Silicon Valley Has a Caste Discrimination Problem

Dalit Indians working at U.S. tech companies tell VICE News they try to hide their identities to avoid caste-based discrimination they thought they had left behind.
August 5, 2020, 3:16pm
A Facebook employee walks by a sign displaying the "like" sign at Facebook's corporate headquarters campus in Menlo Park, California, on October 23, 2019.

When Maya, a computer scientist, left India in 2002 at age 21, she thought she was finally leaving her home country's oppressive caste system behind.

Maya is a Dalit, a group previously called “untouchables” in India’s caste system, which has structured Hindu society for centuries. Under the caste system, people are ranked at birth, and that impacts every aspect of their lives, including where they work, who they marry, and access to education.

But she soon learned that caste discrimination didn't respect borders, and for 18 years she has faced discrimination at the hands of higher-caste Brahmin Indians who have established powerful cliques within many of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies. She has hidden her identity and even used fake names to get work.

“You see the social seclusion within your colleagues. They don't want to eat lunch with you, they don't smile back at you, they do not have longer conversations with you,” Maya told VICE News. “If I use my real name, I get excluded from the interviews.”

For decades this silent discrimination had remained hidden, as Dalits have been terrified of speaking out over fears of losing their jobs or their visas. But that changed in June when the state of California filed a lawsuit against Cisco Systems and two of its employees, the first time in U.S. history that a government department has brought a case against a private company based on caste discrimination.

The complainant in this case is an Indian Dalit who alleged two of his colleagues, both higher-caste Indians, discriminated against him by isolating him from co-workers and denying him opportunities for advancement.

In the weeks since the lawsuit was announced, more than 250 Dalits from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Netflix, and dozens of others in Silicon Valley have come forward to report discrimination, bullying, ostracization, and even sexual harassment by colleagues who are higher-caste Indians, according to data provided exclusively to VICE News by Dalit advocacy group Equality Labs.

There have been 33 complaints from Dalit employees at Facebook, 20 complaints at Google, 18 at Microsoft, 24 more at Cisco, and 14 at Amazon. There were also complaints recorded from employees at Twitter, Dell, Netflix, Apple, Uber, and Lyft — as well dozens more complaints from a range of smaller Silicon Valley companies and some companies outside the technology sector.

“I think that every single tech company is vulnerable,” Thenmozhi Soundarajan, director of Equality Labs, told VICE News. “I think that the whole Valley is watching what happens with the Cisco case.”

The claim of widespread caste discrimination across the Valley is backed up by the accounts of six Dalits living in the U.S. who told VICE News about their own experiences of discrimination that stretches all the way from America’s education system to some of the more valuable companies in the world.

“Caste discrimination is in every U.S. company where Indians are working.”

“Caste discrimination is in every U.S. company where Indians are working,” said Maya, who, like all the Dalits who spoke to VICE News, is using a pseudonym over fears that revealing her name and caste identity would jeopardize her job and future prospects.

Inside many tech companies, it’s not unusual to find all-Indian teams where Dalits can be subject to caste-based discrimination, which limits their opportunities.

“It's kind of like the mob,” Soundarajan said. “You are not up against one bad apple; you are up against the whole network, and that's what’s so challenging and why it's been so difficult for people to come forward.”

And it appears the companies where this is happening have done little to curb the practice through explicit policies to address caste issues, or they don’t even understand just how widespread the problem is.

“The HR departments in so many of these companies just are not culturally competent enough about the issues of caste to even understand the recording of these issues,” Soundarajan said.

More than 259 people have contacted Equality Labs in recent weeks to share details about their experiences, including discrimination in hiring, a toxic workplace culture, sexual harassment, caste slurs, demotions, and even firings based solely on their Dalit status and their superiors being of a higher caste.

Almost all of the companies ignored requests for comment on the complaints. Microsoft, Uber, and Netflix declined to comment on the record, while Dell, Cisco, and Twitter gave broad responses about promoting diversity and dealing with complaints — though none of the responses directly addressed the issue of caste.

Indians in America

Silicon Valley is overwhelmingly dominated by white men, especially at senior and executive level positions. But within the tech industry, Indians have carved out an important niche for themselves as skilled engineers and coders.

Indians migrants in the U.S. are typically highly educated with a median income twice as high as the general population. They also fill a significant skills gap in some of America’s biggest companies.

This is especially true in Silicon Valley, where India’s tech-focused education systems provide a consistent supply line of highly educated workers. For example, more than 70% of H1-B visas — which are widely used by Valley companies to recruit overseas talent — were issued to Indians in 2019.

Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google, and Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, are both Indian immigrants who come from the higher Brahmin caste and now lead two of the world’s most powerful organizations.

But despite the Indian immigration story looking like a huge success, the largely ignored issue of caste discrimination against lower-caste Indians shows that deeply ingrained prejudices persist, and have left tens of thousands of people living in fear for decades.

Ingrained in the culture

India outlawed discrimination by caste in 1950 with the introduction of the Indian constitution. At the same time, the notion of “untouchability” was removed and the government introduced a program of affirmative action to ensure members of lower castes were given educational opportunities as well as a fixed minimum percentage of government jobs.

But despite these efforts, caste discrimination still plagues India. Just this week, a mob of more than a dozen people brutally beat up a Dalit man with sticks in the South Indian state of Karnataka just because he touched a scooter belonging to an upper-caste man.

Caste is ingrained in India’s culture, and it’s been long expected that the system would travel with Indians as they migrate abroad.

“If Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, caste would become a world problem,” B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit statesman, civil rights leader, and author of India’s constitution, predicted back in 1916.

Over one hundred years later, that prediction is coming true.

“There's no question that when Indians come to the United States, they carry their culture with them, and the overwhelming majority of them are higher-caste Hindus. Only about 1% of them are Dalits,” Kevin Brown, a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law who has been traveling to India to study caste discrimination for 25 years, told VICE News. “If they're identified as Dalit by the caste Hindus, there's no question they're subject to discrimination here in the U.S.”

Because the U.S. government does not track caste when handing out visas, there are no reliable figures available for how many of the roughly 3 million Indians currently living in the U.S. are Dalits.

Dalits make up roughly 25% of the Indian population, but because they are typically not afforded the same educational opportunities as higher-caste Indians, the number of Dalits coming to the U.S. is significantly lower.

But, even if Dalits made up just 1% of the Indian population in the U.S. — which is roughly 3 million — that would mean 30,000 Dalits are being discriminated against, with almost all of them living in fear, hiding their caste identity because revealing it would lead to harassment, firing, or social exclusion.

And unlike in India, where caste discrimination is against the law, there are no such protections in the U.S.

“All these groups [of upper-caste Indians] are so well connected that everyone knows everyone. It's all tightly connected across all companies,” Sam, who has worked in U.S. tech companies, including Cisco, for the last 12 years, told VICE News.

But even before Dalit engineers get to Silicon Valley, they face discrimination.

‘Casteist monster’

In a survey conducted by Equality Labs in 2016, 40% of Dalit students reported facing discrimination in U.S. educational institutions, while just 3% of respondents who were from higher castes reported the same. Like what happened to Suresh, when he traveled from India to Fargo to study engineering at the North Dakota State University in 2012, when there were around 500 Indian students.

While working a part-time job, Suresh overheard some other Indian students denigrating lower-caste Indians, using casteist slurs against Dalits.

“I told him, ‘Because of a casteist monster like you, the world is not progressing.’”

“I told him, ‘Because of a casteist monster like you, the world is not progressing. You're the real problem: You believe that because of your birth, you're born superior to others.’ That's a sick mindset.”

But as a result of this, fellow Indian students began ignoring him or avoiding him altogether.

Two Dalit students who witnessed the incident told Suresh afterward that they would have backed him up but were afraid to be outed as Dalit because they’d be kicked out of their accommodations, as their roommates had insisted on renting rooms only to higher-caste Indians.

Suresh told VICE News that he’s still in contact with one of those Dalits, who is working for Deloitte and still hiding his identity over fears he would lose his job.

‘Are you vegetarian?’

Suresh is now working in the tech sector in the U.S., and while he hasn’t experienced discrimination in his job, he has seen how openly Indians talk about it around mostly-oblivious Americans.

“I've seen IBM contractors on the same floor that I work openly talking about caste.”

“I've seen IBM contractors on the same floor that I work openly talking about caste, openly talking down to the lower castes, saying these people don't deserve to be here and just really chest-thumping their casteist ideology.”

This type of behavior is consistent with the allegations described in the Cisco lawsuit and what other Dalits told VICE News about the environment in U.S. tech companies where tight-knit groups of higher-caste Indians work.

Casteist discrimination can take different forms, both explicit and implicit.

Maya says her boss at one job, a higher-caste Indian, simply ignored her suggestions at meetings, until colleagues began to notice.

Raina, who’s been in the U.S. for 15 years, says her promotion was on hold for five years at one company where she worked with higher-caste Indians. When she moved to a different company with no other Indians, she was promoted within four months.

Bhaskar, who currently works with a “government company,” says he’s been working in the tech sector for 20 years, mostly as a contractor. In that time he has attended more than 100 interviews and says that only once when an Indian was on the panel conducting the interview did he get the job.

Indians will not ask outright what caste you are, as it’s seen as overly discriminatory, but they use more subtle methods to identify your place in the caste structure.

“Sometimes they ask, ‘Are you vegetarian?’ If you say yes, they ask are you vegetarian by birth or by choice, before getting into which village you come from, because sometimes the village gives up your caste,” Sam said.

Another method described to VICE News is the pat on the back to see if the person is wearing a Juneau, a sacred white thread typically worn by the upper castes in India.

Higher-caste Indians will also search social media accounts to ascertain a job candidate’s religious views or diet.

It’s getting worse

While experiences of discrimination differed among the people VICE News spoke to, they all agreed on one thing: The caste discrimination problem in Silicon Valley — and in the U.S. generally — is getting worse, not better.

“It’s getting worse,” Maya said. “Especially with a right-wing government in both India and the U.S., casteist supremacists have gotten emboldened.”

Several specifically blamed Narendra Modi’s increasingly divisive policies of Hindu nationalism, which, combined with Donald Trump’s brand of populism in the U.S., has created an atmosphere that allows discrimination to thrive.

“What Modi is doing is pushing India toward a Hindu nation,” Brown said. “He's doubling down on those Hindu beliefs, which untouchability is an aspect of it. India is beginning to embrace its Hindu traditions, which by definition leads to discrimination against Dalits because of the history of Hinduism.”

The link between Modi’s brand of nationalism and Trump’s was seen clearly during a rare rally in Texas last year for a foreign leader, where the U.S. president described Modi as “one of America's greatest, most devoted and most loyal friends.”

Ironically it was Dalits who helped get Modi elected in 2014, but under his rule, their plight has worsened. And according to Dalits living in the U.S., that experience has been mirrored among the migrant Indian community.

And now Dalits are worried that nothing will improve for the next generation.

“It’s gotten really worse, and I am really worried for my daughter,” Raina says, lamenting she doesn’t let her daughter play with other Indian children over fears their families will begin asking about caste.

“I can deal with my isolation,” Raina said. “I have other things I can focus on. But this 4-year-old, I don’t know how I can answer her questions.”

Cover: A Facebook employee walks by a sign displaying the "like" sign at Facebook's corporate headquarters campus in Menlo Park, California, on October 23, 2019. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)