I had just emerged from teaching a class in media studies at Seattle University last Thursday when I saw numerous posts on social media about remarks made by Satya Nadella. The recently installed Microsoft CEO was acting as the keynote speaker at a female-focused technology event when he was asked if he had any advice for women who are uncomfortable asking for promotions.
“It’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along,” he said. “That might actually be one of the superpowers that women who don’t ask for raises have, because that’s good karma.”
I felt like someone had reached out across continents, punched me in the gut, and stripped me of all sense of accomplishment in my chosen home. Yet my next response was to protect Nadella, to shield him from any orientalist backlash over his South Asian roots.
In the next few hours, as apologists came out of the woodwork in his defense, and even as his own “apology” had me searching in vain for the word “sorry,” I grew increasingly uneasy. I could no longer hide my head in the sand over the fact that his remarks—and his almost-instant recovery—was a naked spectacle of the CEO’s upper-caste Hindu Brahmin male privilege reaching out across continents to high-five his American capitalist male supremacy.
Watching the video of Nadella’s remarks, I couldn’t help but feel that I had heard his message before. I had heard it over and over in the lessons I was taught growing up in India: be a good girl, be undemanding and uncomplaining, and trust that as a female, my special karma had my back. As my brother was allowed to go out and be just another boy, I was told by society that I could be a deity, a goddess, superior on account of my sacrifices. When I hear Nadella talk about these “superpowers” that women have, I cannot help but hear, despite his hip Americanized accent, that same call to rise above it all, like a Durga in waiting, a Draupadi for whom Krishna would one day arrive with yards of sari. “That’s the kind of person I wanna trust,” Nadella said. “That’s the kind of person I really wanna give more responsibility to.” I hear him asking women to be Lakshmi, to be content with his reverence, as she waits, with deific patience, this Goddess of Wealth, for a raise in her own paycheck.
The remarks were not, as he later said—in what one suspects was a scripted message swiftly crafted by the crisis-communication experts of Microsoft—“inarticulate.” They were not unfortunate or uninformed or clueless. They were, in fact, a clue hinting at the unchecked baggage of privilege that some of us immigrants brought with us to a country that holds special rewards for exactly this privilege, nursed as it is on the perfect milk of karma’s confluence with free-market economics.
Far from being inarticulate, the remarks provide an uncorrupted view of the Indian-American dream that played out at the U.N. General Assembly on September 28, when thousands of elite Indian Americans in New York City’s Madison Square Garden roared in a spectacular song-and-dance welcome for India’s free-market-focused Prime Minister Narendra Modi—a leader who was until recently banned from entering the country by the United States government for his reported role in a Hindu-supremacist pogrom against Muslims in his home state of Gujarat.
Like Modi in NYC, we have “arrived,” the Indian community said at Madison Square Garden. And Nadella is the poster boy for what it means to introduce Indian privilege to American privilege. As he himself stated in that interview on Thursday, who would have believed that a South Asian could have made it to the position of CEO of a corporation like Microsoft?
I would. And so would Indra Nooyi, the Indian-American CEO of PepsiCo, another Indian of Brahmin caste. The difference between the two is that Nooyi was asked—by her mother—to check her privilege by “removing her damned crown” before she entered her home, to be mother and wife. Nadella’s privilege, of crown and coronation, goes unchecked. While Nooyi must know when to play woman, Nadella gets to tell women to keep playing woman.
Let’s move on, said one Indian-American woman after another on my Facebook page—feminists, all of them, before this episode. But we all knew what we were doing: covering up for our South Asian brother, playing nice, the way we had done back home. Even Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, delivered a tempered Facebook update: “Microsoft CEO @satyanadella miso-gyny isn’t a case of ‘Indians’ anti-women bias’, it’s capitalism, mansplaining itself to women! Capitalism always tells women & workers to trust to karma/the system, not fight for a raise!” Maria Klawe—president of Harvey Mudd College, mathematician, computer scientist, and the woman who interviewed Nadella on Thursday—told NPR the day after that she felt “guilty” for the way the whole episode played out. She, a Microsoft director, swept aside notions that Nadella’s remarks were aimed at women at all. She attributed it to “a cultural belief which, you know, fits in well with where he comes from, South India, that you shouldn’t ask for things, you shouldn’t demand things.” And then she said she was sorry that he said what he did.
The trouble is, we don’t want to hear Klawe say she’s sorry. As NPR reporter Melissa Block reminded her, Nadella himself hadn’t said “sorry.” Klawe, Krishnan, the feminists on my Facebook wall—all of us are lining up in a merry dance we have been taught to do, to tell ourselves that it will all be OK if we just learn to forgive. But, in the Bhagavad Gita, when the God Krishna introduces the notion of karma to the warrior Arjuna, it is to exhort him to go to war and not question the consequences. Nadella is asking women not to go to war. And look how we’re falling in line.
Karma’s consequence now demands that Nadella sign up for a training program in gender discrimination. And, on his next trip to India, ask a few questions of a sister or two.
Sonora Jha is a journalism professor at Seattle University and the author of Foreign, a novel about farmers’ suicides in India. She is currently writing a memoir about raising her son outside the influences of patriarchy.