Caste at Work: The Myth of 'Talent'
In this series, Christina Dhanuja unpacks the unspoken caste structures that govern our workplaces.
A few years ago, when conversations around caste and merit started popping up on social media, I would often reveal, much to people’s surprise, that I came under the general category. I spoke of how, despite being a poor, Christian Dalit, I did not own a community certificate. My parents didn’t bother, I’d say. Even they didn’t have one, I’d add. I was proud of all that I had done to pass among the savarnas – speaking in English, saying all the right things, doing better, being different. I put on a mask within Indian corporate spaces, which were (and are) dominated by the upper castes, trying to convince those around me that I belonged. I worked twice as hard, in fear that I might be stereotyped – as a woman, a Dalit, or both.
Other Dalits and Adivasis, who find themselves in workplaces populated by upper caste Indians (and upper caste South Asians overseas), are possibly also following a similar strategy. Even organizations that are passionate about the newest fads in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) don’t guarantee that caste-marginalized individuals will be protected from abuse, discrimination, or unfair employment practices. They neither have a policy nor a code of conduct that even mentions the word “caste.” Ergo, we mask, we hide, we overcompensate. And perhaps even buy into caste-based articulations of what’s considered talent and merit. Why else would some of us flex our achievements as better than - not because of - other Dalits? Calling ourselves the first, the best, and the only?
How the idea of a meritocracy – a world where supposed merit is rewarded with success – consolidates systemic power is a broader conversation that applies to all mainstream institutions. But modern workplaces in India (and those that employ or are dominated by South Asians abroad) are a special case, because of how they reify, recruit, retain, and reproduce talent along caste lines.
A narrative that pretends to not see merit for what it is – a manufactured attribute that is at best a substitute for upper-caste identity and at worst a bogeyman used to frighten the rest of us.
Ajantha Subramaniam, in her book The Caste of Merit, describes how merit – a deeply flawed concept to begin with – has an intricate, intimate relationship with caste. In post-independence India, she explains, even as debates around caste-based affirmative action as a redressal mechanism to social inequalities continued, “[caste-based] inheritances that underwrote achievement slipped out of view.” In the process, lower-castes, specifically Dalits, came to be defined “in terms of their collective histories of disadvantage,” while upper-castes became “individual citizens defined by merit.” In other words, upper castes were known for their merit while lower-castes were known for their caste.
Subramaniam talks about how the rebranding of upper-castes as caste-less moderns was further facilitated by mass entrance examinations – a supposedly impartial process. She explains how examinations are neither culturally or socially neutral: “success in examination is by no means merely a measure of individual competence. It is made possible by the accumulated advantages of unequal opportunity, and it reinforces prejudices about who is or who is not innately talented.”
Today’s Indian workplaces have followed this model of attributing merit with impressive fervor. Not only do they claim that merit is tangible and therefore measurable, they also have a set of tools and processes that purport fairness. Pre-employment tests, for instance, are often quoted as indicators of unbiased hiring. Yet these tests are designed only to assess knowledge, which is the result of societal privilege, rather than potential – something organizations can truly benefit from. Once hired, someone with potential can be invested in and provided with opportunities that allow them to flourish. Emerging DEI professionals, who are most often upper-caste themselves, help perpetuate the “equal opportunity” narrative. Think “blind” recruitment drives, video-less interviews, first-name resumes. A narrative that pretends to not see merit for what it is – a manufactured attribute that is at best a substitute for upper-caste identity and at worst a bogeyman used to frighten the rest of us.
This is not to say that modern workplaces don’t hire Dalits or Adivasis. Indeed, a considerable number of us have managed to enter, and even stay, within these spaces despite the challenges. Rather, it is to say that these workplaces continue to nurture upper-caste strongholds, where illusionary concepts of merit thrive and where lower-castes are invisible in their excellence and only hyper-visible for their caste.
Surely, they couldn’t have all been top quartile. Just meritish.
I’m reminded of how, after I had gotten selected for an overseas position, a flurry of conversations took place amongst my Indian colleagues. Several of them said that they couldn’t believe someone like me could crack it. One of them – an upper caste man – said that it must be because I’m a woman. Another – an upper caste woman – said that it must be because she hadn’t been a contender. No amount of my hiding, masking, and overcompensating had protected me from their condescension.
Indian managers (and South Asian managers, elsewhere), particularly those who portray an image of caste-lessness, may not explicitly look for and promote upper caste candidates. Instead, they favor caste-based archetypes, which are synonymous with education in IITs or foreign universities, the ability to navigate multicultural contexts, high-value social capital, attractive aesthetics, and upper-class locations. The paper, “Interrupting Merit, Subverting Legibility: Navigating Caste In ‘Casteless’ Worlds of Computing” explains that, “Merit is understood as a proxy for good English language skills, ‘good’ family back- ground (where ’good’ is associated with upper-caste markers) or private education, which is more likely to lead to access to better technical education at the top engineering institutions. These are all attributes associated with upper-caste resources.”
This explains why all my bosses, throughout my entire corporate career, were upper caste. So were my peers who had found greener pastures in the upper echelons of the company. And new joiners who were picked through referrals and introductions. Surely, they couldn’t have all been top quartile. Just meritish.
And what better way to signal inclusivity than to recruit caste-marginalized persons as passable, loyal tokens? Always the head, never the feet.
One might think that this is likely to be the case only within corporates, where a so-called meritorious culture is actively maintained. But non-profits, academia, and media houses are also guilty of this insidiousness, despite their ostensibly liberal mindset. For example, leadership in feminist organizations are held mostly by upper-caste women and in philanthropies by upper-caste men. A study that my colleagues and I conducted at the Global Campaign for Dalit Women, researching feminist organizations across North India, found that Dalit and Adivasi workers, if any, are over-represented at the grassroots and administrative levels. What’s more, upper castes who work in Indian non-profits weave their short, mostly rudimentary stints into their statements of purpose, calling it “field work” or “grassroot experience,” when applying to foreign universities.
Media houses tell a similar story. The second edition of Oxfam India and Newslaundry’s report shows that 90% of leadership positions in Indian media, which includes print, TV, and digital media, are occupied by upper-caste groups, with no Dalit or Adivasi person heading mainstream media outlets.
Although caste-based archetypes are not the same across sectors, they are almost always rigged to produce similar outcomes. That is, organizational power – mostly in the form of leadership but also through influence and capital – will remain with the upper castes. And what better way to signal inclusivity than to recruit caste-marginalized persons as passable, loyal tokens? Always the head, never the feet.
There have been some recent efforts in DEI that have tried to push boundaries along gender and sexuality. But often, these initiatives too become vehicles for upper-caste progress. For instance, as of 2023, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of Indian women in the corporate workforce; however, almost every Indian woman on the top CEO list is from an upper caste location.
A bargain is thus held: Woman is OK, but she needs to be upper-caste. Queer is OK, if they are a culture fit. Dalit is OK, but he must be a high-flier. This is why it is not impossible to find Dalits like me and my over-achieving peers working in upper-caste dominated spaces. We are relatively more acceptable, and it is so because we fit into a caste-based archetype – one that stands the best chance of survival.
That some of us have made it and even thrived, especially in contexts outside of India, is proof that talent is only directly proportional to access and opportunity. What is urgent is introspection, at a personal and an organization level, into why and how we equate caste-based attributes to intelligence. We need to redesign talent strategies such that they do not depend on caste-based constructs of merit.
What must give way is notion; what we need is the nerve to prize potential over privilege.
Christina Dhanuja consults with corporates, non-profits, faith organizations, and academia advising on accountability frameworks, caste-based diversity, equity, & inclusion, and organizational strategy. Write to her at email@example.com