RITU JHA –
“They said they felt unsafe if I were to talk about caste.”
According to Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit civil rights scholar and executive director of Equality Labs, that was what people at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, told her when they canceled her talk on “caste equity,” which was to be hosted by Google News on April 15.
Soundararajan has been invited by Google News earlier, too, as part of Google’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) program. When last she talked to indica about her dealings with Google, she was enthusiastic.
Soundararajan has been advocating for the addition of caste as a protected category in institutions and has succeeded in convincing California State University and UC Davis to include caste in their discrimination policy. Even the California Democratic Party has acknowledged it.
But this April, things suddenly flipped back for Soundararajan when Google abruptly canceled her talk without any written explanation.
Asked if was Google’s decision was shocking, she said, “Look nothing about dominant caste bigotry shocks me, but what I was shocked by was that Google, which used to be a news company, was unable to discern disinformation, and its also unethical – their discriminatory practices towards Dalit people.”
In a four-page letter to Pichai, she urged him to consider his duty to not let the forces of bigotry stop progress.
She wrote: “I write to you directly to remind you that this is also a moral obligation. You and I are both Tamil. You are from a Brahmin family, and I am from a Dalit family. In Madurai where you are from, Dalit people like myself face terrible violence. It is the site of the terrible 1997 Melavalavu massacre where the president of a village and six other Dalit men were hacked to death because dominant caste people refused to allow a democratically elected Dalit president to conduct his term.”
“I wrote an email letter and he received it and did not respond,” Soundararajan told indica.
Asked who, if anyone, does she think would have asked the management to disinvite her, Soundararajan said, “It seems some dominant caste… trying to confuse the Google management. When it comes to caste equity, it’s clear that Google lacks caste competence, and that they listen to… bigots.”
According to her, workers have been coming to her group to say they deal with caste-related discrimination.
“Workers don’t feel safe in their companies. And imagine all the hatred my family [faces]. My senior parents are targeted only because [dominant caste groups] were upset because I said one truth,” Soundararajan said.
“Caste discrimination exists in the US and we must address it, that’s it! And for that, there is this level of disinformation and bigotry. If they can do it to me, imagine what they can do it to their workers. … We have harbored bigotry and caste discrimination for too long. Now that it is getting exposed, people to have a choice: they can either be part of the healing of caste discrimination or they can be part of the problem. But silence and ignoring it no longer an option.”
It was all over the news as well as on social media when Tanuja Gupta, a manager at Google and Soundararajan’s talk organizer, resigned and informed over 15,000 employees about Google’s decision.
Soundararajan described Gupta as “a Google manager who tried to champion caste equity and got penalized for it.”
Meanwhile, in a press 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.”
Soundararajan asked, “Have you heard anyone saying if I talk about anti-blackness I feel unsafe. I think only people who feel unsafe at discussions about discrimination are people who discriminate. It’s the bigots.”
She said that caste as a protected category doesn’t impact anyone of any faith; it only impacts those engaged in harassment and discrimination.
“They are trying so hard because they know they have enjoyed many, many years of [engaging in] bigotry and discrimination towards Dalits,” she said “The fact the Dalits are saying we want to be safe is the problem here.”
In a press note, the Alphabet Workers Union’s Communications Workers of America said the group supported Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Tanuja Gupta.
“Thenmozhi Soundararajan was deplatformed by discriminatory and casteist disinformation at Alphabet, and Tanuja Gupta was retaliated against (leading to her resignation) for wanting to further the cause of caste equity at the workplace,” it said.
In an email exchange with indica, Catalina Brennan-Gatica of the Worker Agency, a union, said: “In an email to over 15,000 Alphabet workers, Tanuja Gupta shared a disturbing series of events that led to her leaving the company.”
These are the changes Alphabet Workers Union-Communications Workers of America wants Google to be doing:
Adding caste to all of its HR policies in all locations.
Reinstating Soundararajan’s talk at Google News, and agreeing to a continued commitment to bringing in Dalit and caste-oppressed speakers to address caste discrimination.
Committing to addressing caste discrimination in the company with investments commensurate with its other DEI pledges.
Soundararajan asked that if Amazon and Apple could acknowledge the problem and are training human resources departments this, why not Google?
“It seems they want to join Cisco [which has been sued on charges of caste-based discrimination],” said Soundararajan. “They are falling behind in their discriminatory practices.”
She said that Dalit people are not going back in the closet.
“We need American institutions and government to really address it. It’s not about the policy, it’s about hearts and minds. Many South Asians have reached out and said, “Finally we can talk about this thing that has wounded and traumatized us. We want to heal.”
Despite repeated efforts by indica, Google had not responded till press time.