The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom can Guide Positive Transformation with Author Simran Jeet Singh

Jennifer Brown | | , , , ,

Author Simran Jeet Singh joins the program to discuss his new book The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your LIfe. Simran shares his diversity story and the formative experiences that have shaped who is today. He also reveals how to tailor storytelling to connect with various audiences. Discover how Sikh wisdom can help inform an approach to DEI that is grounded in a spirit of love and service. 

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Simran Jeet Singh:

This is what Sikh philosophy offers. If we can ground our work and our action within a spirit of love and service, then that nourishes us through the difficulty so that we're no longer feeling so burnt out or depleted of our energy in these tough moments because we have this reserve within us that keeps feeding us. That's how I think about it. I'll also say that it's hard. It's easy to say. I struggle with it too, but it is an approach that's really served me well over the years.


The Will To Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, best-selling author, and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new, more inclusive workplace reality.

She's a passionate inclusion and equity advocate, committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advise top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. And now onto the episode.

Doug Foresta:

Hello and welcome back to The Will To Change. This is Doug Foresta. This episode features a conversation with author Simran Jeet Singh as he discusses his new book, The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life. In the episode, Simran shares his diversity story and the formative experiences that have shaped who he is today. He also talks about how to tailor storytelling to connect with various audiences and how Sikh wisdom can help inform an approach to DEI that is grounded in a spirit of love and service. All this and more. And now onto the episode.

Jennifer Brown:

Simran, welcome to The Will To Change.

Simran Jeet Singh:

Thank you for having me.

Jennifer Brown:

We met at South by Southwest courtesy of Rohit Bhargava. So Will To change listeners know, that was my wonderful and esteemed co co-author of Beyond Diversity, which was a book that I came out with a year or two ago. You were at the bookstore. I was at the bookstore. We were meant to meet. We gave each other copies of our books. You keynoted to Acclaim at South by and really rocked the house. Not surprising. I grabbed you and I said, "Please come join me."

Let's kick around some of your story and really hear your point of view about the moment that we're in, which I have found so valuable. I really wanted to make sure you had a chance to share that with this audience. For those of you who haven't read Simran's book, The Light We Give, a beautiful, beautiful book, How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life, it was released in the summer of 2022.

I know we'll get to that in a moment and talk about what it's been like to author that book, what kind of reactions you've gotten, what kind of audience you've found, surprises, what it's reminded you about, what it's made very clear to you, all of those pieces. But before we get to that, I would just love to have you share about your childhood growing up. It's always such a powerful story. I've heard it several times and, of course, I've read it, but what would you share about to contextualize what you do now, who you are now from your earliest memories?

Simran Jeet Singh:

Yeah, thank you. Thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you. As they say, longtime listener caller, really, really nice to be on with you and great to meet you in Austin a couple months ago now. I appreciate your question. I think part of what really draws me into this work is my personal experience. For those who are listening and not watching you, you might not know that I wear a turban and I have brown skin. I have a beard that used to be all black and now it's got some grays, thanks to the kids and the pandemic.

My experience growing up in this country on the margins of society, people not knowing who I'm about, people not knowing who I am or what I'm about, people making assumptions about me constantly. Some of those assumptions were the ones that you might even assume. I was called a terrorist from childhood. People called me racist slurs from a young age. But even in addition to that, other kinds of assumptions that people make about me.

They notice the turban I wear on my head and they assume that I'm a religious fundamentalist, or they think I'm hardcore, or they think I'm close-minded, or they think I'm homophobic, all of these things that come with what it looks like to be religious or at least what we assume people who are religious to be. My childhood was very much shaped by these kinds of experiences of having to understand that you can't control how people see you and how they judge you.

For me, it was very confusing at some points as a kid, especially after 9/11 when the terrorist attacks happened, where people would see my turban and think, "Oh, that guy is hateful and angry and close-minded" I look at my turban and I think the exact opposite. For me, it represents the values of my tradition, of love and service and justice. At the time it just felt like I was the only one going through this kind of experience, that I had to figure out how to hold on to how I saw myself despite the fact that other people saw me so differently.

What I've learned over time is that actually it's not an isolated experience, that we all go through this in some ways. That by virtue of our various identities, where we come from, who we are, our gender, our race, or sexual orientation, so many things about who we are that people are constantly looking at and trying to figure us out and making assumptions and judging us.

I think we all go through this to some degree. And to me being on the other side of that equation so often of feeling the pain and the difficulty of being othered has really put me on a path towards wanting to resolve that, both on an interpersonal level, but also socially and structurally too.

Jennifer Brown:

When would you say in your journey you began to be most comfortable? What was the evolution of sharing this now so publicly, so quickly, so openly? Was there a moment when you realized how important that was, both to you and to those who listen to you, read you, follow you, or run into you? Was there a moment that you decided, this is a big part of my message and I need to really own it and be overt about it? Because I know it is. When you carry these stigmatized identities, there is a journey that we go on.

Simran Jeet Singh:

It's such a good question, I think, because so often people just think, oh, this is your story, and so you've probably been sharing and you're so comfortable sharing. I'm like, no, actually this was a journey for me. The big moment let me say up until through college. I went to college. I grew up in Texas. I did my undergrad in Texas too, and then I moved to Boston for graduate school. For my entire life, I would never draw attention to myself with regard to the racism that I faced for lots of reasons.

One is it always felt selfish to me and I wasn't quite sure how to navigate that. Something hurtful would happen to me, but I know in the world there's so much worse going on. Is it fair for me to draw attention to myself when other people need it more? It took me a while to realize that that's actually operating from a scarcity mindset, that we should care about all of these things, including what happens to us. It's also this element of not wanting to be seen as a victim. I didn't want people to see me as weak.

I didn't want them to feel like I didn't have control over my own life. It's not something that I felt comfortable with. But I'll tell you, to your question, when did that start to change, was when I lived in Boston, I remember I was going to a college friend's wedding. I was going through airport security. The standard in this country, the policy from the TSA is if you have a turban, then you are automatically racially profiled and have to go through an additional screening, which I don't like, of course.

I'd rather not have our country institutionalize racial profilin, but it's what it is. I'm going through airport security and the agent insisted on patting down my turban. I had worked with groups that were devising the policy and I knew that that was against the policy, that I was allowed to pat my own turban. He wanted me to take off my turban and to check for whatever he thought I'd be hiding under there. I was not comfortable with that. That was not the policy. I tried to read him into the policy.

He refused. He called his manager. His manager also was unaware of what the actual policy was in this case. I was annoyed. I get annoyed at airport security general, I think most of us do, whether we're being profiled or not. But eventually we came to a compromise and he took me to a bathroom. I untied my turban and showed him my hair and then tied it back up. But I was so annoyed that I did something that I don't usually do, and I just angry posted on... Facebook was the cool thing at the time. No judgment.

Jennifer Brown:

You're dating yourself. Just kidding.

Simran Jeet Singh:

Exactly. Exactly. I just posted this story on Facebook. Immediately, within five minutes, one of my best friends from high school, this guy named Marshall, we played soccer together, he texted me and he was like, "I'm so sorry that happened to you. I can't believe it." I know he was trying to be sympathetic, but this was a very close friend of mine and it was so strange to me to realize that he couldn't believe it. I texted him back and I was like, "What do you mean you can't believe it?"

I wasn't angry, but I was like, "What do you mean you can't believe it? We were together after 9/11 and you actually helped me through a lot of the stuff that I went..." He was there, but he was actually one of my closest allies through those difficult years. He was like, "I assumed it did, but you never talk about it. I just wasn't sure." And that really hit me hard. Because on the one hand, as I thought about it, I didn't think it was fair. He wasn't, right? He wasn't asking me or expecting that the onus is on me to share the difficulties that I went through.

But on the other hand, from my viewpoint, I'm thinking of what would it look like for me to share in a way that I could actually help other people see what my life is like? Really for several weeks I struggled with that question and I wasn't really sure what to do. I was in graduate school, so I was reading a lot and I came across this quote from James Baldwin that really changed how I saw this. It was the answer to my question and really shaped me in a profound, I think, spiritual and political way.

He says, "If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don't see." And that quote, "if I love you, I have to make you the conscious of the things you don't see," it shifted my response. It also is the epigraph to my book become that important to me. But that's where I started to realize that actually sharing my story is not selfish. It's not about me, but it's a way that I can help serve people and help advance progress and justice for all of us.

Jennifer Brown:

That is so beautiful. What a quote. That's just wow. That's everything. Such a quote for our time as so many of us are finding our voice for the first time. That continues to reveal itself, and then we decide to disclose and we start slowly, and then we gain speed and comfort and confidence and courage, all those good words. I'm sure it was maybe terrifying the first couple of times or maybe for a while or maybe still for you.

Do you still find yourself in places where sharing your story feels more risky than others? Or is it to this point something that feels like it's just a part of you and nothing changes in your nervous system as you share it? Is it changing as you share it, I wonder.

Simran Jeet Singh:

I haven't really thought about it in that way, and certainly what I have noticed is the more I practice, the more comfortable I got with it. Maybe actually it's not even just about the practice and the skill, like honing the skill. It's not that. It's almost the first time you share and you expect the fury of lightning to strike you and the whole world falls apart. You share and you're like, oh, nothing bad happened, and then you do it again.

There's this confidence that I've developed an understanding that, and a humility too, that sharing my story is not going to end the world. It's not going to fracture relationships. It's actually going to do the opposite. That's really been encouraging for me. The other way to answer that question of how has the storytelling developed or changed over time, some of what I've learned is an effective message is tailored to the audience. One really has to be aware of who is listening.

Depending on who I'm speaking to, and I think this is such an important lesson for those of us interested in diversity and equity and inclusion, how do you have enough humility in approaching an audience to ensure that the message is about them, that it's not actually about you and come forward in a way that they'll be receptive. Certainly I will tailor my stories. I'll tailor my language and my vocabulary. I'll tailor my jokes even to the audience, which, of course, is the most important part of my life.

But it is something that I'm continuing to think about in terms of, again, these are my stories, but my stories are a vehicle for serving other people. Really being others oriented is something that's driven the evolution of my storytelling.

Jennifer Brown:

Which audiences do you feel the most worried... Maybe if your word is not worried about, I know as a speaker there are those that I have trepidation about. Are there ones that you can think of maybe even recently or historically where you are more careful or prepared differently for, or maybe even avoid? I don't know. Or maybe you enjoyed the challenge of feeling, "Ooh, I'm uncomfortable. That's interesting. What is that telling me?"

Simran Jeet Singh:

I would say everything's uncomfortable until you start doing it. That's definitely been true for me. I think what I've really come to appreciate is the scariest conversations are the ones that happen at the extremes. For me, in this polarized context, what does it mean to talk to people who are very far on the right, who I would come in and assume that they have no interest in me and in no way want to hear my story. And also from the extreme left where it often feels like one misstep or even one difference in opinion can shut people down and create real discomfort.

Part of what I've come to realize is in these kinds of conversations, sensitivity is important, but also understanding that you can't be perfect, that you can't please everyone, and doing your best with the integrity and authenticity that you bring to the table and the humility and humanity to really say, "Actually, I have something interesting to offer you, and it may not necessarily be how you've experienced the world. If you'll let me take you on a journey through my shoes, through my skin, through my experiences, perhaps you can see a different way."

I think that to me is the trick of our times. How do you open people up so that they can see the different modalities of life and not be so quick to judge and so quick to think that they're better than you and you're wrong and point their fingers? There's so much that happens that strips us of our shared humanity. To me, this process of connecting across difference is very much a practice in connection through storytelling.

Maybe the way to say it is I try and open myself up to others with all the courage and vulnerability and all this stuff that comes with those risks, but really with the hope that my opening up can help others open up too.

Jennifer Brown:

Right. You going first. I think, yeah, audiences really respond well to realness, authenticity, vulnerability, and the vulnerability and appreciating what it takes for you to speak and tell your story. Did the writing of the book shift the way you, I don't know, how direct you are? I would imagine writing broadened your toolkit and your arsenal to really end as quickly as possible, because we're also in the game as speakers of connecting with people as quickly as possible. I find it's this challenge because you have such limited time with people.

But what did the writing of the book shift for you in the last year that you really noticed changing? Whether it was greater clarity, crispness, conciseness, or maybe more and more talks, more things you wanted to say, more areas you could go into. I also wonder how much you change what you speak on and what you're changing into if there's an evolution in terms of the content that you typically share.

Simran Jeet Singh:

Yeah. Oh man, these are fun questions because I...

Jennifer Brown:

I know. I'm not going to give you the usual.

Simran Jeet Singh:

You're also a writer. We have plenty of similarities. I want to ask you all these same questions.

Jennifer Brown:

It's behind the speaker studio.

Simran Jeet Singh:

Exactly. There's so much I could say here. One thing that's absolutely true is that I think through writing this book, I... I worked with an editor who is very accomplished in the trade space. He has some of the biggest authors in the world. I had a lot of trust in him. One of the really interesting experiences in sharing my writing with him was understanding what he wanted to know more about. Because essentially I would present to him the things that felt salient and important to me, and then he would ask questions saying, "You've said this. Now I'm curious about this."

I would really take that seriously, well, one, because he's a real editor, but also he would be my reader. He doesn't know much about me or my background or the kinds of ideas that I'm sharing. One of the most consistent pieces of feedback that he would give me is, tell me more about your life. Growing up as a minority in this country, as a minority among the minorities, the message that I typically get from society is the exact opposite. Nobody cares about you. Nobody wants to make your story.

Tone that part down. Just give us the substance. Don't tell us about who you are because we don't really care. We don't have movies about you or TV shows about you or books about you. And that was really unexpected for me. The more I talked to him about it, the more I started to realize that the reason he was interested is because the story that I share is one that is unfamiliar to people in this country. There's a newness about it, especially when I'm talking about issues like racism, injustice and violence, which so often when we talk about them in this country is a black and white issue.

And that approach really erases the experiences of so many people, millions of people in this country. He was just saying, it's fascinating that your entire life in many ways is governed by American racism, yet you're not part of the conversation. We don't learn about you in our history books. This was the paradox that he kept drawing out, and I think it's one that has really shaped my own thinking. It is, you are American, but no one sees you as American. You see yourself as American, but you also recognize that you're not.

You're living this in many ways, this life in tension. What I learned through him was, this is not just a tension that is particular to you. The way in which I experience it is particular, of course, but it's the story of all of us. And through the lessons that you learn on how to deal with this, the wisdom that you bring forward can actually help guide so many of us, especially in our current moment.

That's where really through writing this book the clarity for me around how to bring in bias and how to bring in empathy as two core aspects of my experience and what I bring into this world, that's given new shape to not just how I write, but also how I talk and what I bring to different audiences now.

Jennifer Brown:

How lovely to have a partner like that hold so much space and encourage you to do the thing that you don't think matters and to say, "Actually, this is exactly what matters. Lean into this." I'm curious, from your own community, reactions, appreciation, do you have a sense of that you've been the first mover or one of the first movers or perhaps the one with a very substantive platform that has made space for a lot of other storytellers to step in and step up?

That's a neat thing to imagine. I'm sure it's happened, but has there been a lift? You choosing to do what you've done, has it lifted others up? How do you see that? How do you experience it?

Simran Jeet Singh:

I would say it's as fun and exciting as it is frustrating. Frustrating in that these are for so often doors that have been closed to marginalized groups for so long. We can talk about that in terms of publishing. We can talk about that in terms of TV and film. We can talk about that in terms of government. All of these spaces that I operate in, I love the challenge of having to figure out how to break through and create space. My new projects are in TV and film. I love it. It's so hard.

And then I'm running into the same challenges I did with books, which is people are saying, "Your story and the kind of community you come from is not one we're familiar with. We don't know if there's a market. We don't know if people care. It's too much risk for us." In certain industries now I've been able to break that stigma and open the floodgates and at least be part of opening of the floodgates. And that feels awesome. In our tradition and in my political philosophy too, the commitment is you open up the door and you bring other people through. That feels great.

The frustrations continue because I think one of the conversations we're starting to have culturally is there is no logical reason for why these doors should be closed. These doors are closed for other reasons, and usually they're hierarchical and oppressive and supremacist or whatever they are, but there's actually no compelling argument whether it's market-based or otherwise.

That's the part that's frustrating to me, is to be someone who's an optimist and sees the good in people and at the same time has to live with the reality that actually the world is unjust and we've chosen to make it that way. That's a tension that I'm constantly living with.

Jennifer Brown:

When you feel particularly so fatigued, do you have those moments of wanting to give up and does it ever get to that place? How do you get back in? Because I think a lot of us sitting here in 2023, there's so much fatigue. There was so much hopefulness for change, and then I think it makes it worse. It's like salt in the wound a bit of where we sit right now with so many things being reversed and challenged that we didn't even think would be challenged and questioning, is the work of building a more inclusive world, is the momentum there that we thought was there?

I get very somber about it. It's sobering this moment. Did we move too fast? Did we push too hard? Did we want too much? Were we not ready? Strategically, how do we find ourselves here? But I also think those of us who've been pushing, the fatigue is dangerous. Because without us and without that energy, change won't really won't happen. We all know this. But anyway, I wondered how that shows up for you if it does. You used the word optimism. I have the same. I think we must have that.

Otherwise, we wouldn't do what we do. But I think I'm curious, as a change maker who has heard and seen it all and may experienced so much, how are you feeling in 2023? Any advice for the fatigued among us?

Simran Jeet Singh:

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I feel it. The frustration that I was describing is a similar frustration in terms of... It's about progress, right? Life is hard enough as it is. Why do we choose to make it harder for one another? It boggles the mind because it doesn't have to be this way. We could live in a society where we actually supported one another and cared for one another in all the ways that we experience in family. Why not expand that? That part is frustrating to me.

I guess to your question, I'm thinking about some of the remarks that I shared at South by Southwest about what optimism means to me and what I learned from my heritage about optimism, which is [inaudible 00:28:26] It's hard to manufacture hope. Sometimes we just sugarcoat or we sweep the difficulties under the rug. I don't think that that gets us very far. I think it holds us over for a day or two or maybe a week or a month, but it's all artifice. It's all made up, and we end up setting ourselves up for a fall.

What I learned from my tradition is that there's another way of approaching hope that's more sustainable, and that's one where you actually embrace the difficulty. You recognize it. You take it seriously. You feel the pain of it, and you choose to have hope anyway. As I shared in my remarks then, this is how you find the sweetness within life, including within the difficulties. I guess to me, as I'm reflecting in this moment, I'm thinking a little bit about parenting. I have these two young girls.

My a younger one, who's in preschool this weekend, she just had her birthday. During her birthday party, she fell and skinned her knee, which was sad. And then she was crying and I picked her up and held her. As a parent, I feel the pain that she's... I don't want her to cry. It's so sad, especially at her party. At the same time, we're like having this embrace and it's a beautiful day out. We're in the park and we're at this party. There is a sense of joy within the pain. To me, that's the balance that we can find.

That it doesn't have to be oppositional. At the end of the day, this is what Sikh philosophy offers, if we can ground our work and our action within a spirit of love and service, then that nourishes us through the difficulty so that we're no longer feeling so burnt out or depleted of our energy in these tough moments because we have this reserve within us that keeps feeding us. That's how I think about it. I'll also say that it's hard. It's easy to say. I struggle with it too. But yeah, it is an approach that's really served me well over the years.

Jennifer Brown:

I love that. The bend, not break. You said the word sweetness, not a word that I think probably comes to mind when we just are looking at the challenges that we're facing. But at the end of the day, approaching it with sweetness also encourages the coming together. It opens heart to understanding and actually seeing somebody's lack of understanding with love and grace. Like you mentioned earlier, the harshness of the extremes and how I know we have to toggle with that.

And yet it obscures how much we do share, how much we can reach each other, how much we can impact each other's understanding and how we are treated in the world. It's such a distraction, those extremes, when there's this the movable middle, as we say, when we think about organizational or behavioral change or human evolution. There's so many to impact and wanting to really focus there and not get distracted or pulled by the extremes and hold the middle.

I often think of this metaphor of the bridge, and I'm sure you probably have thought about your work in that way too, to dwell on this bridge and pull folks onto something that's scary into something that they don't understand and have that passage and growth happen and protect others through their growth and evolution too is an incredible feeling to witness and to even just play a small part in someone's opening up, someone's changing of their mind and their heart, or someone being moved.

I'm sure that you've gotten that reaction. Have there been specific reactions to your book that have felt either soul filling or unexpected and surprising or difficult? I wonder if it's found an audience that you predicted when you wrote it. I know when I write, I have my audience so clearly in mind. I know exactly who I want to pick it up. Especially for my last book, it was, for sure, I think that typically I would say white male executive. I was writing for the audience that I thought would be the least perhaps interested organically in picking this book up and yet convincible and yet open, interested.

I think it's actually that it's a perfect resource for them and it's found that audience for sure. If it hasn't found that audience and finds an audience that takes it and says, "I know who to give this to. I know who needs to read this," which I love, so it's passed along, which was some advice my editor gave me that I never forgot. He said, "Write a pass along book." Because I was struggling. I wanted to be everything to everybody, but there was a very specific group that has a lot of power in the systems that you and I study and advocate within.

It is so important, the prioritization of that audience for me because I know what they and some of us, we, I'll say we in this too, have access to in terms of the levers of change. I wonder about the audience you had in mind and I wonder who you found that might have surprised you.

Simran Jeet Singh:

I was in Minnesota this weekend and I had a very surprising and uncomfortable moment where three different people came up to me and said that they are on their fourth or fifth reading and they read a passage every morning. Very touching. And also, I did not ever intend to and I don't ever intend for this book or for myself to come off as scriptural. I don't know. I don't want to be a paragon or a group or anything like that. The book is so full of my mistakes that it's strange to me that someone would see it and be like, "Oh, that's someone I want."

Very unexpected and also rewarding in a lot of ways, of course, that people are finding that much within it. The audience that's been somewhat unexpected for me, right now there's an executive seminar that the Aspen Institute's Business and Society Program is doing using some chapters from my book as a core reading. Those kinds of audiences, again, it's not a business book. It's not a book meant specifically for people in corporate environments, but the fact that there are some chapters on values and leadership that they're pulling out.

The goal for me was always to try and reach people wherever they are. That's the way that I was writing. To see, as you were asking the unexpected readers, the unexpected audiences, who they weren't intended to be part of this group, but I didn't intend to exclude them either. It's just more like a, oh, cool, there's some relevance.

Jennifer Brown:

Happy surprise.

Simran Jeet Singh:

Surprise. Yeah, it's very cool.

Jennifer Brown:

I love that. Let's stay on the workplace and leaders in the workplace context for a moment. You wrote an HBR article that I want to draw everybody's attention to on the topic of caste differences. I know you and I are really dedicated to expanding, like you said earlier, the way that we define diversity dimensions that is actually so vast and so deep and so multifaceted, so much to explore, so much that's unknown. This is one of those things. I wanted you to just give us a thumbnail of how to think about this and perhaps sharing some statistics.

And also, I want those of us who architect workforce solutions and workplace solutions to really listen to this because I think we need to be ahead of the curve. We need to be anticipating what are all the things that are unspoken that need to be spoken, that need to be identified are. And that's the definition of being I think a practitioner, which is I'm looking not just at our current state, but really where do we still have issues of bias that we aren't talking about?

I know every time I poll my audience, I know the top couple things are religion and spirituality and mental health and things that I think surprise people that are happening so much. These are audiences of hundreds and sometimes over a thousand people. Tell us a little bit about what you wanted most to share about caste as a dimension and how it plays out then and other biases that play out in the workplace. I know you are not a workplace consultant, so I actually really think we should stay on this though.

Your instincts are so good and your wisdom is so I think fresh. I know I appreciate it. Some of us are looking at this for so long that we can't really see the forest for the trees. This is always extremely helpful to hear your point of view. I predict you will, if you're not already yet pulled into a lot of these for what you stand for and what you believe, but also how effective your wisdom could be in challenging us as we build a better, more inclusive workplace.

Simran Jeet Singh:

Thank you. This article is one that fits within... I'm trained as a historian of South Asia, that's my background, and religion in particular. Caste is something that I am familiar with in a way that most Americans are unfamiliar. Part of what I wanted to do here in this article is to pick up on a rapidly growing conversation here in the US and in businesses across the world where there are real tensions usually underneath the surface, but occasionally bubbling over into real controversy about caste identity.

One of the real driving forces be behind me wanting to comment on this is that as the DEI movement is becoming more attentive to certain forms of identity, there are many that we are not addressing that need real attention. Some of them are incredibly prominent. You mentioned religion and faith. More than 80% of the world's population still identifies as religious. If we're not taking it seriously, then we're missing part of the picture.

A similar thing is true for caste, where more than a billion people within this world's population come from the region of the world where caste was developed and continues to be pervasive. That's part of it. The other part here is to say, as our world continues to globalize and as our companies become more diverse, we are going to be running into these issues more and more. That's a big reason why caste felt like a critical issue to address here.

One of the key points that I'd love for people listening here to consider is that caste in the same way that we see with race or in the same way that we see with patriarchy, caste is a hierarchy that positions certain people in the way that Isabel Wilkerson describes arbitrarily. In the model of caste, it's inherited. It's people as being superior or inferior. This has lasting impacts for people all over the world, not just presently, but historically. If you think about something like segregation in the US, there's segregation and you could say segregation's not legal anymore.

You look at the way that our demographics and cities and everything is structured and you say, "Oh, we are still living in a world that is very segregated." Similar issue with caste where people who have been on the receiving end of caste oppression for decades and centuries, even if we are not institutionalizing it here in the States or in our companies, the ramifications, the consequences are still very, very apparent and very deeply felt among people who are caste oppressed.

Jennifer Brown:

Municipalities are tackling this. I know you and I talked about the political sphere. What's happening vis-a-vis caste discrimination in those sorts of arenas?

Simran Jeet Singh:

Thank you. There are movements within the US to now get caste recognized in anti-discrimination ordinances or bills or within more broader policies. We're seeing that at government levels. We're seeing that in educational systems. There's one phenomenon that I think is worth addressing here, which is like so many other issues when it comes to DEI, caste is politicized and contested. The contestations, as we see in the other areas, are typically coming from the people who benefit from the privilege don't want to lose it.

People with caste privilege are the ones in most cases who are pushing back and saying that these anti-caste ordinances are oppressive and hateful. My argument and the argument, including many of the scholars that I work with, is actually the institutionalization of caste is the piece that's actually oppressive and hurtful to people and taking away the privilege is equalizing, and that's where we want to move as a society.

Jennifer Brown:

That's tight. I know we talked about AAPI this time of the year and AAPI efforts and employee resource groups and affinity groups. Do you predict this will become a more bigger priority, something that is going to need strategies around it? Where are we? Are we in the very beginning stages of bringing this to organizational awareness? How do you think change will happen in organizations with something like this?

Because it's certainly in its infancy from a discussion perspective, metrics, and then we will mature, I guess, as we tackle it, understand what the it is, looking at this and systematically thinking about how we will tackle it organizationally, probably from a lot of different angles, but I know affinity groups will be one place where perhaps the discussion will be located. How's it going to go? What do you predict for this topic?

Simran Jeet Singh:

I see so many analogies that we can make with regard to caste oppression and other forms of oppression, racism, homophobia. Across the board there are lessons to be learned in terms of what's happening, but I think there's also something really different about caste that presents an opportunity, which is unlike those other issues that are so familiar to Americans, and in this case they are, they're so familiar that they become personal. People have really strong feelings and feel like they are either pulled to one side or the other.

With caste, it's a blank slate. Most Americans don't understand it, don't know it. I think in terms of process, the first step is going to be awareness, to get to a place where leaders and teams and ERGs actually first understand what it is that we're talking about. But because it's not politicized, that awareness is not a political project, at least not in the same way that these other ones are, where we're trying to convince people of one thing or the other, we can really bring forward objective understanding of what caste is without all the ugliness of the politics of it.

I think that's a real opportunity. It feels different. In a context where if we're talking about, I don't know, anti-Blackness, somebody brings up the CRT, the critical race theory bills, or if we're talking about trans rights and somebody's talking about the anti-trans, those things are so contested that it's hard to have a real conversation. But with caste, I think we can. That's part of what I'm predicting can happen if we start stepping up and doing this proactively rather than reactively once this issue gets messier.

The other thing that I'd want to say about this is, and we're seeing how politics can influence these policies at government and educational levels in a moment where India has now been governed by the right wing Nationalist party for about a decade. Those politics are really influencing a lot of the power plays in global companies and especially with leadership at the top. I'm also predicting quite a bit of backlash. I would anticipate that the right wing movement is very strong and it will continue to bear influence.

Whether people in the West recognize it or not, it's already happening. We've seen companies like Google struggle with this. There were very ugly public controversies that spilled over into international news. I do think there's real risk involved in this if we're not proactive and we're not thoughtful about how to approach caste in the workplace.

Jennifer Brown:

I think that's well said. Companies are being challenged in really new ways. They're really, really being brought into the arena on a lot of these issues and being forced to choose and lead or not. We're watching Disney struggle in Florida, and we've been all watching that very carefully. It's a place I'd never thought we would be. As somebody who's been in the LGBTQ+ advocacy movement, for a really long time, we've actually been meeting at Disney as a community who wants workplace equality for over 20 years, 25 years, as long as I've been doing this.

It was one of my earliest memories of a company who had an affirmative point of view and drew a line in the sand and defended its values on this front of inclusiveness. It's also very humbling and sobering to see this beginning to play out and the stakes be so high and the direct attacks and watching this power play happen and wondering... When we see the Edelman Trust Barometer say the most respected and trusted institutions are the companies in this country, I always come back to that and think about, wow, what responsibility.

In many ways the workplace is a place... Maybe to your point that some of this can be worked out outside of this political sphere where everything gets polarized because we already have this wonderful, I think, progress and narrative happening around equalizing, you used that word, equity. And knowing that any bias microaggressions in the system is preventing the best performance and preventing people from thriving. I think that companies understand that's good for the bottom line, but obviously it's a moral case as well.

I love that you just made the distinction to say progress can be made actually in a very unique way. I love that as a call to action for everybody that's listening to The Will To Change. You said awareness is the first step. Any other final guidance for some of us that are beginning these conversations? I know it's early, but any other guidance advice, things that we can begin to rev the machine up of taking yet another hard look at ourselves and how we do things and really challenging ourselves to be better on this front in the workplace?

Simran Jeet Singh:

I've raised the word privilege a few times in terms of who sits on what side of the table on this issue. I'd also say for those of us who aren't directly impacted by identities and oppressions like caste, we can also recognize that there's a certain privilege in that too.

I think if we start to think about it that way and recognize that we actually have a responsibility to address these issues, even if they're not happening to us, and being aware that with all the humility that it requires, being aware that just because its not happening to us and just because we don't know it, that doesn't mean that it's not there. I think that understanding is something that we all can appreciate. Hopefully if we start to look at it that way, then that will move us into action as well.

Jennifer Brown:

That's beautiful. That is allyship, everybody. It's the reminder that we may lack the lived experience, but the responsibility and the opportunity we have to put our voice in play for the idea of equality on this front and so many other fronts. It's such an exciting moment. I think we have to be more complete in terms of the differences that haven't been seen that are existing and causing harm in our systems. Those of us who I think don't directly experience something have a very unique role to partner.

And that's going to be some learning, right? It's not going to be, I'm the savior. It's not going to be, I'm going to speak without deeper knowledge. I think we have to have the urgency and the eagerness and the commitment, but also recognize that we are in the beginning of our learning when it's not our lived experience. I think it's really interesting tension between so much wanting to be helpful and not knowing so much and wondering where can I use my voice and how can I get involved?

I think that's going to be what we're all going to be going through on this and many other dimensions that we haven't really walked with in the world. That's a beautiful call to action, Simran. It's so wonderful. Any last thoughts you'd like to give and places where folks can obviously read The Light We Give, but other places we can listen to you? Because I love listening to you speak. Always hunt down your interviews. I know you don't want to be the G word. I won't even say it, but there's a little bit of inevitability going on with that, if I may say.

Simran Jeet Singh:

No. It's really nice to spend some time with you. Like I said, I've been listening to this podcast for a long time and reading your work for a long time. Just started your new book, by the way. Excited for that too.

Jennifer Brown:

Thank you. Thank you.

Simran Jeet Singh:

It's a pleasure to spend time with you.

Jennifer Brown:

Thank you so much for joining me, and thank you for everything you're doing, everything you're shining a light on, your courage. Keep going. I hope to see you in real life soon and maybe share a stage with you someday. I would be so honored. I'm just putting it out there to the world, but how incredible would that be for us to be able to do that together, feeling such a kinship that I do with you across so many differences. I appreciate you.

Simran Jeet Singh:

Thank you. Thanks a lot.

Jennifer Brown:

Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion and the future of work, and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.


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