Caste discrimination in some of Silicon Valley's richest tech companies : Planet Money For some Indian employees of big U.S. tech companies, caste discrimination is real. To combat it, first people have to talk about it. That's hard. | Today's episode is from our friends at Rough Translation.
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Caste Arrives In Silicon Valley

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Caste Arrives In Silicon Valley

Caste Arrives In Silicon Valley

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

NICK FOUNTAIN, HOST:

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Nick Fountain. Today, we're going to play part of an episode of one of my favorite podcasts. It's called Rough Translation. It's hosted by Gregory Warner. I'm sure you've heard him on PLANET MONEY before. And the show we've adapted today is one they did recently about how some of the most powerful tech companies in the U.S. are reckoning with discrimination. It's a form of discrimination I had not heard of before in America. Here's Greg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GREGORY WARNER: When Sam Cornelius (ph) first arrived to the United States in the mid-'90s, he was surprised by how welcoming people were.

SAM CORNELIUS: The people were so encouraging. You know, hey, we are going to the swimming classes. Do you want to join us? - and things like that.

WARNER: They'd ask him questions about his home country, India. But even more surprising was the questions they did not ask. For instance, they did not try to know what his caste was or even what caste is.

And how did that feel for you, like, putting aside caste?

CORNELIUS: That is a really great feeling, you know - that, yes, now everything I will be judged by exactly what I deserve (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Sam is from the Dalit caste, formerly known as untouchables. And you may know this already, but the caste system in South Asia goes back thousands of years. It's based on an ancient division of labor and also purity. So there is a caste for priests. That's the Brahmins. But there's also a caste for the warriors, a caste for merchants, another caste for manual laborers.

Dalits were the sewer cleaners, the garbage collectors. And in India growing up, Sam was always reminded of his association with the unclean. He saw it in the way the teachers treated him at school and the jokes people made about caste. And he always wondered what kind of person he might be if he did not have a label at all, if he was just Sam, no caste attached. And it seemed like he'd finally found that person, that new Sam, in the United States.

CORNELIUS: I was doing so many activities and feeling so confident and feeling that my real potential is coming out.

WARNER: After that first trip to the United States, he took another one and another after that, always here as a company employee on a work visa, never a citizen. And as more South Asians came to work in tech jobs, he had more Indian coworkers and managers. And he noticed they were trying to suss out his caste.

CORNELIUS: There is famous spot on the back. Usually, Brahmins wear white thread around their shoulders.

WARNER: They patted his shoulders to see if he was wearing a white thread that only Brahmins wear.

CORNELIUS: So with you not even knowing, they will try to pat your shoulder and try to see - they're finding this thread.

WARNER: Was he a Brahmin, like them?

CORNELIUS: In other ways, they will call you for a swim, you know? Hey, let's go for a swim - because everybody takes their shirt off, and now they know who are wearing threads, who are not.

WARNER: Years ago, these invitations to go swimming with American friends and neighbors were a sign of acceptance. But now the same invitations from his fellow Indians felt like a trap to out him as a Dalit. And the consequences of being outed - well, that is what our episode is about...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: ...Because some people think that naming people's caste is the way forward to a fair world, while Sam is so afraid he'll be sacked and sent back to India for speaking out.

CORNELIUS: Yes, for this interview...

WARNER: He's decided, if he's going to speak out publicly on this topic, he's adopting a pseudonym.

CORNELIUS: ...I am Sam Cornelius. Of course, that is my alias.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: This is Rough Translation from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner with a story about how an ancient hierarchy that we usually associate with India...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAYA KAMBLE: I had an Indian manager.

WARNER: ...Has been imported to workplaces in the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMBLE: He knew what my caste was. So he wanted to dominate me as much as possible.

WARNER: Rough Translation - back after this break.

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WARNER: We are back with Rough Translation from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. We started talking about caste with Lauren Frayer...

LAUREN FRAYER: Hello. This is Lauren.

WARNER: ...NPR's India correspondent, who started thinking about caste and race in part because of an initiative at NPR to track the diversity of our sources. This is something we all now do, including this podcast. We will note how many women we're putting on the air, how many people of color and other demographic stats.

FRAYER: I see my company trying to better represent America with the voices we put on the air. And I'm looking at my own sourcing, and I get too much credit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: Every voice I bring to the airwaves from India is a person of color. Check the box, you know? That's diversity from my boss' point of view. But I'm looking at different types of diversity in India and thinking caste.

WARNER: There is no uncontroversial way to talk about caste, and even the words we use are fraught. So you're going to hear people in this story talk about upper caste and lower caste. We're going to try to avoid those hierarchies and say dominant caste and oppressed caste.

FRAYER: Oppression is a strong term, but it definitely applies here. This is oppression that's gone back centuries. It was really amplified by the British. So British colonists came in and gave Brahmins more privileges, elevated them and exploited this power differential between the Brahmins and other castes.

And so when Indians won their independence in 1947, they wrote a constitution that acknowledges that oppression and lays out bold measures to try to fix it - affirmative action programs to place Dalits in government jobs, to place Dalits in top universities. And all of that exists in India still today.

But despite all of this, Dalits in India face so much violence - disproportionate violence. Dalit women are raped more than women of other castes. Dalit men get lynched for falling in love with a dominant-caste woman.

WARNER: Lauren knew she wanted to find out people's caste to make sure she was hearing from a variety of voices, including people who don't always get access to speak. But this brought a new problem. How actually do you find out someone's caste?

CORNELIUS: So that is a good question. How does one person know your caste, right? It is not like you have a color which gives away your identity.

WARNER: Sam Cornelius says sometimes it's easy. You just read someone's caste by their surname.

CORNELIUS: Some surnames you cannot hide.

WARNER: And how about your real surname? Is it easy to hide?

CORNELIUS: Yeah, my real surname doesn't give away my caste easily.

WARNER: Oh.

CORNELIUS: OK? That is why, immediately, when I tell the surname, they will ask me, oh, where do you come from? You know, which part of that state you come from? They had to ask a follow-up question.

FRAYER: If you can't tell by surname, you can ask about someone's neighborhood.

CORNELIUS: I also try to be clever. I come from Hyderabad. So I tell, oh, I am from Hyderabad.

FRAYER: It's a city of 9 million people, and all castes are there.

CORNELIUS: So that's where the people are not satisfied if you give a city name. So what they do is - no, no, no. I'm not talking about where you come from. Where do originally your parents - which region or district they came from.

WARNER: Sam keeps dodging the real question.

CORNELIUS: My parents used to stay in Bombay, OK? So I tell them, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Actually, before that, my father used to work in the railway, so he was in Delhi (laughter).

WARNER: You just keep naming cities.

CORNELIUS: Yeah, naming cities because that is the facts, also. Then they'll understand that I am playing around, too. They give up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: Sam doesn't want to reveal his caste because most of his Indian co-workers are from dominant castes. In fact, the overwhelming majority of South Asians in America are from dominant castes. They're often the ones with the resources and access to get here.

CORNELIUS: The other question usually people ask is - oh, are you vegetarian? - because Brahmins are vegetarians. Even if you say, well, yes, I'm a vegetarian, if you are an Indian asking an Indian to find out a caste, you would say, are you vegetarian by birth or by choice? OK?

WARNER: And the tricky thing about this is that a co-worker could be overhearing this entire conversation and still have no clue what they're really talking about.

CORNELIUS: Yeah, yeah. They will nod. Even the people who are very active about race, they know race discrimination and all - they might have not heard about caste at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: After the break, something happens that will have Sam and a lot of people in America talking with surprising candor about caste.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Suing a big corporation like Cisco was the most delightful news I heard in quite some time.

WARNER: That's when Rough Translation returns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We're back with Rough Translation. I'm Gregory Warner. And today, we're talking about caste, and not just caste in India, but how the caste system has been imported to corporate America.

FRAYER: So earlier this summer, a lawsuit was filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing on behalf of an engineer at Cisco Systems. That's one of the largest makers of computer networking equipment. They've got offices around the world. They also hire a lot of Indians on H-1B visas to come to the U.S.

WARNER: And like a lot of tech companies now, they have some teams that are all Indian employees. This lawsuit focuses on a team like that at Cisco's headquarters in San Jose, Calif.

FRAYER: An engineer on that team alleges that two of his supervisors, who are from dominant castes, discriminated against him because they knew he was from an oppressed caste.

WARNER: And what's his name, by the way?

FRAYER: We don't know his name. In the lawsuit, he is listed as John Doe. So John Doe, the alleged victim, says that when he confronted his superiors about this, he faced retaliation. And his superiors isolated him from colleagues, gave him assignments that were impossible to complete in the time given - so basically tried to push John Doe out of the company.

So what does he do? What are you told to do when you suspect you're a victim of discrimination? You go to your HR department. And that's what he does in November 2016.

WARNER: And this is where things get interesting. And again, what we know here is just completely according to the lawsuit. Cisco has not commented publicly on the details of this case. There's been no trial. There are no witness statements made public. But according to the lawsuit, John Doe's case is handled by a Cisco HR rep named Brenda Davis. And Davis investigates.

FRAYER: She gets a confession from one of John Doe's supervisors. This guy went to university with John Doe back in India 20 years ago, and now the supervisor tells the whole work team John Doe's caste.

WARNER: Allegedly, the supervisor confesses to revealing information that outed the engineer as a Dalit. Now Brenda Davis has to decide if this is discrimination. We've asked to talk with her or with someone else from Cisco's HR department. They did not make anyone available. What is public is Cisco's anti-discrimination policy.

FRAYER: Decisions are made without regard to gender, race, color, citizenship, religion, age, physical or mental ability, medical condition - this is the employee manual I'm reading - genetic information, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, veteran status, national origin, ancestry - but not caste.

WARNER: No. Maybe caste discrimination could fall under the term of ancestry, but Cisco's HR department did not read it that way. They closed the investigation - no discrimination here.

FRAYER: But then the engineer goes to the state of California, and the state argues that this was a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion or national origin.

WARNER: And the state of California - or rather, specifically, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing takes up the case, and they say U.S. laws against discrimination do apply to caste. And even though this case is in its early stages - it may take years to resolve and settle. But just the fact that this lawsuit is out there and that there might be some American legal response to casteism, it's made a lot more people in the U.S. speak out...

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THENMOZHI SOUNDARARAJAN: OK. Let's go ahead...

WARNER: ...About caste.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOUNDARARAJAN: Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening for those that are joining us in India.

WARNER: So this is a virtual town hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOUNDARARAJAN: ...This town hall on caste in tech.

WARNER: Thenmozhi Soundararajan, who goes by the Twitter handle @dalitdiva, runs a human rights organization called Equality Labs.

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SOUNDARARAJAN: After the Cisco case, Equality Labs got close to 300 similar complaints from Facebook, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Amazon, Dell, Twitter, Uber...

WARNER: Hundreds of complaints about caste discrimination in the workplace.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOUNDARARAJAN: ...Netflix, Salesforce, Lyft, Zoom, Dropbox and Quora.

WARNER: And she says none of these people went to HR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOUNDARARAJAN: Not a single person because of the H-1B.

WARNER: H-1B visas - so if you lose your job, you have to leave the States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOUNDARARAJAN: It's not just about losing your work; it's losing your status. One out of two Dalit respondents in our survey said they live in fear of being outed because...

WARNER: There are other Dalits who speak in this town hall. But they speak anonymously, behind blackened screens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMBLE: I had an Indian manager.

WARNER: Here's an IT worker who goes by the name Maya Kamble (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMBLE: He knew what my caste was. So he wanted to dominate me as much as possible. And one day, he asked me not to touch a new tool because I was ill-fated. It was a direct reference to me being from an untouchable background, and I could just remember how my ancestors were supposed to not touch things just because they were considered bad luck and even their shadow was considered bad luck.

WARNER: She'd never expected to feel that shadow over her.

Which gets us to the thorniest part of trying to fix this problem. Caste discrimination is largely a shadow issue in the U.S. It's not talked about openly, like race discrimination. And even many South Asian employees who might be second- or third-generation immigrants may never have been to India and may only have a dim understanding of their own caste privilege.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANIL DASH: Because it is fully possible to grow up within caste-privileged communities in America and not have visibility into the issues that people face as a result of caste in this country because they are erased.

WARNER: One of the last to speak at this virtual town hall on caste in tech is a Brahmin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DASH: I am as privileged as it gets, whether it is caste or gender or all the other aspects there. So I'm grateful to even get the chance to speak in these conversations.

FRAYER: Anil Dash is a tech CEO and writer who has been talking and tweeting about caste discrimination in the workplace even before this lawsuit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DASH: I can't emphasize this enough. Even the most powerful caste-privileged people in the industry who are of any South Asian descent still see themselves as completely precarious in a white-dominated tech industry, myself included. They still see themselves as they're the ones backed into a corner, they're vulnerable. So the idea that they are also replicating incredible harm, it is a leap. It has not occurred to them.

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WARNER: For Sam Cornelius and other Dalit employees, they say it's not enough for companies to just be aware of caste discrimination. They have to be proactive, make sure they're diversifying their employees and actually hiring more oppressed-caste workers.

CORNELIUS: They may caste us (ph), if possible, in their diversity and inclusion practices.

WARNER: In other words, he says that HR departments need to start asking employees about their caste and where they stand on this hierarchy, which are exactly the questions that Sam Cornelius is using an alias to try to avoid.

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FOUNTAIN: That was an excerpt from Rough Translation. It's not the whole episode. The rest of the episode goes into the invisible code people use to indicate their status in plain sight and what one person suggests we can do about it.

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FOUNTAIN: The episode is called "How To Be An Anti-Casteist," and you can find it and subscribe to the Rough Translation podcast wherever you are listening to this right now. Huge thanks to Gregory and the entire Rough Translation team for sharing this show with us today. I'm Nick Fountain. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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