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Indian ‘Model Minority’ in Silicon Valley is in the Spotlight for All the Wrong Reasons

Indian ‘Model Minority’ in Silicon Valley is in the Spotlight for All the Wrong Reasons

  • Indian Americans in the hi-tech sector are showing that they didn't, after all, leave all their prejudices behind when they came to the U.S.

For decades, Silicon Valley, the high-tech capital of the world, has enjoyed positive media reviews and a reputation of innovation and optimism. It has changed in the last few years. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been facing increasing criticism for allowing their platform to spread misinformation. A similar thing is happening with Indian Americans, who are considered the brain behind many Silicon Valley success stories. 

The term “model minority” was long used to describe Indian Americans. They were the hard-working people who put a premium on education and family, living the American dream. While the term “model minority” is under scrutiny in light of the Black Lives Matter Movement, some Indian Americans appear to work overtime to ensure that the positive views about Indians are a thing of the past. Within the last year, two big high-tech companies have faced lawsuits of South Asian bias.

In June of last year, the State of California sued Cisco Systems for caste discrimination toward an Indian American engineer, who claims he was harassed by two managers and faced retaliation after complaining to the company. The engineer belonged to the low-caste or Dalit background while the managers were high-caste Brahmins. This lawsuit brought the caste system at the forefront, right in the heart of liberal Silicon Valley. When Indians were trying to convince the world that the caste system was a thing of the past, it happened and happened right here in Silicon Valley.

The second lawsuit was filed against Apple Inc. by a female employee from India. The case claimed that her two managers, one from India and the other from Pakistan, treated her as a subservient. The employee belonged to the Sindhi community. She is a Hindu from the Sindh region of what is now Pakistan. Her complaint alleges that her managers behaved badly, reflecting their sexism, racism, religious bias, and discrimination based on national origin. While none of these charges are unique to India and Indians, what is notable is an Indian filing a lawsuit against a fellow Indian. More precisely, by a South Asian against fellow South Asians.

When India gained independence from the British, very few gave India a chance to survive as a country. Churchill famously said that India was not a country but an “abstraction.” Even the famous economist and U.S. ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, called India a “functioning anarchy.” To a Western observer, India, with its vast size, diverse culture, and multiple languages, was an experiment that was not going to last long. They could cite the recent religious strife between Hindus and Muslims. The biggest reason given was the centuries old caste system that is prevalent in Indian society. The common wisdom was that the caste system on its own would break the country apart.

There are enough areas that can divide us, and there seem to be people who strongly want to keep those divides intact. 

The observers were all proven wrong as India not only survived but thrived, first as the largest democracy in the world and then as one of the fastest-growing economies. Several reforms were initiated by the Indian government, including banning discrimination based on caste. Many institutions of higher education were opened up to the lower castes, including the now world-famous IITs. The consensus was that literacy would automatically remove the ills of the society like caste, gender, and gender-based discrimination. 

Education did help millions of Indians get out of poverty. It also produced world-class engineers, doctors, and scientists. A number of them moved abroad for better opportunities. The rise of high-tech coincided with India churning out software engineers to fill up the vacancies created in these fields. So, India’s founding fathers did get the education part right, but their vision of higher education taking care of society’s ills did not materialize. With each passing decade, the divide along religion, caste, language, and regionalism seems to be increasing in India. With the advent of the social media, it has become more visible. People are expressing their views and opinions online, and it is not pretty. The court cases show that the Indian diaspora is no different. When they came to the U.S., along with their education, they also brought their prejudices along. 

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Are these court cases just an aberration or a symptom of what many believe has always been there. These lawsuits have only exposed that ugly underbelly of the Indian American community. So, what is next? Are we going to hear more cases, this time around, discrimination based on religion or state or language? There are enough areas that can divide us, and there seem to be people who strongly want to keep those divides intact. 

Can the Indian diaspora rise together for once and do something about it? We have helped companies grow from tiny startups to tech giants. For a change, instead of making the search engine a tad faster or connecting more people over the internet, can we use that smart, that brain, that hard work to build something that helps remove this hatred and divide of caste religion or even states? After we do that, we can open up that platform for other communities to help solve anti-Asian, anti-black, or anti-immigrant hatred. Before that, we have to troubleshoot ourselves internally and remove any bugs of hate or bias from within our system.

(Top illustration by Simone Noronha, courtesy The New Republic)

Nimish Singh lives in Fremont, California, and has made Silicon Valley his home for the last 26 years. He has led engineering in startups before and currently heads one of the engineering groups in a leading Cybersecurity company. An avid reader, Nimish is actively involved in local theater as a playwright and songwriter.

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