Google canceled a lecture on caste bias by Thenmozhi Soundararajan after some employees revolted

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The rising Hindu nationalist movement that has spread from India through the diaspora has reached inside Google, employees say.

In April, Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the founder and executive director of Equality Labs — a nonprofit that champions Dalits, or members of the lowest-ranked caste — was scheduled to lecture Google News employees for the month. of Dalit history. But Google employees began spreading misinformation, calling it “Hinduphobic” and “anti-Hindu” in emails to company executives, documents posted on Google’s intranet and mailing lists with thousands of employees, according to copies of documents as well as interviews. with Soundararajan and current Google employees who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fears of retaliation.

Soundararajan appealed directly to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who comes from an upper caste family in India, to allow his presentation to go forward. But the discussion was called off, leading some employees to conclude that Google was deliberately ignoring caste bias. Tanuja Gupta, the senior Google News executive who invited Soundararajan to speak, resigned over the incident, according to a copy of her farewell email published internally on Wednesday and seen by The Washington Post.

Indian engineers have thrived in Silicon Valley. Just like its caste system.

Soundararajan – who has lectured on caste at Microsoft, Salesforce, Airbnb, Netflix and Adobe – said Equality Labs began receiving invitations to speak from tech companies following the George Floyd protests. “Most institutions wouldn’t do what Google did. It’s absurd. Bigots can’t keep up with civil rights conversations,” 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 invited to advocate for change. Then they are punished for disrupting the status quo.

In Gupta’s farewell email, she questioned whether Google wanted its diversity efforts to succeed. “Retaliation is standard Google practice for handling internal criticism, and women suffer the consequences,” she wrote. Gupta was one of the organizers of Google Walkout 2018, 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 six organizers have already left the company.

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

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

Equality Labs, based in Oakland, Calif., champions caste civil rights formerly called “untouchables” in a millennial system of social hierarchy that originated with Hinduism in India, but has proliferated in 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 descent, including Microsoft’s Pichai, Satya Nadella and Twitter’s Parag Agrawal. Some employees say patterns of discrimination have been replicated within Silicon Valley companies.

Soundararajan, who is Dalit, has 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 appeared to have little understanding of caste, even as it impacted hate speech in their largest markets, she said.

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So Equality Labs had to collect data and help social media companies build cultural competence on caste. The group took the same research-driven approach to examining caste biases in the workplace.

Through its advocacy on content moderation, Equality Labs has developed a strong network of Dalit technicians. After the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) filed a lawsuit against Cisco alleging caste discrimination, their phone lines were flooded with bias reports and the group again began collecting Datas. (Although the US Employment Act does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of caste, the DFEH maintains that caste is protected under existing laws. Caste is however a protected category in India. This leaves companies such than Google and Cisco, which have offices in both countries, with different discrimination standards.)

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

For the presentation, Soundararajan hoped to speak to the 60-odd Google employees who were due to attend — who work in product and engineering at News and Search — about caste equity in newsrooms, drawing on on a talk she gave at the Google Cloud Next event in November 2021. She planned to explain the composition 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 emailed CEOs and Gupta “with inflammatory language about how they felt aggrieved and how they thought their lives were at risk by the caste equity discussion “, according to the emails sent by Gupta. Some of the complaints “copied content from disinformation sites known to harm the speaker’s reputation”, according to emails from Gupta – sites and organizations that have targeted academics in the United States and Canada who are critical of the speaker. Hindu nationalism or the caste hierarchy.

These online campaigns can scare away institutions unfamiliar with caste politics, Soundararajan said. “They ask, ‘Are there people in their own community who don’t agree with them? This may be a battle we don’t want to get into. ”

Google previously allowed Soundararajan to give a similar speech, but executives postponed his presentation to the Google News team.

Then the controversy within Google shifted to an 8,000-person messaging group for South Asian employees, according to three current employees. After Gupta posted a link in the messaging group to a petition to restore the speech, 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 be further divisive. Some have called caste equity a form of reverse discrimination against higher castes due to India’s affirmative action system for access to education and government jobs. Others said people from marginalized castes lacked the education to correctly interpret Hindu scriptures around caste.

For Soundararajan, Google was long overdue for a conversation about caste equity. Pichai, the CEO, “is Indian and he is a Brahmin and he grew up in Tamil Nadu. It is impossible for you to grow up in Tamil Nadu and not know caste because of how caste politics has shaped the conversation,” Soundararajan told the Post. “If he can make impassioned statements about Google [diversity equity and inclusion] commitments in the wake of George Floyd, he should absolutely make these same commitments in the context from which he comes where he is someone privileged.

Soundararajan said Pichai did not respond to the letter she sent him in April. Google declined to comment.

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

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

Soundararajan warned that this level of control would mean that no Dalit would be allowed to talk about caste. She compared it to not letting a victim of abuse talk 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.

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

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