhetoric. Equality Labs spoke out against the cancellation, stating, “During this time, opponents to caste equity internally circulated disinformation about Soundararajan and Equality Labs to derail the civil rights event until its ultimate cancellation.” Soundararajan herself was said to have contacted Google CEO Sundar Pichai to reverse the decision.
South Asians are no strangers to the tech industry: Over 70% of American H-1B visas are issued to Indian software engineers, and Indian-born CEOs of Silicon Valley constitute one of the most wealthy and educated demographics in the United States. Sundar Pichai, an upper-caste Indian himself, denied Soundararajan’s appeal. The company’s treatment of marginalized people, particularly women and those attempting to change the work environment, has been criticized in the past. Google News’s senior manager, Tanuja Gupta, was a chief organizer of the 2018 Google Walkout, a temporary demonstration of 20,000 employees protesting the company’s mishandling of sexual harassment allegations. Recently, Gupta organized another walkout of over 400 employees in support of caste equity. She resigned after she stated her and her team members were doxed and made the subjects of an HR investigation, prompting Gupta to fear for her safety. Google vehemently denies the allegations of discrimination, both caste- and gender-based, citing employee division as the reason for canceling Soundararajan’s talk. When questioned about Soundararajan’s letter to Sundar Pichai, Google declined to comment. To date, Google publicly maintains its commitment to condemning workplace discrimination.
A survey conducted by Equality Labs in 2018 revealed two out of three Dalits in the United States reported unfair treatment in their workplace, and one in two Dalit respondents stated they feared their caste would be “outed.” These responses indicate how caste discrimination not only has been transplanted from South Asia to the United States, but also parallels existing structures of discrimination. In the United States, caste is not a legally protected demographic, However, this year, students advocated for caste to be added as a protected category in the California State University system’s non-discrimination policy.
Additionally, curriculums in the United States generally do not educate students on South Asian caste, and therefore fail to equip individuals to recognize related discrimination. In 2019, the Indian population of the United States was 4.3 million. A poll conducted in 2020 revealed both polarization within the Indian community and a spike in hate crimes committed against South Asians. To remedy this, progressive organizations like Equality Labs have made it their mission to educate the public on South Asian caste and combat caste apartheid present in American society, making it safe for immigrants and future generations of South Asians to live in the United States.
Harini Narayan is a member of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington, and a second-year Masters student at Columbia University studying South Asian Studies.