Caste in the USA, Episode 4: Battling caste bias as a Dalit woman in tech, and thriving under non-Indian bosses

'Caste In The USA' is a podcast series examining the pervasiveness of caste discrimination among Indians in the US, hosted by Equality Labs' Thenmozhi Soundararajan. This is Episode 4.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan November 11, 2020 10:53:42 IST
Caste in the USA, Episode 4: Battling caste bias as a Dalit woman in tech, and thriving under non-Indian bosses

Editor's note: Firstpost is holding a series of conversations with Indians in the US, across its campuses, offices and households, to understand how caste discrimination pervades the community just as much as it does back home in India. Hosted by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit rights activist, artist, technologist and executive director of Equality Labs, the podcast cracks taboos about caste among Indians in the US. Listen to more episodes here.

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In Episode 4:

When it comes to women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), the inherent gendered bias is all too evident from the start. So for a Dalit woman, the process gets that much harder, because not only is she battling gender, she is also battling caste, where her perpetrators can be from any gender.

In the fourth episode of Caste In The USA, Thenmozhi Soundararajan (@dalitdiva) talks to Maya Kamble, one of the first women to enter the technical foray in the Valley. As an Ambedkarite Buddhist, Maya discusses the systemic caste bias she faced in the workplace.

In spite of a life in the USA, bigotry found its way to her through caste-dominant colleagues, which ultimately affected harmony and work productivity. Furthermore, the lack of context in this scenario for non-Indian HR personnel often meant an inability to seek protection against discrimination, even when Maya's caste was singled out through her religion or when she actually faced untouchability.

"They would think it's just a fight between brown people as caste is not a protective category in the United States. Even though the majority of workers in almost all big firms are from India, caste is still not a protective category, so there is no sensitivity around caste. People here don’t even know what caste means. A work visa also puts in a lot of barriers on what you can and cannot do," says Maya.

Join the conversation that seeks to explore how those from marginalised castes often thrive under non-Indian managers, whereas working under Indian managers results in inherent caste bias at the workplace.

"The biases stemming from caste are deeply internalised, which makes it difficult to change Indian colleagues unless they want to change themselves. It is also not my job to change people, my concern is how do I grow in my career and thrive, so the workaround that I found was to find a place where I have non-Indian colleagues," adds Maya.

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Listen to Caste in the USA, Episode 4 here:

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Read the complete transcript for Episode 4:

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Jai Bhim and Jai Savitri, everyone. I am Thenmozhi Soundararajan and welcome back to the podcast Caste In the United States with Firstpost. Today’s episode is a conversation with our dear colleague, Maya Kamble. Maya recently wrote an op-ed in Al Jazeera about her experiences of working as a Dalit woman in tech, and it was straight fire. We are excited that she is joining us today, so let’s get into it. Welcome, Maya and Jai Bhim. So Maya, can you tell us what was your experience of being an active Dalit woman in technology in the United States?

Maya Kamble: My experience as a technologist was that working with Indians was very, very difficult. The main reason being when I started my career I was already a human rights activist. I had been to many conferences, and I was helping marginalised children, and my videos and some of the webpages of the work I was doing were all online, (and could be found) when you googled me.

Early on in my career, I was not working with Indians, so I did not really see a pushback. But later on, when I changed my company and started working with Indians where I had an Indian manager, I really saw how discriminatory he was. Initially, the discrimination was very implicit, meaning he would not recognise me talking in meetings or discussions. He would not take up my points even though they were really valid. This led to my non-Indian colleagues helping me out. They were also noticing...it was so open, that they were also noticing that this manager was biased against me.

They started helping me out in terms of what I wanted to get implemented because my suggestions were good and valid. Six to nine months down the line, he grew increasingly frustrated as he realised his showing bias against me was not working that much. One day, he told me that I better not touch a tool as I was ill-fated. This was like a shocker to me. He was coming up with the context of 'untouchability', where previously lower-caste individuals were treated as untouchables because you were probably not pure enough, or ill-fated, or jinxed. I never imagined that caste would manifest like this towards me in the United States, that too after crossing all the barriers of country and after being educated in the United States — I never could imagine that caste would manifest for me in this way.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: This is so important, especially for our listeners to understand that Maya is in the generation where she was one of the first Dalit technical engineers in the Valley and in the tech scene as a whole, so it was already an achievement for her to be here.

What is really interesting about what she is describing tells us that there was systemic bias in the workplace because her manager knew she was an Ambedkarite. He would continually ice her out of conversations until that breaking point when he called her ill-fated. That’s a challenge when you try to translate that to an American HR department, because they will be like, ‘Oh, what? He called you unlucky? So what?’ But for those of us who are from this context, we know that being Dalit is being linked with inauspiciousness, bad luck, and in particular, they use these terms related to Dalit women very often. The gap of having to explain that and also the way he wielded that at you is a lot of context to share with the HR department.

The reason why your story rang so true in terms of our experience at Equality Labs is that we have heard many cases of similar staff members who were not allowed to touch things because (they would be blamed) for polluting things. In fact, this one scientist in Massachusetts was telling me that during his studies, the Brahmin professor wouldn’t allow him to touch the petri dish because he felt he would pollute the experiments because he was so unlucky. So, this is not just luck without context; it has a whole history of centuries of caste bias and discrimination and I wonder, Maya, if you can share a little more about how that made you feel? What did your other co-workers do? Did you report to HR — why or why not?

Maya Kamble: That day was so shocking to me, Thenmozhi, that I really did not know how to react in that particular moment. My colleagues were there and they said that’s probably not a sentence in a good taste and they immediately reacted. But I just froze at that point. I thought over it over the night and I cried — I felt really bad. I went to the restroom and I cried. After that, I thought over it over the night and I thought I have to tell this to my HR. But my HR was also American, and I was on a work visa, so I did not think that my HR would completely understand what I was trying to say and if something doesn't go in my favour, I would be looking at losing my work visa and green card because of this.

But I still wanted to do something, so the first thing that came to my mind was that I should confront my manager. The very next thing that I did when I went to the office was I took him to a room and I just confronted him. I told him that I did not appreciate his comments at all — that’s when he apologised. He also probably got some more feedback from my other colleagues because he said this in the presence of many colleagues. He apologised to me profusely, and started to correct his behaviour. That was also one of the reasons why I thought to leave the matter there and not go to HR. As you already said, it's very difficult for HR to understand the complete context because I thought they would think it's just a fight between two brown people and they would not completely understand the context because caste is not a protected category in the United States. Even though the majority of workers in most of the big firm companies are from India, caste is still not a protected category, so there is no sensitivity around caste. People don’t even know what caste means. So that was the reason. A work visa also puts in a lot of barriers on things of what you can and cannot do.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Wow, Maya. Once you were struck with how hard it is to work with managers from Indian-origins, what were some of the other options you had?

Maya Kamble: My first manager was a black manager. He was so welcoming and I was able to thrive and learn so much, and was able to show my work. (It was) the same with any other non-Indian managers — I really thrived in my job and I was accomplishing things. There was a sense of gratification that I had that I was doing something. With an Indian manager, it's mostly about trying to scramble myself to get something to a manager’s ears.

What used to happen was when people start to implicitly show bias against you, it affects a person’s confidence and spirit of working. The work place becomes hostile. With non-Indian managers or colleagues, it's much more welcoming when we go for work. You are spending 8-9 hours a day at your workplace so you are happy. You leave happy and when you are working there you are happy. That was not the case with an Indian manager, at least for me. I was always struggling to get over the politics of being from the Dalit community, and trying to figure out how to make my time worthwhile over there.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: That’s really an important point. What’s happening in these hostile workplaces has nothing to do with Dalit competence, but it has everything to do with the way dominant-caste people’s bigotry and bias is actually affecting harmony and work product in the workplace.

I always love something that you said in another organising conversation that we had, where you were like it is very important to know that when Dalits are not working under dominant-caste people, we don’t just survive, we thrive. This question of implicit bias becomes a really crucial one because you said, in other contexts, that what you are seeing is something that these people are not even conscious of how bigoted they are. And I am wondering if you can talk a little about that?

Maya Kamble: Sure, absolutely! So there was another time...I would like to give an example that one of my colleagues had assumed I was a Hindu, and she would call me to all these pujas. And being a woman, they would think or assume that I would go for pujas. And one day, they called me two or three times and I did not go. They were very curious why I was not coming because it is very unlike other Indian women.

When I very politely told them I am a Buddhist and I don’t believe in the rituals, that’s why I wasn't coming, they were really shocked, and the colleague said: 'Oh! I did not know there were any born Buddhists in India’, implying that people from only lower castes would convert themselves to Buddhism. So, I was like, that's when she knew what my caste was. She again started making some other comments and probably told other Indian colleagues too. So I would see the difference in their behaviour. Earlier, they would eat lunch with me, they used to hang out with me more, but here I was facing seclusion just because of revealing who I was.

The main reason why I was forced to reveal my caste location was because I was not going to their rituals or their traditional ceremonies. And it is not just one colleague...but when one colleague knows, all the Indian colleagues know about you. You face seclusion from multiple people at the same time, you feel outcasted in your workplace at the same time. The workplace environment becomes hostile. They are not even saying it out loud but it shows in their behaviour, it implicitly shows in their behaviour that they are treating you as someone from a lower caste even though I was educated in and I did my master’s in the US. And probably they haven’t done that, and I was in a senior position to them at the workplace — they were junior to me. And still, they were showing an implicit bias knowingly or unknowingly.

They would also talk about reservations and how it has ruined their lives because somebody in their family could not get into college or university. But here we are all equal and they are still showing that bias against us. It would naturally come to them, it would be an effort for them to stop that conversation. It was so natural for them to just say those things.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: It was very interesting that you said that there was a question about pujas and an invitation that you declined. And from there, even questions about your religion (were raised) — because those questions help your peers to socially locate your caste, and this is a really painful truth because these inquiries are not about building intimacy; they are about establishing caste hierarchy and there is no innocent motive in asking these things. For our listeners who are not South Asians, you have to understand that this really is the paper bag test for our community. The litmus test of our caste appropriateness comes out of these really invasive questions related to religion, eating practices, even our villages of origin. It is so stressful, and it is part of what makes up a hostile and casteist workplace.

So, to that point Maya, how did you deal with these questions at work? And what workarounds would you recommend for other caste-oppressed people who are listening in our audience?

Maya Kamble: I mean the workaround that I found was either to work for yourself, that is by being an entrepreneur, or the other option is to work in an environment where your colleagues are non-Indians. Because it is very stressful to change other people, and as I said, caste is in their DNA. The biases are (so) internalised that it is very difficult for us to change Indian colleagues unless they want to change themselves. And it is also not my responsibility to change them. For me, I want to grow in my career, I want to thrive in my career, so the workaround that I found was to find a place where I have non-Indian colleagues. That way, I am not stressed about what these Indian colleagues know about me, how they would show biases against me; so I am not stressed about that anymore.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I just want to pick up on that, Maya, because the thing I think is so interesting about what you are sharing is that it is easier for Dalits to work under anybody else than a dominant-caste person. We are putting down a boundary, we are not here to fix dominant-caste people who need to actually do their own work to confront their own bigotry. It’s 2020. At this point, we don’t need to keep articulating that caste exists, and what we need to start moving in formation is how to annihilate caste.

My mom thinks the CISCO case is hilarious, and every day when I talk with her, it's like these damn people just discovered that caste existed yesterday, but who do you think is benefiting from all of this exploitation against our people? I think there is something about the CISCO case that’s sexy for people because it is white collar examples of bigotry, and because the State of California is focusing on it.

But imagine if the CISCO case is just the tip of the iceberg for us in the United States; imagine what is going on in India? Imagine that caste discrimination that is shaping the lives of someone who is working in a brick kiln, or someone who is a domestic worker or people that are manual scavengers. We are seeing widespread caste slavery all across the sub-continent and we just don’t call it that, we don’t focus on it simply because of the discomfort dominant-caste people who are afraid to look at what their privileges have kneaded in terms of the the exploitation of hundreds of millions of our people.

This is where a beautiful opportunity lies for the amazing anti-caste movement that is now global, to really take the lead and gently usher people into this new state of let’s move beyond caste denial, let’s stop focusing on the ridiculous argument that Dalits are ruining institutions because of affirmative action policies...and let’s instead, look at how much damage and human violence has occurred in the name of caste. How, despite centuries of exploitation, Dalit people are coming forward with courage, beauty and power, and are taking up arms in all of the beautiful ways we have excellent skills in — whether it's technology, or the creative arts, or in public speaking or in movement building.

This is an unprecedented time for the caste abolitionist movement, as we all take Ambedkar’s hard work forward. Maya, you have been a personal inspiration to our team because we don’t know many other Dalit, feminist technologists, and yet, you have been in the trenches fighting the fight both in the workplace, but also in our community. It means a lot because we know after the CISCO case came, Equality Labs received over 250 new rapid response complaints from Dalits all around the country who are complaining about casteism in tech, and in those stories, there were a significant group of Dalit women who were saying that they were also facing sexual harassment. They were disgusted by their Indian bosses and the way in which they treat caste-oppressed people, and they were just done. So I think with your courageous work and leadership...I am just curious, Maya, if you can share with our audience what you think should be our next steps that we need to do to stop this problem right in its tracks?

Maya Kamble: I really appreciate John Doe from CISCO case who has the courage to bring the issue of caste-based discrimination at workplace up and to take it to the court, so that he could get justice. Because of him, I have found the courage to come up and talk about my stories so openly as well. And now that you mentioned that Equality Labs has got over 250 complaints, all of this might just be the tip of the iceberg. So I think the next steps should be to recognise caste as one of the protected categories, specifically in areas where there are so many Indians working because wherever there are Indians, caste goes with them. Wherever they live, they make sure that they are in groups of caste; wherever they dine, they do the same so I think the main thing would be to make sure wherever Indians are, sensitise them about caste, and wherever they are working, caste should be added as a protected category. So that we feel that same level of protection, and we also can report any sort of discrimination that happens to our HR, and get justice from there. This would enable people like us — who are here despite the nepotism that goes on in getting jobs and are still thriving — it would give us a better opportunity and it would free our minds of working with just non-Indians. It would really help us to work in any sort of environment and will help us thrive. Right now, we are limiting ourselves to working with non-Indians. So we want that independence; if that happens that would be one of our biggest wins. Because we are talking about more than 260 million people worldwide who are from untouchable castes, so it's a very, very big population that we are talking about, and the problem is also that big.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I am so grateful that you spoke up. So few Ambedkarite women feel comfortable speaking forward because of not only concerns regarding H1B visa, but experiencing continued harassment at their workplace. Your voice is actually speaking for many women who share this experience but are not able to speak in the same way, so I am very grateful for you for sharing your thoughts with us today. I also want to remind people that if you are moved by any of the stories that we've told on this podcast, it's important that you take that inner change inside of your heart and use it for action. There are lots of ways in which people can get involved. You can start by getting educated about it, on the subject for which you can visit our website equalitylabs.org, where you can read the caste survey and engage with us on social media.

We also have a petition right now to add caste as a protected category. This is really crucial because without the protective category, many caste-oppressed people who are dealing with workplace discrimination or discrimination in education environments are not able to raise their cases because of the lack of cultural competency, and just the lack of familiarity people have in understanding what caste discrimination is. A protected category will open up so many things including data collection, so that we know how many people are impacted by caste based discrimination. But what it would really help us to do is build inter-caste, inter-faith workspaces that are harmonious where all people can survive and thrive in equity. Maya, thank you again, and before we close I just want to see if you had any last thoughts before we wrap our session today.

Maya Kamble: I just want to mention that because I have kids, I have seen many parents talk about Hindu religion, and coming and openly speaking about a few festivals in schools; so what happens there is, they are implicitly also teaching about caste supremacy to their kids. What is happening is that even the next generation of children who are growing up in the United States is growing up thinking that somehow one group of people are superior than the other.

Just to give you an example, I have a Buddhist friend who told me that one of her children’s American teachers had assumed that her children were Hindu and asked them if they would be celebrating Diwali. The kids told her that they wouldn’t be celebrating Diwali because they are Buddhists. In this process, one other Indian child must have heard this and gone and told their parents who in return told the kid that my friend’s children must be from the lower castes. The next day, the child comes to class and starts mocking my friend’s children by saying that they are from the lower castes. I am just giving this example to share that even outside the workplace, at home, kids are learning to be biased against so-called lower-caste people at a very young age. So, if we don’t sensitise people about caste even in the United States, the same pattern of discrimination that is happening in India will happen in the US, too. So thank you for calling me and giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts. Moreover, thank you for all the good work that you are doing. I just hope that whatever work we are doing helps, and caste be added as a protected category even in schools so that kids learn not to discriminate.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Let’s be clear, if dominant-caste people are left to their own devices, they would turn all of the United States into Agraharam United States. They will not stop until we put a stop to it collectively as a community, and I think that is one of the most important takeaways that I want to flag for people. It is so natural for people to start training their kids to distinguish between people based on their caste by teaching them someone is upper or someone is lower. Imagine, why does a five-year-old, in the United States, need to care about someone being upper or lower? And all that because of a difference of faith.

I think this is so important for people to consider, because a lot of these conversations we cannot have openly in India and our home countries, because of the impunity of caste, and because dominant-caste people in charge of many institutions including the media. We are not openly able to talk about this. But in the United States, we don’t have such restraints. In the United States, we have freedom as Dalit people in part due to many of the struggles Black people have led in this country on behalf of all of us for civil rights.

In order to honour that struggle, we have a commitment to our own freedom, and have a commitment to call dominant caste people to do better and to be more conscious about their biases. In our organisation, we have a workshop called 'unlearning caste supremacy' where thousands of dominant caste members are unlearning their casteist biases, and it's tough work because a lot of the things they have been taught as proper Indian culture is actually proper casteist culture, and they have not been in engagement with caste-oppressed people before. So when they start to actually have meaningful, authentic relationships, where Dalit people are at equity with the table, it's an eye opener for them. Because they don’t even realise that some of the holidays that they are celebrating actually celebrates Bahujan deaths, or even that Dr Ambedkar exists.

I remember growing up in diaspora here, and as a young person here, (I saw that ) nobody thought Ambedkar was significant. I was told by a professor that Dr Ambedkar was not a significant Indian leader. It’s only after I started interacting with other Dalits that I started to realise the nonsense that was coming out of people’s mouths. He is the architect of the Indian Constitution, he laid the path for so much of the anti-caste movements we have today and here we have some dominant-caste professor saying he is not a significant Indian. Can you imagine?

This is why Dalit feminism has been a powerful antidote to Brahminical hegemony because in many ways, we have been able to bring an intersectional lens of power-building that is inclusive of not just of ourselves but of everybody. I am just honoured by the movement that we are holding and building together because this is not a movement which is led by one leader; it's really a 'leader-full' movement. There are so many people with different skill sets taking power, bringing voice and we want dominant-caste people to join us by doing that work. They need to unlearn their biases and deeply listen and be in partnership with caste-oppressed people, and join the movement because if they don’t, they would be on the wrong side of history.

In 2020, one thing is true, we will not be standing back or be in the closet. Rather we would step forward with courage and power until we annihilate caste.

So with that, I just want to thank everybody who has joined us and our audience. And thank Maya again for being such a powerful voice for Ambedkarite women, and Ambedkarite women in tech. Jai Bhim and Jai Savitri everybody.

(Transcription by Pritha Bhattacharya)

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