Prisons of Mind: Class, Gender and Race

By Sonalika Arora, Official Jaipur Literature Festival

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Men are not the prisoners of their fate, but only of their own minds.” Our minds shape our perception of the world. We may view it as one big family, or divide it into oppressive categories of race, class, and gender. Either way, the liberation from or enslavement to our self-imagined prisons rests with us. Perhaps, this is the reason that even after years of human evolution, the shackles of class, gender and race still bind Homo Sapiens.

Racism is the belief that one’s skin colour, race, culture, religious or national identity is superior to others. It is deeply entwined with the history of colonisation, when cultural, land and resource appropriation was invariably accompanied by violence, slavery and genocide. When Europeans came into contact with people of darker skin pigmentation in Asia, Africa, and the Americas in the early sixteenth century, they regarded the original inhabitants of these lands as uncivilized and inferior to their own race and culture. This was perhaps in part down to convenience: in their quest to establish colonial rule, a justifiable logic was needed for enslaving and subjugating inhabitant populations.

In America, the racism struggle began with the arrival of the first African slaves in America, who had been kidnapped from their homeland. Though slavery was ultimately eliminated at the end of the eighteenth century, racial discrimination against African Americans persisted. Discriminatory laws denied basic human rights to African Americans, including the right to vote or own property. They weren’t even allowed to eat in most restaurants or sit in the front seats of buses or planes. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s led to a change of these laws, but it couldn’t wipe out long held stereotypical attitudes of many Americans against African Americans.



In 2015 – 2016, police killings of black citizens in America, the killing of 9 black people in a church in South Carolina, the Nice terror attacks, the Cologne New Year gang sexual assaults on women, and the gory terror attack in Dhaka reveal that deep prejudice continues to divide humans around the world, along arbitrary lines of difference. In America, black people are often viewed with suspicion and criminalized in the media. According to the Guardian project, which tracks the Police killings in America, at least 136 black people have been killed by police in 2016. Most of these victims were innocent and unarmed.

Class inequality is another form of oppression that grips societies around the world, wherein the income, education, wealth, status or power of a person determines his rank in that society. The most commonly used class identities are upper class, middle class, working class, and poor. These distinctions severely affect access to basic material needs and better opportunities, such as access to higher educational institutions, higher paid jobs, or health facilities. Furthermore, when class identity intersects with racial identity, the situation worsens. Research reveals that merely having a white American first name increases the chances of response to a CV, compared to having a black first name. In India, class identities are termed as General, Scheduled Castes, and Other Backward Classes. Recently, massive protests were carried out in India by the Jat people (an agricultural community in Northern India) to be part of the Other Backward Classes category for socially and educationally disadvantaged communities, a status that comes with benefits such as reserved job quotas in central government.



Along with racism and classism, sexism grips the world. This view regards women as inferior to men, and oppressed at many levels of society, including economic, political and religious. The gender pay gap differences for the same jobs, sexual harassment, sexual objectification, genital mutilation and domestic violence are just some of the ways in which female oppression continues. When combined with racism and class exploitation, the oppression of women of colour grows threefold. In America, one third of all black people live below the federal government’s poverty line, and three quarters of them are black women and their children.

Divisions of race, class, and gender operate in almost every culture and country. However, what matters is not just to understand the problem, but to work to change it. If we start by working to change our own mindsets, the fate of the world could be very different, more resembling one big family than a prison of division.


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