Thenmozhi Soundararajan (Dalit Diva)

photo of Thenmozhi Soundararajan
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
Thenmozhi Soundararajan (Dalit Diva)
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Casteism pervades the Hindu diaspora, not just across borders, but across the Internet too. This week, Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan offers us a look at how Dalits face discrimination and inequity on social media and in the ranks of Silicon Valley tech companies.

Thenmozhi is the founder of Equality Labs and is prominent on Twitter as @DalitDiva.

Transcript

Ethan Zuckerman:

Hey everybody. Welcome back to Reimagining the Internet. I am your host, Ethan Zuckerman. I am thrilled to have with us today, Thenmozhi Soundararajan. Thenmozhi is the wonderful person behind the influential Twitter account Dalit Diva. She’s a Dalit-American transmedia artist, musician, activist, and researcher. She is Executive Director of Equality Labs. She hosted the Caste in the USA podcast in 2020, runs the Dalit History Month project and is working on a transmedia artwork about Dalit feminist futures that launches next year. Thenmozhi, I’m so happy that we have you here.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan:

Oh, I am so happy to be here. I love talking about radical futures and what more potent way to kind of end the year than looking at what we’d like to build in the internet. So thank you for having me, Ethan.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Well, so I want to talk in general about this question of caste equity work and how caste equity work intersects with the internet. But I’m going to assume that a lot of people who are listening to this don’t know much about Dalit rights, don’t know much about Dalit activism, haven’t read their [Ambedkar 00:01:22], can you sort of give us an overall sense of what are the issues around caste equity in digital spaces?

Thenmozhi Soundararajan:

Sure. So I think for your audience that might be new to understanding what caste is. You know caste is a system of exclusion older than that even of race, and it has origins in the subcontinent and like all system of exclusions are based on social fiction. So with the idea of caste there was scripture that basically said that the priests who built these scriptures were at the top and all the other professions had degrading purity and positions within the caste pyramid. And those at the very bottom of this pyramid are untouchable and we’re seen as spiritually defiling. And I’m from one of those communities. And obviously no one gets to decide our position towards God and so we say we are Dalit.

And I think one thing that is really important to think about when we look at the word Dalit is that this was an explicitly chosen political word, similar to the way that African-Americans chose the word black. It’s an identity of power and resistance and resilience because again, within the caste system, which is a punishing system, that’s been around for thousands of years, we were seen as spiritually defiling. And especially in my own journey, no one gets to decide our position towards the divine and to God. So in embracing the term, Dalit, we’re basically saying we have been broken by the system, but we are also resilient as we pursue forward our pathways to dignity and power and healing from this violent system of caste apartheid. And I think that just like we have gone through a racial reckoning in the United States where we consider race as it’s been embedded into multiple institutions, we have the work of scholars like Safiya Noble who are really helping us understand the intersect, how intersectionality impacts our technical structures.

Similarly, I think that what we are seeing across the internet is that there are other hegemonies we need to consider in terms of the way that power is consolidated within our pipelines of tech, whether it’s who builds it, who codes it, who uses it, who funds it, we can find lots of different examples of where we see caste power being solidified. And that is a lot of what caste oppressed communities and in our work in Equality Labs, we call digital Brahmanism. Because what we are seeing is that despite caste being a very material, very real system of exclusion that has like haunted South Asia, what is terrifying in this moment is the ways that we’re seeing it become digitized. And it’s not as legible to many technology researchers because they’re unfamiliar with hierarchies and systems of exclusion that fall outside of the North American frame of race.

And I think that’s what’s so important I think for internet researchers as we try to begin to solve some of the global problems that kind of arise from our areas that we’re least familiar with is that race and it’s construction in North America is certainly something that is something we absolutely need to keep an attentive eye to, but the hegemonies of global internet systems require us to be more nimble in understanding how hierarchies work around the world. And I think with the question of caste it’s very confusing because South Asians who immigrate to United States and work in tech companies are racialized. So we understand ourselves as South Asian American communities, but caste oppressed people here are minorities within that minority, but we are the largest intersectional community in South Asia.

So there is an even more urgent imperative for us to understand how do things like digital Brahmanism work? How are we seeing caste embedded across our technical systems and what are ways that we can work to co-design and create new opportunities that basically outwit the bias, but help us really find openings so that we can create more inclusive technology cultures for all.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So listeners of this podcast are generally familiar with work of folks like Safiya Noble, who have demonstrated the ways in which white supremacy gets baked into our technologies. That if you go onto Google and search for black girls, you’re more likely to get pornography than you are to get positive impressions of young black women. We haven’t yet had my former student Joy Buolamwini on the show, but we know from her work that supposedly neutral facial detection algorithms end up detecting white male faces with much more ease than they detect darker female faces. Americans look at that and go, “Of course, sure that makes sense.” And once we unpack it, we realize that the systems are trained on many more white male images than they are in dark female images. How does caste oppression manifest itself in our technology? Is there a similar example where we can sort of look at a technology and this is how digital Brahmanism is built into it?

Thenmozhi Soundararajan:

Well, I think that there’s to me, I think as I’ve experienced the internet in terms of being a caste oppressed person, I think of the different places I’ve seen where caste bias and also a blindness to caste bias has really impacted caste oppressed communities. And I think one way to think about it is that many of the companies that operate in North America basically have colonial models in terms of their methods of operation when it comes to the subcontinent. So take, for example, a company like Facebook. So Facebook entered India around 2011, 2012, right? And they already had by 2013 an incident of first mass atrocity, it was the Muzaffarnagar riots, which was riots between Hindu and Muslim communities in this region of India. And it started with WhatsApp video and Facebook video. And given that there were thousands that were impacted and made homeless including rapes and murders, that should have been a moment of pause.

That should have been a place where as a company who had failed their duty of care in terms of their products, they should have said, this is a great time to do human rights audit assessment, right? And instead their decision was to lean in and was very kind of infamously when Sheryl Sandberg was kind of on her feminist tip and talking about leaning in. And the thing that they leaned in with Katie Harbath was elections. So I just don’t know any… I just can’t think of that as like anything but being criminally negligent, but also as they started to lean into the elections, one of the conversations that we had with someone who was in the C-suite of Facebook after they left was they said, “Well, we knew in order to stay in the country we had to work with the Brahmans.

And so they’ve made a specific choice to align themselves with caste privileged power and they were a key part of how the right consolidated power in terms of the rise of the Modi government and Modi himself. And the thing that was just so appalling to me was that at that moment, there were some key interventions that could have been done if there was caste competency. First, the human rights audit assessment. Second, understanding how certain kinds of hate speech against caste oppressed minorities and religious minorities were becoming normalized on the platform during that time. So between like 2013 to 2017, we saw the usage of caste slurs that would be normally illegal. And that there’s very strong hate speech laws in India against the usage of were commonplace. We even saw terms like presstitute which is like a portmanteau to press and prostitute being weaponized against journalists, and eventually leading to the murder of a journalist named Gauri Lankesh.

So in all these different aspects, what we saw is we saw a company that was American that has arguably been one of the biggest inflamers of white supremacy, also making choices in a country, in a democracy as delicate as India. And this is to true for all of its work in South Asia, they don’t care about the civic polity. What they care about is who’s going to get them to power the fastest and keep them in power and their staff lack competency and Twitter is no better, for example, there was this whole controversy when again, all of this stuff comes up in elections because caste is hate speech and Islamophobia hate speech becomes at a fever pitch when right-wing bag actors want to get power. And so right before the last elections, Jack Dorsey and his team went to go meet with influencers across the spectrum.

And some of the folks that they were meeting with included women journalists that were fearing for their lives because of the kinds of hate speech that had been normalized against them. One of those people was a colleague of mine who happened to have a poster that I had helped to co-design and it said Smash Brahminical Patriarchy. And so she held that poster and Jack, for better or for worse took a photo of it. And then they leaked that photo to the internet and then a thousand, millions of people around the world all heard about it and Jack got blasphemy charges, people lost their mind over it. But the thing that was so wild about it was that in that meeting the Head of Twitter Safety and Security basically cried after she heard my colleague talk about how difficult it was for her to be Dalit on the platform that she took herself off the platform and the Head of Twitter Legal and Safety is an Indian person. And she said, “I had no idea about caste. I didn’t know that this was such a big problem.”

Now that, of course is a poignant thing. Okay, great. I’m glad that she learned about herself and her culture. It is however deeply problematic that she’s Twitter legal’s head and is also responsible for safety on the platform how do you enter a market and have no knowledge about one of the leading intersectional challenges in that issue. So those are ways that we see and of course like the Brahmanism piece of it is that many of these companies have very, very high level Indian and South Asian tech talent that are also equally complicit and not raising the issue of caste. Everybody knows it exists, but no one is doing anything in terms of policy change, in terms of the ways that you would look at deploying or entering a market, they could bring this intersectional lens if they wanted to, because they’re actually competent in it. They come from a background that is caste and they’re caste aware. They just don’t want to see it because they benefit from it.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Right. So I want to explore that and I think an important piece of context that not everyone listening to this may have is that problems of caste discrimination are not a secret in India, right? The Indian Constitution has the notion of protected caste and sort of the notion of, we know there has been historic discrimination against certain castes we want to ensure that there’s representation. We want to ensure that there’s protection. The actual practice of this often falls very, very far short of the mark, but it’s very hard to have any involvement with Indian society and not understand that there’s a history of caste oppression. How do you think Facebook and Twitter and others managed to sort of move into these markets often with having Indian and South Asian talent on the team, but with such apparent unawareness of the dynamics of this situation?

Thenmozhi Soundararajan:

I mean, I think that power doesn’t concede without confrontation and without acknowledgement of the problem. And I will say that even in the diaspora, like there’s no reason in the United States that caste should exist here. So much of the system of caste is based on land ownership, about concentration in other institutions whether it’s the parliament or the judiciary. So it makes sense that we have policy alleviation towards as pernicious of a system because it’s violent, it’s exclusive and there needs to be remedies. But what do we have in the United States that requires that to exist here, right? Brahmans and dominant-caste people are not in concentrations of power here, but I think it’s like other systems of exclusion unless we really bring it forward and talk about it we carry that unmarked trauma in our bodies, in our minds and our spirits and that’s why it’s recreated here.

Now when you’re talking about, well, why isn’t the South Asian tech talent then being more aggressive about dealing with these issues? Well, I think there’s a couple of things like so one, there has never been data collection at any tech company that shows the caste demographics of its employees. We have race data, but not caste data. So what that means is that we have to make assumptions about what the caste backgrounds are of people, but you know what my experience has been in working with many tech workers across tech companies in South Asia and in the United States is that dominant-caste people are very comfortable about being caste bigoted in the workplace. And so oftentimes when they’re not speaking about caste in multiracial environment it’s because they want to keep it internal matter. They want to keep it a taboo and they don’t want it to reflect badly on them because it hurts sometimes when you’re a person of privilege and someone’s pointing out that you have a social location, it brings up some discomfort.

So rather than address that discomfort or join the conversations that are happening courageously around other intersectionalities they just want to shove it down and push it away. And they don’t want to rock the boat, right? No one wants to… Everybody just wants to make the ease of capital occur, not bring up the pieces that feel thorny or hardier. But I think this is one of the arguments that I’ve been making in terms of Equality Labs is that the discussion of caste isn’t just about discomfort, it’s actually bad business practice not to talk about caste. Because with the Chinese market walled off everybody wants to scramble to get to the Indian market.

And those next billion users that we represent, because we don’t have full internet penetration into our market. Well, all of those like last kind of mile users that people are trying to get, they’re all caste oppressed people because they’re the poorest of the poor. So if you don’t have designers and you don’t have technologists that know how to speak to those concerns and those user models you’re really going to be at a disadvantage at getting to that market. So not talking about this issue isn’t just not doing the right and moral thing it’s actually bad business practice. Now in the questions of a company’s product and it’s talent pipeline I think that’s a more investment-heavy process. Because frankly I would say that most companies do not have the level of caste competency that is needed in order to really design for the diverse South Asian market.

Because again, when you’re thinking about the question of caste this is not limited to India, it’s actually across all of South Asia. This includes Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Nepal you name it and just understand how significant a portion of the world that this is. It’s 1.9 billion people. So one in four people in the world are South Asian, one in six are Indian. So imagine, having the arrogance to say, we’re going to create for this area but we’re not going to have anyone that’s competent on one of the largest intersectional identities there.

Ethan Zuckerman:

It’s the same arrogance that allows us to sort of say, what would it matter if we moderate the speech for 3 billion people out of Silicon Valley? I’m sure there won’t be a problem with that. I’m sure that the rules that we have under the American First Amendment apply perfectly everywhere else in the world. And why would we have to learn anything about any of these other venues? Is there an example of a caste competent company that you’ve seen, that’s sort of done this well, that’s taken either internally or into their product that’s worth shouting out or are we too early for that?

Thenmozhi Soundararajan:

We are too early for that, Ethan. There are many companies that are beginning to really address this as an issue and particularly as this becomes like an even bigger worker’s rights issue. And there are many kind of big union entities that are really entering this conversation from the United American Workers Union to the AFL-CIO, caste is a serious workers concern for them, particularly because they’re seeing workers across many different industries complain about caste discrimination. And your listeners may be really familiar with, in 2020 the state of California sued the Cisco Corporation for caste discrimination. And that’s the first time in American history that an American corporation is being sued for creating caste hostile workplaces. But you also have this other major case opening up in New Jersey where you had a religious temple basically trafficking Dalit workers for $1.20 an hour.

And now there’s like six other Hindu temples that are now being connected to the suit with RICO charges. Which RICO charges is like talking about racketeering in the mob that’s how they’re looking at these dominant-caste dynamics. And so after the Alphabet Workers Union demanded that caste be added as a protected category and their recognition of this as a key workers and tech issue, this has really transformed the landscape in which corporations are listening to this issue. Because if they’re not going to listen to the community, if they’re not going to listen to aggrieved individual, their workers are actually pushing these issues. And that’s why I think we’re starting to see so many companies really take this issue on just because they want to be on the right side of history, but they also want to avoid liability, which there’s lots of it there, you know.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Thenmozhi, you’ve been really active in online spaces in bringing awareness to caste equity, these are not always safe spaces for people to talk about issues like caste. They can get very fiery, very violent. How do you balance that? How do you balance your activism in digital spaces with the recognition that these spaces are not necessarily safe spaces for conversations about caste oppression?

Thenmozhi Soundararajan:

I think that part of how I manage it is like one, I temper a lot of my engagements now. Like I no longer go into one-on-one battles with bad actors. I don’t think that’s productive. And I just try to kind of stay to a positive, proactive message that I think is valuable for my audience base and also for our community to hear. But I also am trying to do deeper thinking about what happens around polarization, because I think that when you look at like what happens in the fissure of community building in many ways we’re breaking trust and we’re breaking relationships and we’re not able to heal those divides because our nervous systems with social media are wired for continual activation at a survival threshold. So to learn to deescalate our nervous systems and to be able to work slower at the speed of trust and to be able to work through difference is really a model in which I think we’re trying to pilot more of in Equality Labs.

It’s one of the reasons why we’re going to be offering Dalit feminists somatic workshops and trainings is that in many ways when you have communities that are so polarized like that in the South Asian community, we have to relearn how to be able to engage with each other. And these problems predate social media like when you think about what the process of what it means to become South Asian, you know we were racial under white supremacy, but this category of South Asian is like this really brimming cauldron of unhealed trauma and tension of multiple genocides, mass atrocity and borders. And that were really kind of cemented through violence. None of that gets talked about once we’ve been immigrated, we’re just all kind of with each other. And also regionally like we all just pretend like history began at the development of these new states, but that genocide is never, ever spoken about.

So that’s what social media comes into and so for people that don’t talk or heal their historical trauma, then getting into like little dishooms and battles without ever kind of like reverting back, reintegrating with each other. They take these little fissures and turn them into huge, massive breaks until everything has fallen apart. So we have to relearn how to be in difference with each other. We have to learn how to regulate our nervous systems differently and if you take someone who’s caste privileged for example, they are terrified. They are terrified and also really disturbed and held with so much discomfort about confronting their castes and Islamophobic and bigoted relatives. They’re like, “I don’t agree with them, but I don’t want to deal with them, because it’s like a mess.”

And also sometimes those families also have other dynamics of gender-based violence or homophobia and so the way that they’ve survived this is to just be a part, right? But one of the things that our work is really trying to hold space for is that we can be resilient about discomfort. Discomfort doesn’t have to be the stop of where our interventions can be, because the reality is, is that for that dominant-caste person I deeply understand why it’s uncomfortable, but what’s uncomfortable to them could be a death sentence, or a physical attack for someone who’s caste oppressed. They’re actually uniquely in a position to intervene on their family as distasteful as it would be to them because they aren’t going to be the recipient of atrocity the way that I might be, or as someone else who’s caste oppressed.

So by being able to help prep and prime a generation of caste privileged people to intervene on their family networks, we can reframe what the stakes are. Because the kinds of ways we see disinformation traveling in our communities it’s through WhatsApp groups. And it’s through WhatsApp groups, it’s through telegram groups, it’s through Facebook and Twitter and I’ve had so many dominant-caste people come up to me and say, “I don’t even go to my family WhatsApp group because I don’t want to say this.” Even though they’re saying things like throw away the Rohingya, the Rohingya are termites. When you’re seeing genocidal language like that be normalized in a family WhatsApp group, you have a moral responsibility to stand up to that. But they’re saying that they’re uncomfortable and what I think what we’re trying to do is to help them be learn more mindfulness practices to say, “Hey, you know what? I can do this.”

That when I’d weigh my discomfort versus genocide, I think I’m going to take discomfort because the alternative is far worse. And that’s really the balance I think we have to shift our comfort to polarization. We have many, many right-wing death cults around the world, and they are very much clearing the path for death. The fact that we had 100,000 deaths of COVID, based on COVID disinformation coming out of the right-wing in the United States is an absurd thing, but to choose life in the face of that means we have to choose discomfort, but discomfort is a very passing state, especially once we have the courage to go through it, because we don’t see it through a survival mindset. But the fact that we see it that we’ve got this. I’m going to be a little bit uncomfortable, but I know I’ll be able to get through this because I’m not really in a survival situation. Just my nervous system has been trained to think it’s that.

Ethan Zuckerman:

So it’s interesting, you invoking particular speech around the Rohingya made me think of my friend, Susan Benesch who runs the Dangerous Speech Project. And Susan identifies levels of speech where you can have hateful speech, you can have racist speech, you can have castes speech. Dangerous speech is speech that’s engaging in those forms of hatred, but it’s also engaging in a very particular form of dehumanization. It’s often invoking the image of the other as an animal, or particularly as an insect. It’s suggesting extermination, it’s pre-genocidal speech. And I think that reminder that we may have a moral obligation to confront hate speech of all kinds, but we have like a real clear present, flashing red light danger when someone has moved into that category of dangerous speech.

I think one of the takeaways from this conversation is that that dangerous speech can happen not just around race and around religion, it happens around caste as well. That the discomfort we feel at that moment of confrontation feels like fight or flight, feels like a crisis but it’s not at all comparable to the actual harm that maybe caused in sort of speech situations like that. I suspect a number of people are going to come out of this interview wanting to know how they bring caste equity into their workplaces, into their projects. How do you suggest people get started? What are the steps? What should people be reading? Who should people be reaching out to for that work?

Thenmozhi Soundararajan:

So that is a great question. I want to encourage people, first to just reach out to Equality Labs, you can find us on our website or reach out to us at hello@equality labs, or find us on our social. Because that’s exactly the work that we do as a Dalit civil rights organization is we’re helping institutions build towards caste equity every day. And we do caste competency trainings. We also have legal counsel that can kind of help you tweak and get your policies into the right place. And so there’s lots that we can do around that. And it’s a really easy path, we’ve seen institutions begin that process towards caste equity in less than a month, depending on how nimble their governance structures are. So there are answers and support to that.

I also think that this is a moment where we’re seeing incredible courage and I think that the practice of what it takes to add caste equity is fairly easy from like an operation’s mechanistic frame. What actually makes it hard is the trepidation people have and taking on systems of exclusion, especially ones that have been as taboo and as violent as caste apartheid has been. However, I think what we’ve seen is that this moment in history is such a critical one. It’s one in which we can either kind of be swept away by the tides of darkness and the chaos edgelords of the right, or we can really be stewards of the future that we want. And that we have still so much agency and possibility and hope right in our hands. And I think that when we see polarization that’s part of the things that make it so effective is that it makes it assume. We assume a lot that these false narratives are the only narratives that can be of the future.

And I think this is where radical healing futures, especially like in my context I’m really working a lot on Dalit feminists radical futures. We have an ability to dream the world that we want, and we can’t give up on that just because we have these very potent fever dreams by manipulative actors who are also knowing very effectively to use the platforms. We are still here and as long as we have breath, we have life and we can choose life. And I think that’s really what we need to lean into and that we have come back from other times of deep polarization and the answer to that was community.

The answer to that was rolling up our sleeves and getting through these divides that are so pernicious and I don’t think an engineer is going to solve this problem. This isn’t a technical problem. This is really one about human behavior and networking and trauma and survivorship. And the more that we can take this from the psychosocial realm, we’ll be able to then build the tools that we want, but this isn’t about an algorithm. This is about us and who we are and who we want to be and the future that we want to build.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Thenmozhi, we so often on the show have to push our guests towards the positive future. You are all about that positive future. It’s just wonderful to spend this time with you. Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit Diva, the executive director of Equality Labs, thank you so much for being with us on Reimagining the Internet.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan:

Of course, thank you for having me. And as we always end in like Dalit spaces [inaudible 00:32:15] to you, Ethan. And [inaudible 00:32:17] is the salute of justice and the salute of possibility and just looking forward to build caste equity and racial equity in these futures that we need to have. So thank you for holding space for this conversation.