Google’s plan to talk about caste bias led to ‘division and rancor’

FILE PHOTO: A sign is pictured outs a Google office near the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, U.S., May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Paresh Dave/File Photo

The rising Hindu nationalist movement that has spread from India through the diaspora has arrived inside Google, according to employees and an activist on caste bias.

In April, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the founder and executive director of Equality Labs – a nonprofit that advocates for Dalits, or members of the lowest-ranked caste – was scheduled to give a talk to Google News employees for Dalit History Month. But Google employees began spreading disinformation, calling her “Hindu-phobic” and “anti-Hindu” in emails to the company’s leaders, documents posted on Google’s intranet and mailing lists with thousands of employees, according to copies of the documents as well as interviews with Soundararajan and current Google employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about retaliation.

Soundararajan appealed directly to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who comes from an upper-caste family in India, to allow her presentation to go forward. But the talk was canceled, leading some employees to conclude that Google was willfully ignoring caste bias. Tanuja Gupta, a senior manager at Google News who invited Soundararajan to speak, resigned over the incident, according to a copy of her goodbye email posted internally Wednesday and viewed by The Washington Post.

Soundararajan – who has given talks on caste at Microsoft, Salesforce, Airbnb, Netflix, and Adobe – said Equality Labs began receiving speaking invitations from tech companies in the wake of the George Floyd protests. “Most institutions wouldn’t do what Google did. It’s absurd. The bigoted don’t get to the set the pace of conversations about civil rights,” she said.

Longtime observers of Google’s struggles to promote diversity, equity and inclusion say the fallout fits a familiar pattern. Women of color are asked to advocate for change. Then they’re punished for disrupting the status quo.

In Gupta’s goodbye email, she questioned whether Google wanted its diversity efforts to succeed. “Retaliation is a normalized Google practice to handle internal criticism, and women take the hit,” she wrote. Gupta was one of the organizers behind the 2018 Google Walkout, in which 20,000 Google employees around the world briefly walked out of their offices to protest the company’s mishandling of sexual harassment. The other organizers have already left the company.

In a statement, Google spokesperson Shannon Newberry wrote, “Caste discrimination has no place in our workplace. We also have a very clear, publicly shared policy against retaliation and discrimination in our workplace.”

“We also made the decision to not move forward with the proposed talk which – rather than bringing our community together and raising awareness – was creating division and rancor,” Newberry wrote.

Equality Labs, based in Oakland, Calif., advocates for the civil rights of the caste formerly referred to as “untouchables” in a millennia-old system of social hierarchy that originated with Hinduism in India, but has proliferated to different religions across South Asia. Many Indians have moved to the United States to work in tech companies, and several Big Tech CEOs are of Indian origin, including Pichai, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Twitter’s Parag Agrawal. Some employees allege the patterns of discrimination have been replicated within Silicon Valley companies.

Soundararajan, who is Dalit, spent years convincing policy teams at social media companies to include caste as a protected category in their hate speech policies. In meetings, company representatives seemed to have little understanding about caste, even though it impacted hate speech in their biggest markets, she said.

So Equality Labs had to gather data and help social media companies develop cultural competency on caste. The group took the same research-driven approach to examining caste bias in the workplace.

Through its advocacy on content moderation, Equality Labs developed a strong network of Dalit tech workers. After the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a lawsuit against Cisco alleging caste discrimination, their phone lines were flooded with reports about bias and the group once again began collecting data. (Although U.S. employment law does not explicitly prohibit caste-based discrimination, the DFEH argues caste is a protected under existing statutes. Caste is a protected category in India, however. This leaves companies such as Google and Cisco, which have offices in both countries, with different standards for discrimination.)

After the Google Walkout, Gupta went on to successfully advocate for ending forced arbitration both in Congress and inside Google, where she is also known for her work on diversity. Last September, Gupta was approached by two Google employees about the caste discrimination they had witnessed at the company, she wrote in her departure note. That prompted her to invite Soundararajan to present at a speaker series Gupta hosted on diversity, equity and inclusion for Google News.

For the presentation, Soundararajan hoped to talk to the 60 or so Google employees scheduled to attend – who work in product and engineering in News and Search – about caste equity in newsrooms, building on a talk she delivered at Google’s Cloud Next event in November 2021. She planned to explain the makeup of mainstream Indian publications and the importance of highlighting Dalit journalists when reporting on issues such as climate change or elections, because of the insight they could bring from the perspective of the most vulnerable.

Two days before Soundararajan’s presentation, seven Google employees sent emails to company leaders and Gupta “with inflammatory language about how they felt harmed and how they felt their lives were at risk by the discussion of caste equity,” according to emails sent by Gupta. Some of the complaints “copied content from known misinformation sites to malign the reputation of the speaker,” Gupta’s emails said – sites and organizations that have targeted academics in the United States and Canada who are critical of Hindu nationalism or caste hierarchy.

These online campaigns can spook institutions unfamiliar with the politics of caste, Soundararajan said. “They ask, ‘Are there people in their own community that disagree with them? Maybe this is a battle we don’t want to get into.’ ”

Google had previously vetted Soundararajan to give a similar talk, but executives postponed her presentation to the Google News team.

Then the controversy within Google migrated to an 8,000-person email group for South Asian employees, according to three current employees. After Gupta posted a link in the email group to a petition to reinstate the talk, respondents argued that caste discrimination does not exist, that caste is not a thing in the United States, and that efforts to raise awareness of these issues in the United States would sow further division. Some called caste equity a form of reverse discrimination against the highest-ranked castes because of India’s affirmative action system for access to education and government jobs. Others said people from marginalized castes lack the education to properly interpret Hindu scriptures around castes.

To Soundararajan, Google was long overdue for a conversation on caste equity. Pichai, the CEO, “is Indian and he is Brahmin and he grew up in Tamil Nadu. There is no way you grow up in Tamil Nadu and not know about caste because of how caste politics shaped the conversation,” Soundararajan told the Post. “If he can make passionate statements about Google’s [diversity equity and inclusion] commitments in the wake of George Floyd, he absolutely should be making those same commitments to the context he comes from where he is someone of privilege.”

Soundararajan said Pichai has not responded to letter she sent him in April. Google declined to comment.

According to Gupta’s letter and Soundararajan, the decision to cancel the talk came from Gupta’s boss, Cathy Edwards, a vice president of engineering, who had no experience or expertise in caste.

In a Google Meet video call in mid-May after the talk was canceled, Soundararajan said Edwards acknowledged that Google had subjected her to a level of vetting no previous speaker had to endure. Google declined to make Edwards available to comment.

Soundararajan warned that this level of scrutiny would mean that no Dalit would be allowed to speak on caste. She compared it to not letting an abuse survivor speak about the #MeToo movement. Edwards acknowledged the challenge, but said she had to deal with people crying on the other side of the line, Soundararajan said.

Amid all the controversy, Gupta and Soundararajan posted on YouTube a version of the talk they had intended to give. During the video call, Edwards said she watched the talk and thought it was amazing.

(This article was available on The Washington Post Syndicated Service on June 2, 2022)



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