Caste in Silicon Valley: ‘Worst kept secret’ versus ‘aberration’


Hundreds of people from across the world have signed the petition in solidarity with the India-born Cisco employee who was allegedly bullied by his Indian supervisors for being a Dalit – the lowest rung in the Indian caste hierarchy.

Caste-ism in the United States is the Indian-American community’s worst kept secret, feel many desis.

“People are ready to get their kids go fo an interracial marriage here in the US, but not to someone from a lower caste,” said a California-based Indian-American doctor, who did not want to be identified for this report.

“These are educated people,” he said with a laugh.

The Ambedkar King Study Circle, the California-based organization that has started the solidarity petition  with the Cisco employee, said the objective was also to create awareness.

S Karthikeyan, executive member of the study circle, pointed to the June 30 statement of Kevin Kish, director of Department of Fair Employment and Housing: “It is unacceptable for workplace conditions and opportunities to be determined by a hereditary social status determined by birth. Employers must be prepared to prevent, remedy, and deter unlawful conduct against workers because of caste.”

Karthikeyan said: “We need to ensure the effective implementation of the June 30 order.”

Do American companies need to be educated on caste?

“Yes, the companies have to be educated about the practice of caste, which is mostly subtle and covert,” Karthikeyan told indica News. “Without such education and introduction it’s not possible for them to frame policies to implement the regulation.”

Dalit rights activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan

Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder and executive director of Equality Labs, said the study circle’s petition was part of a broader movement. The Equality Labs describes itself as “an Ambedkarite South Asian progressive power-building organization that uses community research, cultural and political organizing, popular education and digital security to fight the oppressions of caste apartheid, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and religious intolerance.”

“The petition in addition to the organizing happening across the US by Dalit organizations is part of a large movement that has been going on for many years to address caste discrimination in the US,” Soundararajan told indica News.

She said Equality Labs has been working with many employees around the US who are now bringing up the issue of caste with their HR departments.

“We have people from 30 companies reaching out and more folks are coming on board as they try to move their companies to address this issue proactively, given how large the scope and the scale of the problem is,” she said.

The lawsuit against Cisco filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing has alleged that the tech giant ignored the caste discrimination an Indian engineer faced from two managers who harassed the engineer because he was from a lower caste.

The managers told the employee’s colleagues that the plaintiff was from the “Scheduled Caste” (Dalit) and got admission in the Indian Institute of Technology through affirmative action, according to the lawsuit.

“We know that it is important to show power in this moment given how casteist the [Silicon] Valley is and how quickly they will try to create contention about the existence of caste in Silicon Valley,” Soundararajan said about the petition.

“But this is the worst kept secret that must come out. I mean even the fact that Silicon Valley is Agraharam Valley is a shame to how many discriminatory traditions have come to tech,” she said. “Anytime our community comes forward Dalits will get threats, insults, and attempts to discredit or dismiss our truths.”

Suhag Shukla, executive director, Hindu American Foundation, however, felt incidents of casteism in the US were more exception than norm.

Asked if casteism exists at the workplace among the desi community, Shukla told indica News: “As the desi community grows in the US it’s certainly possible that incidents of casteism do and will occur.”

She added: “However, we have yet to see statistically sound and independent evidence that casteism is at all widespread in US. If feelings of casteism exist in any South Asian community or individual, it is only because they have not followed the teachings of contemporary religious leaders, nor Hindu scripture, both of which unequivocally promote the notion that we are all equally imbued with the Divine and that any sort of discrimination such as casteism is a fundamental violation of that teaching.”