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Techsploits

The Curry Menace

By Annalee Newitz

LATELY, A LOT of engineers are talking trash about Indians. I don't mean Indians like some guy named Bob Patel, whose parents came over from Gujarat in the 1960s to run a hotel in Texas. Bob would rather eat moon pies than jalebee, and he's as American as they come. I'm talking about Indians from India, people whom the aforementioned engineers would probably never meet except for the fact that their companies are outsourcing tons of software development work to various and sundry citizens of the Asian continent.

"Indians engineers aren't as good as we are," a white software developer from Southern California told me. "They don't get the same kind of education we do." He had just finished relating a story about how his company was outsourcing jobs to India. "My manager is Indian now, and he treats me like I'm expendable. He thinks he can replace me with somebody cheaper anytime, because that's how it is in India." Another white engineer, born in the northern reaches of the American continent, agreed: "I've been having a lot of closed-door meetings with guys at my work about how our company is replacing people with Indians."

A new breed of racism has come to Silicon Valley. High-tech types are running scared from--gasp!--the Curry Menace! Lock up your ergonomic keyboards and Unix boxes! Hackers from Bombay are hitting the streets and it ain't gonna be pretty! In typical U.S. fashion, this new wave of racism is wrapped up so tightly with class issues that it's hard to untangle the two. Technology workers who heap scorn on their Indian counterparts aren't necessarily doing it because they think Indians are racially inferior. More to the point, they're pissed off because strangers are taking their jobs away--strangers who didn't go to the same schools they did and grew up places they can't locate on a map. If a bunch of Irish software engineers were sucking up all the excellent code-slinging jobs, you can bet U.S. geeks would be snarking about how the Irish just don't understand Java as well as "we" do.

My point is that U.S. engineers are frankly scared of losing their jobs. They're discovering that software development is not as valuable a skill as they were led to believe it was in the late 1990s. They're finding out that people all over the world can do what they do--and for less money. In fact, they're realizing something that people like myself have known for a long time: writing doesn't pay very well. Whether you write in English, Tamil, Java or C, it's a thankless job. You do it for the love, unless you're lucky enough to be a Stephen King or Linus Torvalds. Cry me a goddamn river.

But now that coders have learned how little the world values them, they're turning into racist twerps. As labor historian David Roediger explains in The Wages of Whiteness, a similar thing happened during the early days of union organizing. Back in the early 20th century, immigrants and blacks began to take skilled manual-labor jobs that had once belonged almost exclusively to the white working class. Many workers formed unions to protect not just the rights of laborers, but specifically white ones. With some exceptions, such as San Francisco's multicultural Longshoreman's Union, most early unions were white-only. That's why I cringed when I heard an engineer follow up his snotty and unwarranted comments about Indian software developers with the comment, "This would never happen if we were unionized."

There's another kind of Curry Menace-style statement that pisses me off even more than obvious racist comments like "Indians aren't as good as us." You'll hear it when the person in the cubicle next to you mutters, "Obviously, we're losing our jobs because these Indians are better engineers than we are. How can we get to be as good as them?" This idea smacks of the whole "Orientals are so good with numbers" crap that I thought most intelligent people had given up long ago. Sorry, but Indian engineers can be geniuses or morons, just like ones from the United States. They're humans same as everybody else.

And let's not forget another thing Indian and U.S. engineers have in common besides their humanity. They're both getting screwed royally. Companies aren't outsourcing to India because Indians are "better" but because they're cheaper. That means geeks in the United States lose their jobs, and Indians lose out on getting the salaries they deserve. But as long as racism divides the geek community, corporations will always win.


Annalee Newitz (latkemenace@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who kindly requests that the next time you hear people slagging Indian engineers that you tell those fucking racists to go fuck themselves.


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From the July 17-23, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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