‘Family in Safe House Due to Threats’: Dalit Scholar Fighting Google on Caste
"It's up to Google to manage its crisis of caste," says Thenmozhi Soundararajan in this interview to The Quint.
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam
"It is really up to Google to manage its crisis of caste."
Ever since anti-caste scholar Thenmozhi Soundararajan's talk at Google got cancelled due to an internal pushback from certain employees, the Executive Director of Equality Labs says she has faced a significant amount of online trolling and harassment that has even forced her family to move to a safe house out of fear for their safety.
Opening up to The Quint in an extensive interview, Soundararajan said, "In the aftermath of Google's discriminatory actions, we have had bigots try to run doxxing campaigns, they've run disinformation campaigns. But more importantly, they've tried to find my parents and inflict harm on them. Luckily, we were able to identify it (the threats) and we moved my family to a safe home."
The following are edited excerpts from the interview with Soundararajan.
‘The Talk Was Vetted’: On the Controversy at Google
In April this year, Soundararajan was scheduled to give a lecture to employees of Google News during Dalit History Month. But Google eventually proceeded to cancel the talk.
Subsequently, Tanuja Gupta, the senior manager at Google who had invited Soundararajan, resigned from the organisation on 1 June.
The Quint: Could you share with us the broad outline of the talk you had planned for Google? Since you have previously given talks at several other top tech companies, why did Google become an anomaly?
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Here is the talk. It was vetted. The issue of the talk was not a problem. It was a Dalit speaking about caste equity... These companies don't always have a clear understanding of who should be at the table around caste equity and who is the impacted party.
Can you imagine going to the Klan or white nationalists to discuss racial issues in the company? That is what they did.
They do not understand that caste oppressed people are minorities within a racial minority and to understand how to hold such a conversation they should have gone to caste oppressed civil rights organisations and caste oppressed workers first. Instead, they aligned with bigots.
‘Caste Needs To Be Taken Seriously as an Axis of Structural Exclusion in Big Tech’
The Quint: Why do you think Google reacted the way it did? What impact could it have on the caste movement in the US?
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Google reacted to the pushback from a handful of Google employees that were a part of the Hindu Employee Resource Group. They approached management and made statements that they felt their life was in danger and that I, along with the organisation I founded, Equality Labs, was anti-Hindu or Hinduphobic organisation. They went on to provide false information from disinformation sites.
We know that we have a major problem of disinformation on the web and it largely goes without any punishment, and we are seeing the Google News management basing their decisions on these violent and irresponsible campaigns.
I know that if Google does not reinstate this talk, commit to cast equity training and include it in their DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) policies, they will only ignite a movement that is determined to stop caste discrimination throughout the United States.
Caste needs to be taken seriously as an urgent axis of structural exclusion that is impacting Big Tech. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have caste protection under their moderation guidelines.
This means that when reporting a discriminatory tweet or post, one can select that it was casteist in nature. These same protections need to be made available for Google employees and contractors.
‘Caste Needs To Be Made an Explicitly Protected Category As Per US Law’
The Quint: Does Google's behaviour prove further how important caste is as a topic in the US right now?
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Let's be clear – Dalits (in the US) are a protected class and caste discrimination is covered under existing categories like discrimination based on race, ancestry, and faith. But one of the reasons Dalit Americans are asking to make us an explicit category is because companies interpret the law to not include caste as a protected category in their policies.
This whole situation is a prime example of why there is a need for policy to not only protect workers but also give HR and management tools to address such situations when they come up. This is why we are pushing, not just for acknowledgements and our talk on caste equity to be reinstated, but for their management and DEI teams to go through caste equity training as well.
Not the First Time Caste Has Caused a Controversy in Silicon Valley
In November 2018, a photograph of Twitter’s then-CEO Jack Dorsey holding a ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’ placard had gone viral.
The following day, Twitter’s legal head Vijaya Gadde had replied with a public apology.
The apology had drawn widespread condemnation from anti-caste activists.
Commenting on the incident, Soundararajan says, "In that context of Twitter, ultimately Dalit women won. Because everyone can now report casteist hate speech on Twitter, because of the advocacy that resulted from that moment. I think that what Ambedkarites are very good at doing is turning pain into power."
The Many Forms of Workplace Caste Discrimination in the US
The Quint: What are the various ways in which you have observed casted discrimination play out in workspaces in the US?
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: According to our data, two out of three Dalits face discrimination in the workplace in the United States. We have seen open usage of caste slurs. For example, there was a worker whose co-worker asked about her caste background and when she found that she came from a manual scavenging background, she would comment on her work by saying, "We know you, your people are so mindless" and then shortly afterward, the oppressed-caste worker was fired.
There are also disparaging remarks made about reservation, talking about Dalit people as being less-than, or people without merit.
There are also aggressive attempts to out people's caste identity. In the United States, many Dalits are in the closet and hide their caste identity. But people still try to go after them – there's this gesture that men do, where they pat the back of their male employees, they call it the TamBrahm pat, and they do it to find out if they have the sacred thread and therefore know if they are "one of us."
What Is Needed To Bring In Greater Caste Equity
The Quint: What are the steps that you would recommend organisations in the US and elsewhere outside India take in order to promote and ensure greater caste equity?
Thenmozhi Soundararajan: In addition to calling for organisations to make caste a protected category, we would also like caste equity audits and human rights impact audit assessments to be put in place in all of Google’s offices worldwide because it is clear what happened here is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of casteism in the company.
Additionally, all HR policymakers to educate themselves on caste, caste discrimination and create policies to protect their employees against this discrimination.
HR departments need to be equipped with adequate tools in order to address caste in their organisations including discrimination and harms amongst their employees. When global companies are working with South Asians – in the US or abroad – they need to ensure that they are creating equitable workplaces, by addressing the inequities that caste creates in society, education and access to opportunities.
There is a lot of work to be done, and we need everyone on board, because that is the only way we can achieve our goal. As Dr Ambedkar said, "Educate. Agitate. Organise." Jai Bhim!
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