Repression breeds resistance: A call for a methodology of radical solidarity and love to respond to the prison industrial complex and academia’s eugenic tendencies

By Xinachtli and  Emese Ilyés
This collaborative autoethnographic article traces psychology’s complicity in systems of oppression while highlighting pathways toward liberation. An expression and embodiment of radical solidarity, this article is the product of a research collaboration between an incarcerated justice advocate and a critical psychologist. Critical autoethnographic methods are leaned on to lift experiences of prison as an oppressive institution and illuminate forms of resistance. We strategically and deliberately co-created this methodological approach to joyfully render prison walls metaphorically porous, to seep through surveillance mechanisms (both within the prison and academia), and to build liberatory worlds through our words. Situating mass incarceration as an extension of colonial displacement and enslavement, we dialogically examine how psychology has upheld white supremacy through the illusion of objectivity and neutrality. Psychological concepts like critical consciousness and resilience are re-theorized to center embodied, collective struggles. Calling for psychology to move beyond apologies toward deep structural change and distributive justice, we advocate for centering the experience of those historically excluded in knowledge construction, resource allocation, and leadership. Imagining a psychology of love and solidarity, we urge dismantling oppressive institutions through pedagogies of radical solidarity. Our collaboration—across prison walls—models methodologies of mutual aid, conscientization, and power sharing to build a liberatory psychology.

Intro: psychology and mass incarceration


The founding of the US government is rooted in displacement, dehumanization, and eradication of communities of color. Today, national policies continue to uphold these foundational practices. Whether it is the mass incarceration in the United States or the stance taken toward immigration, who is deserving of citizenship, belonging, and surviving continues to be an extension of these historic white supremacist patterns. The discipline of psychology is deeply stitched into the framework of these conversations. Psychological concepts—including for instance racial categories, intelligence, and emotions—are not always acknowledged to have a foundation in this historical background. Many approaches within the discipline of psychology—in the name of objectivity—deny these contextual influences on psychological phenomena (Jackson, 2017). This ahistorical stance has allowed psychology to separate itself from political conversations, including denying the historical entanglement psychology has had with many of these systems. Today, psychology continues to narratively move social problems into people’s bodies, making people sick, and locking people away. Psychology obscures structural root causes instead it individualizes societal problems. The differences in studies, maps onto normal curves, are not naturally occurring but are in the infrastructure of the United States and the Global North. Intentional, systemic, structured erasure, silencing, and dehumanization is turned into a problem within the individual through psychology’s lens, justifying the discarding of people from the community.
Psychology is in the business of constructing hierarchies out of bodies and minds. Though psychology, which is the study of the mind and how people relate to one another, has been studied throughout the world for thousands of years, its scientific origin is often traced to the mid-nineteenth century to the laboratories of G. Stanley Hall in the United States and Wilhelm Wundt in Germany. “This early history of psychology, rooted in oppressive psychological science to protect Whiteness, White people, and White epistemologies, reflected the social and political landscape of the U.S. at that time,” an apology published by the American Psychological Association in 2021 states with clarity. Eugenics, the pseudoscience of cleansing the gene pool from undesirables such as the poor, Black, and Brown people, immigrants, and those deemed as traitors to the concept of whiteness such as queer people and disabled people, was both the product of psychology and psychology was shaped by it. Psychology as a field was established to create categories and assess individuals according to these categories, to identify those who are subhuman according to these measurements, and to remove them from society. That is in fact what eugenics did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The categories that were established during this time continue to reverberate the practices and the assessments that one might see deployed in schools, hospitals, and clinics, in the legal system, can be traced back to eugenics (Luther et al., 1996Santiago-Rivera et al., 2016). Eugenic principles continue to be felt within psychology today.
To disenfranchise colonial subjects, social, cultural, and political institutions erase these histories, label them as fringe extremism and pathologize and threaten those who speak them (López et al., 2021), and with this tool of oppression create a psychology upholding white supremacy. Thus the social sciences can be said to have been founded on historical lies, stereotypes, myths, and other dehumanizing structures, ones which made it possible to declare enslaved populations as only three-fourths human, not full human beings, given the color of law by court decree, as in the infamous Dred Scott case that took place in 1857. These white men psychologists focused on assessing intelligence, personality, criminality, normalcy, and ability, concepts that continue to be central to the field of psychology and continue to harm communities of color (Gillham, 2001). Colonialism and slavery are in the DNA of the United States, and of the disciplines it continues to dominate globally (Hannah-Jones et al., 2021). As Michelle Alexander made visible in her excellent treatise, The New Jim Crow (Alexander, 2010), our segregated cities, unequal institutions, public education system, and every aspect of American society perpetuate the principles of white supremacy institutionalized by Jim Crow, following the civil war. Psychology is an essential building block of the infrastructure of white ideology that shapes relationships, institutions, cities, and education in the United States. The hierarchies created within psychology, structure our human geography. This structuring is not limited to the US context. North American Psychology continues to colonize the world through what Bulhan (2015) calls metacolonialism of being. As Bulhan writes, “colonialism did not end; on the contrary, colonialism in its metacolonial form continues to influence the thought, behavior, and being of colonized peoples even more than did earlier forms of colonialism” (2015, p. 240). Psychology is an integral building block of our lived world, inner and shared, and is a continuation of the colonial and eugenic enterprise.
Because of the work of grassroots organizers and activists (e.g., Cullors, 2018Garza et al., 2014) as well as academics of color (e.g., Bryant-Davis, 2007Comas-Diaz, 2006Davis, 2019), there has been a deliberate move to shift toward a naming of these mechanics of dehumanization at the core of the American identity over the past few years. The movement for Black Lives Matter has invited deep reflection which has led many systems to reckon with their complicity in formalized mechanics of oppression—including the American Psychological Association which published an apology for the discipline’s support of white supremacist practices (American Psychological Association, 2021). In this apology, this professional body names the way Black psychologists have been erased from history, and have been prevented from succeeding in the field. The apology names the way psychology has created and deployed concepts to systematically create an ideology of white supremacy. This document names the way psychology caused harm naming for instance the way the field has contributed to wealth inequity in Black communities by how it studies racial differences. It also acknowledges that white psychologists have been named as experts, including over the experiences of people of color. This apology is of note in part because it is an example of an institution of power naming and attempting to grapple with its complicity in structural racism while continuing to work within these very same racist frameworks it is responsible for inventing. As scholars have found since the publication of the apology, narratives within the scholarship that is being produced by psychology have continued to reinforce white supremacist ideologies (Smith et al., 2023). While the APA is a professional body based in the United States, it dictates the ethical codes, educational standards, and methodological practices of psychology around the world. Psychology is one of the main architects of metacolonialism.
Based on historical patterns, there is cause to be concerned regarding these reforming strides in the United States, especially when many reforms emphasize a shifting in language rather than demonstrating action and addressing the structures that are benefiting from white supremacy, as the recent research by Smith and colleagues (2023) found. As Bulhan (2015) noted in his exploration of metacolonialism, the colonialism that many may place in the past has just simply been transmuted into more insidious forms. Concepts carried in the English language, like “freedom, free enterprise and democracy,” are neo-colonial tools that have only ever been fully accessible for the rich, the elite, and the privileged white class. These concepts are being exported from North America under the guise of globalism. As Bulhan (2015) notes, “many analysts write about globalization in glowing terms, often extolling it as a system of worldwide innovation that shall bring great advances to humanity. Yet these writings seldom answer this question: Who actually benefits from this new craze, and who suffers because of its global effects?” (p. 244). Reformist, often rights-based language, may serve more to uphold what philosopher Charles Mills (2018) called epistemologies of ignorance, that is the continued protection of dominant groups from ever really acknowledging the true construction of the social world. As Mills (2018) wrote, “hegemonic groups characteristically have experiences that foster illusory perceptions about society’s functioning whereas subordinate groups characteristically have experiences that (at least potentially) give rise to more adequate conceptualizations” (p. 46). These reforms may simply serve to continue to allow dominant groups to remain in this bubble of ignorance and never confront the structural changes that must happen for liberation.
The ruling class controls the lives of those in the lower classes including the means of production and distribution, and commodity consumption, as well as shaping knowledge systems (Domhoff, 2010). Race and class divisions sustain a system of economic exploitation, which is destroying the earth as climate change disasters are occurring more frequently affecting the whole of the world, especially poor communities of color. Those who hoard resources and who thereby hold the most control over others, close their eyes to the increasingly urgent climate crisis—building their spaceships as a very childish cosplay of destructively selfish survival. Meanwhile, around the United States (Saez and Zucman, 2020) and around the world, isolated communities are unable to access many of life’s basic necessities in housing, adequate medical health care, food, schooling for children, child care, and transportation.
Many systems in the US are built on white supremacy. This of course includes the carceral system, with policing and prisons easily traced to their origins in slavery and plantations. If scholars are looking at the relationship between prisons and slavery when slavery is only defined by uncompensated labor, they may not feel the connection to be as vivid as we state it. However, “the relationship remains provocatively stable when the question describes slavery in terms of social death” (Gilmore, 2008: 33). This connection is made glaringly visible in how some states continue to refer to prisons as plantations. As Price and Coleman note, Texas “essentially continued the plantation system, one staffed by inmates rather than slaves” (2011: 51). Slave patrols evolved into the first organized police forces in the United States (Turner et al., 2006). This history upholds today’s reality with the US having the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 2.3 million—majority people of color—individuals inside prisons making up 5% of the world’s population, with 25% of the imprisoned world (Prison Policy Initiative, 2021). Recent “reforms” have expanded the reach of the prison state to what Schenwar and Law (2020) refer to as “open-air prisons” which include microphones embedded in neighborhoods to automatically alert police if certain sounds are detected. This program, and similar surveillance programs, have increased harassment despite over 90% of deployments of these systems resulting in false reports (MacArthur Justice Center, 2023). Policing has increased harm experienced by Black and Brown and poor communities impacted by structural violence, yet there has been no meaningful move away from these systems. Despite these concerns being raised by community members, including the protests of 2020 and 2021, funds in the United States continue to be siphoned away from community services to increase prison budgets. The prison system and law enforcement mechanics receive approximately $215 billions of funding (Elsen, 2021), a number that increases each year. The language of reforms over the years has only expanded the business of incarceration. For example, electronic monitoring, touted as an alternative to prisons, has increased the number of people who are impacted by the carceral system, detaining an additional 200,000 people in their homes each year (Schenwar and Law, 2020). Despite collective conversations in the United States about complicity and white supremacy, we see the way systems continue to entrench themselves within these oppressive practices. The business of incarceration is booming. As reported by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU, 2022), incarcerated individuals in the US produce at least 11 billion dollars in goods and services annually. Essentially treated like indentured servants to often private companies, incarcerated individuals often receive no pay (or pennies per hour), no benefits, no legal protections, and face inhumane punishment if considered noncompliant.
The line between rehabilitation and disposability has always been diluted within psychology, as within the carceral system in the United States. Auguste et al. (2021) point out that the discipline of psychology has always colluded with the state to take away rights and liberties. The authors cite the psychologist Bobby Wright who concluded that the “discipline had historically been leveraged to wage war against Black communities.” Psychology’s war targeting Black communities in the United States looked like the creation and maintenance of state hospitals that often indefinitely confined specifically Black people (Snowden et al., 2009). The apparatus of mass incarceration in the United States has always been entangled with psychology’s broadly reaching appendages. Famously, the APA was involved in loosening ethical constraints and justifying the torture of prisoners implicated after the 9–11 attacks in New York (Risen, 2015), in addition to the decisions lauded psychologists made to work with the government to devise effective torture techniques. On an everyday basis, psychologists are routinely called to as expert witnesses to wield their authority over human behavior and emotions in most court trials. These expert witnesses offer information that can sway how juries evaluate cases. Psychologists have studied broad impacts of policies and—using established assessments—determined the consequences of many facets of mass incarceration. These assessments, created by and published by largely white scholars (Roberts et al., 2020), that are framed as rigorous and scientific are constantly discovered to animate racial biases against non-white and non-US born people (Leguízamo et al., 2017). Psychology continues to be complicit in systems of oppression, including psychological studies that have promoted certain reforms in the carceral world and mental health care yet by doing so increasing the scope of the criminal justice system (Klukoff et al., 2021). The discipline of psychology has not reckoned with Audre Lorde’s (1983) often cited observation about the master’s tools dismantling the master’s house while it continues to both reinforce white supremacy and at the same time produce professional language indicating a critique of its own practices. Our article invites psychology—with our methodology and strategic engagement with the discipline and academic structures—to move beyond apologies, and restorative justice, to enact actions that demonstrate a commitment to distributive justice, shifting power and resources to those who have been most impacted by white supremacy and colonization. We call for an enactment of psychology that creates the conditions for a new “ethos” of care for communities, of collective welfare of all especially the most vulnerable, including youth and our elders, including the planet’s ecosystems. We call for a psychology that reckons with its complicity in these historical traumas and colonial crimes in order to make space for collective healing. We call for a psychology of resistance that is written by those who are most impacted by systems of violence, dehumanization, and isolation. Human geography is interested in tracing, understanding, and interrogating power relations and structural violence. Psychology as a field has been and continues to construct significant building blocks of white supremacist and colonial ideologies. This article is one attempt at embodying how psychology could be used for liberation instead of oppression.

Lineage of accountability within psychology


Not all psychologists have presented their work in an ahistorical and decontextualized fashion. Notably, liberation psychologists, critical psychologists, and feminist psychologists (e.g., Afuape and Kerry Oldham, 2022Auguste et al., 2023Boudin et al., 2022Bustamante et al., 2019a2019bDominguez, 2022Greene, 2020Okafor, 2023Sanchez-Carmen et al., 2015) have contributed to the study of mass incarceration by using the lens of structural violence and intersectionality. Despite the existence of this important scholarship, these ideas continue to be marginalized and underrepresented within psychology journals and other related academic spaces, perhaps because as Roberts and colleagues (2020) found in their review of 26,000 empirical psychological articles published—articles related to issues like race were authored mostly and edited nearly entirely by white people. The reason why these perspectives continue to be held on the periphery of the discipline may be due to the way ideas of objectivity and rigor continue to replicate and prioritize traditional or modern psychological models rather than liberatory models that require an analysis of oppressive power relations (Comas-Díaz and Torres Rivera 2020).
Another reason why liberatory perspectives are on the periphery of psychology is because those who have the lived experience are similarly marginalized by the academy by the very structure of the academy that serves as a gatekeeping mechanism for reinforcing the status quo. Scholar, activist, and author Adrienne Maree Brown (2017) writes that “we are in an imagination battle…I often feel I am trapped inside someone’ else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.” The academy’s conceptualization of psychology is shaped by and has been limited by the white, colonial imagination. Before we can engage in what historian Robin Kelley (2022) calls freedom dreaming—that is the ability to dream up the worlds that can support collective liberation—we have to evaluate whose imagination we are animating with our scholarship.
For psychology to thoroughly engage in the topic of mass incarceration, it must first recognize that this is not an issue outside of its discipline but to see that psychology has always been a carceral space that has established and maintained gendered, racial, and classed categories and relationships among them. Entangled with racial capitalism, the discipline of psychology has contributed to the systems of extraction that impose a value system on populations based on racial identity. While supporting these systems of oppression, psychology has simultaneously studied constructs like resilience and resistance that sought to explain and understand how communities refused erasure under such violent conditions.
In this article, we will re-theorize resistance within psychology through a liberatory, grounded, historical, and critical lens. First, we will introduce ourselves and our methodology before we will review existing understandings of resilience and resistance within psychology.

Who we are


Xinachtli, is an incarcerated organizer, activist, writer, and scholar. Emese Ilyés is a critical social psychologist, participatory action researcher, working within academia. Xinachtli is a Chicano, indigenous, political prisoner who is currently sentenced for 50 years for an interaction with law enforcement in which he kicked a gun pointed at him away from the officer. Emese Ilyés is a white cis-gendered immigrant with non-visible disabilities who arrived as a refugee in the United States when she was nearly 10 years old. She grew up in poverty but is experiencing class mobility intertwined with debilitating debt.
We are co-constructing this paper by sending messages across the walls of the prison. Emese is writing on her laptop inside her often-air-conditioned apartment in Brooklyn while Xinachtli writes from a recently issued tablet inside his sweltering solitary cell in Texas during the hottest summer on record. He has been in solitary confinement for 21 years. Emese has been living in New York for 10 years. All of the letters we exchange are surveilled by prison officials before they can be delivered. Sometimes the letters are intercepted. Sometimes the prison tablet takes an entire draft or edits composed by Xinachtli and erases it. Sometimes this glitch happens over and over again. All of the letters we exchange are surveilled by prison officials before they can be delivered. Sometimes the letters are intercepted. We only find out by continuing to write to each other. Through this method we have exchanged ideas, experiences, references, and support. Through this method, we weave together our voices into this paper. We experience significant constraints in our communication in embodying methodology that is able to now offer this encounter between us and those who spend time with our words. Yet, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore has written, this does not mean we are experiencing insurmountable barriers, but that we “use what is available to make a place in the world” (2008: 34). Ours is a methodology of embodied placemaking.
Both of us bring deep connection to liberatory scholarship on the topic of dehumanization. Xinachtli’s expertise is mass incarceration, colonialism, indigenous rights, the history of radical movements, and the law. Emese’s expertise is the mechanics of dehumanization, immigration, the formation of psychological categories, eugenics within psychology, and disability justice.
Our relationship is built on the principles of mutual aid. Like mutual aid (Spade, 2020), we forged relationships to exist outside of the bureaucracy and politics of local, state, and national health and psychological associations, and instead we aim to build connections and community in a way that allows us to be responsible for each other, so that we can survive the unsurvivable. Our collaboration is an expression of our hope. Abolitionist feminist Mariame Kaba (2020) writes about hope being a discipline. Our practice of writing to one another is the practice of hope which requires discipline and radical faith in something beyond this version of this white supremacist imagination.
Our process animates our values and commitments to collective liberation. Key to untangling white supremacist mechanics from the discipline of psychology is interrogating who is recognized as the knower. Our collaborative writing is a joyful act of defiance that we hope allows us to dismantle systems of oppression that we otherwise uphold when we participate in academic knowledge construction.

Our methodology


We briefly described the method of our collaborative writing, across the walls of the prison, surveilled and facilitated by recently made available electronic communication. Having traced the role psychology and academia at large plays in perpetuating colonization, erasure, and oppression, it is important for us to name the contradiction of this work and the intentionality behind the methods we are engaging with. Conventional psychology continues to privilege “the individual, objectivity, quantification, narrow disciplinary specialization, and universal truths” (Marsella, 1998: 1285), all patterns that enable dehumanization and silencing. Simply working with communities as in the tradition of community psychology or participatory action research may not address the colonizing tendency of the discipline. In fact, participatory action researchers and community psychologists can be the forces that colonize the very communities they seek to be in solidarity with (see Carolissen and Duckett, 2018Drake et al., 2022Seedat and Suffla, 2017Terre Blanche et al., 2020). Our collaborative autoethnographic methodology is itself a demonstration of resistance as we resist speaking for one another, as we resist remaining within constrained territories of disciplines and issues, and as we resist objectifying either to be a spectacle in the name of empirical legitimacy. Barker (2019) writing about indigenous experiences says it is not enough to simply mention indigenous knowledge structures and consider that an act of decolonization. Simply naming the way those most impacted are marginalized and erased from knowledge structures does not actually require us to change anything. Working with water as an analytic of indigenous feminism, Barker shares that,


Water teaches us to think about knowledge in continuous movement, transition, and change. Water is confluence, transformation, diversion (evaporation, sublimation, condensation, precipitation, storage, runoff, infiltration), exchange, not qualitative or stagnate systematicity (this equals that). Water is about the movement and form of when and how and with whom we know, and not merely what we claim or make claims on. Its analytic values story, humility, care, generosity, and reciprocity. It is life. (Barker, 2019: 4)

We understand that when encountering an autoethnographic methodology, we often encounter pieces of fragments from one’s voice to be felt as data. For this collaborative autoethnography the entire text is that data, that voice, and that empirical offering. We do not want to simply speak of liberatory methods infused with resistance, but we hope to embody it in how the methodology is the entire article. With this strategy, we hope to move beyond ideas limited to the inclusion of the oppressed but to an examination, interrogation, and redesignation of power. In contrast to the detached outsider of colonial ethnographies, as autoethnographers of our own cultures, these neoliberal bodies of hierarchical exclusions, that is academia and prison, we are—as we write our paper—simultaneously crafting the empirical evidence that one expects when reviewing methodologies and providing analysis and interpretations.


If psychology as a discipline is to interrupt its complicity with white supremacy, it needs to anticipate conflict, rebalance power, and privilege the experiences of those who are colonized, in particular those who are actively in the struggle to resist and refuse this colonization. That is why we wanted psychology to hear directly from someone who is intimately familiar with the oppressive white supremacist systems that were spun from the imaginations of psychologists. But we do not want this to be an encounter between experts and the subject to be studied, extracted from, scrutinized, othered, and perhaps pitied. This methodology of engaging with systems of knowledge as knowers, holding power instead of being given voice, is a deliberate strategy in embodying resistance, an attempt at crafting new tools to dismantle the masters house instead of picking up ones that white hands are reaching toward us.
This co-constructed text is strategically engaging with the apparatus of academia. As Maldonado-Torres (2017) has noted, “the control of the means of producing knowledge is so key in modern/colonial societies. This is what makes schools and universities fundamental sites of decolonial struggle” (p. 25). Knowledge construction taking place within academia is a predominant weapon of colonizers, legitimating some ways of knowing and denying others. Decolonizing of the mind (Fanon, 1952) is key to collective liberation.
Our methodology draws on critical autoethnographic practices. Autoethnographies engage with lived experience, subjective remembrances, to make sense of the political, cultural, and historical landscape we are embedded within. In this way, we hold a mirror to ourselves and reflected at us is insight into dynamic processes in which we are all implicated. As we weave our words together, as we honor each other’s perspectives and expertise we are engaging with what Dutta and colleagues (2022) call “counterstorytelling”, a way of resisting dehumanization and generating ways of knowing that refuse to be complicit in the university’s project to coloniality. Our autoethnographic method is a strategy and an attempt at the “disinheritance of whiteness” (Roy, 2021) in the academic process of knowledge construction. The bureaucracy of knowledge production continues to strive toward protecting the corporation of the university and in tandem with the corporate, colonial body of the institution, and whiteness. As Roy (2021) has written, universities harvest the work of scholars of color, while criminalizing the solidarities that radical, necessary, transformative work entails. Infusing our method into our writing and refusing to separate method, data, from analysis, and interpretation, we are deploying autoethnography as a strategy of moving without having to engage with academic gatekeepers.
There are liberatory methods that engage racialized, colonized people in research. Yet, these methods still render the colonized as subjects of the researcher of academia. Our collaborative autoethnography is an act of refusal to seek legitimation, to make anyone a spectacle to be studied, and to still claim empirical relevance. By refusing to make Xinachtli a subject we demand that he be recognized as the knower. Our collaborative autoethnography does not rely on interviews or surveys, and as such we did not have to go through any institutional ethical review board clearances within either of our institutions. This was a deliberate strategy to avoid silencing and erasure.
Scaffolded by our collective autoethnographic sense-making, we are also engaging with the discipline of psychology and theorizing resistance deploying Foucault’s (1983) work examining power relations, particularly working with his genealogies. We draw on a combination of the techniques of both genealogy and archeology (Foucault, 1983), as archeology supports our excavation of the history of discursive formations that animate psychology’s approach to resistance and genealogy emphasizes the relations of power that produce and maintain discourses around resistance within psychology today.

Our approach also invites and animates critical reflection, something that liberation psychologists and abolition feminists remind us is essential to individual and collective transformation. In this way, in the process of collaborating on this article we are inviting one another into conscientization (Freire, 1970), articulating more clearly the mechanics of dehumanization which compose the “structures of domination” (p. 47) in which we are immersed we witness and experience. Finally, ours is a methodology of love.


I am more and more convinced that true revolutionaries must perceive the revolution, because of its creative and liberating nature, as an act of love. For the revolution, which is not possible without a theory of revolution—and therefore science—is not irreconcilable with love…The distortion imposed on the word “love” by the capitalist world cannot prevent the revolution from being essentially loving in character, nor can it prevent the revolutionaries from affirming their love of live. (Freire, 1970: 89)

Psychological perspectives on resistance


Psychological theorizing of resistance is rooted in Freire’s (1970) concept of critical consciousness. This is a liberatory process that includes reflection, mobilization, and action. Liberation psychology, founded by Ignacio Martın-Baro (1994) in the 1980s in El Salvador, stems from Freire’s theorizing and is an explicit reaction to the way psychology primarily focuses on the intrapsychic processes of the individual rather than the collective injustices caused by colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism. Despite this branch of psychology, while mainstream psychology has invested a great deal of energy in understanding the impact of oppression—such as the internalization of stigma—it has invested comparatively far less energy lifting how those who are oppressed strategize and react and transform these structures of violence. In our limited genealogy of resistance within psychology, we will highlight studies that have recently engaged with activism with the critical lens that aligns with our embodied understandings of oppression.
Tracing critical consciousness through the psychological literature, Watts and Hipolito-Delgado (2015) note their surprise at the limited attention given to the community action aspect of critical consciousness. They develop a concept they term “sociopolitical action” that emphasizes collective action aimed at shifting oppressive structures. Concluding their review of literature that they find has not sufficiently explored this dynamic, they recommend that programming aimed at critical consciousness name this objective at the start of a project, and move beyond social analysis and problematization. Importantly, they call for an ongoing partnership between researchers and experienced activists to move from insight to action.
Other views on resistance have investigated how activism may relate to psychological wellbeing. Bustamante and colleagues (2019a2019b) found that people who experienced dehumanization by police officers reclaimed their own humanity and countered the violence by recognizing their shared humanity with others—including their oppressors. In this same study, they found that collective organizing served as a protective factor against these experiences of dehumanization within racial capitalism. The shared consciousness that developed during these instances of dehumanization laid a foundation to resist these acts of moral erasure. This resistance happened by both naming broad ideologies contributing to the structural oppression and also practicing daily acts of agentic response.
Focusing on anti-Black racism, Mosley and colleagues (2021) shift the psychological narrative from interrogating damage (Tuck and Yang, 2014). As Hoffman and colleagues (2016) write, “with regard to racism and other forms of prejudice, psychology too often has encouraged people to become comfortable in their role of being oppressed and marginalized instead of empowering people to stand up to injustice” (p. 607). Psychology’s flattening of communities is represented in the depleted understanding it has about resistance to oppression. In response, Mosley and colleagues (2021) identified ways critical consciousness serves as resistance and thriving in response to white supremacy. Working with Black Lives Matters Activists, they find that becoming critically conscious about anti-Black racism promotes healing for Black people. Activists learned their intersectional positions of privilege and oppression and this supported their deepened connection and commitment to actions in service of liberation of all Black people.
This is not meant to be an all-encompassing study of resistance within psychology. In fact, we deliberately focused on just a few examples and specifically work from non-white scholars when inviting these perspectives into our collective conversation. We agree with Tran’s (2023) astute analysis that white psychologists have often acted in “false generosity” (Freire, 1970) when striving to engage the community in their scholarly work. In line with psychology’s history and continued exploitation of communities, these “progressive” psychologists often did not—and do not—aim to truly give away their power, their goal was not to give away their power, but rather “set the stage for white psychology to continue objectifying communities of Color in their home rather than in the lab” (Tran, 2023: 2).
For our theorizing we are also working with Steve Biko’s conceptualization of Black consciousness. Known for his powerful speeches, and statements such as “the strongest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the minds of the oppressed,” Biko was an anti-apartheid activist who was murdered by police in South Africa in 1977. Biko’s ideas emphasized the importance of moving toward psychological liberation before there can be physical freedom.

Conditions of violence and resistance within Texas Prisons


In her psychosocial anthropological case study of colonization, mass incarceration, white supremacy, and the tyranny of law Michelle Alexander put it succinctly when she said that, “…mass incarceration in the United States…emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-designed system of racialized social control (that) functions in a manner slightly similar to Jim Crow” (Alexander, 2010: 4). With the abolition of chattel slavery, prison slavery was legalized with the enactment of the 13th Amendment, in 1865, sanctioning slavery as conviction for crime. Prisons were full, ripping at the seams with an underclass of poor, the unemployed, mostly Blacks as convict leasing, programs were implemented for use of those enslaved to help build the colonial infrastructure—renting enslaved people to entrepreneurs. In the Republic of Texas—where Xinachtli is incarcerated—prison slaves built the state mansions and Capitol buildings still standing today. It is no great state secret, the Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities have suffered the most destructive harms of colonization, plantation slavery, and white supremacy.
Death penalties in Texas—the Supreme Court found—were disproportionately overrepresented in incarcerated individuals of color. This is a horrific reality that has been made possible by the involvement of psychology. Psychiatrists provided psycho-social reports to the courts, as court-appointed experts, concluding that ethnic minority prisoners were more prone to commit violent acts in the future and a danger to society and deserved to be executed (Buck v Davis). As the supreme court ruling on the Buck v Davis (2017) case describes, “Dr. Quijano had been appointed to evaluate Buck by the presiding judge and had prepared a report setting out his conclusions. To determine the likelihood that Buck would act violently in the future, Dr Quijano had considered a number of statistical factors, including Buck’s race.” These life and death infiltrations of white supremacy into institutions has been intensified over the past few years as a conservative, fascist right-wing movement has been on the ascent in the United States. These movements are enacting laws to outlaw Critical Race Theory and prohibit the teaching of the history of the United States.
In the state of Texas in the United States, white supremacy and colonialism are braided together within the prison system. The prevailing “cowboy, frontier bravado” contributes to a unique form of oppressive practice that prevails in the building of its colonial, neo-colonial prisons, to date. Federal Judge William Wayne Justice noted in his court decision finding practically all of the prison’s policies, practices, and conditions unconstitutional in the celebrated Ruiz v Estelle litigation. The prisons model themselves after plantations in design and operations, with its recent history of racially segregated facilities, and individuals in prison being named as overseers armed with weapons provided by Wardens and their use as informants and prisoner—gathering intelligence. For many decades Texas prisons were ruled by Dr George Beto, professor of psychology at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas who introduced his specialized form of mass prisoner control behaviors modification psychology and his culture of state violence. Though Beto’s approach was outlawed in the Ruiz ruling, it was never eliminated. The change since Ruiz has only been cosmetic, the heart and soul of prisons in Texas, continues to be driven by capitalism, is naked violence, inhumane, and prioritizes the denial prisoner free speech and while treating prisoners as less than human, or worse than animals in a zoo. Even today, Beto’s portrait is found painted on many Texas prison hallway walls. Texas, like much of the United States, operates de facto concentration camps for the poor, as big business.

Theorizing resilience and resistance from the inside


People in prison have long demonstrated a deep understanding of resistance and liberation. In the 60’s and 70’s, in the wake of the civil rights, voting, anti-war movements, and the protests that had unfurled across American cities, prisoners began demanding human respect and dignity, staging peaceful work/hunger strikes, and takeovers of parts of the prison, demanding changes. Then came the prisoner uprising at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, in 1971, the murder of Black prison revolutionary leader George L. Jackson by San Quentin guards on August 21, 1971, and the Attica rebellion in September 1971, and the military-style assault ordered by President Nixon and New York Governor Rockefeller, resulting in 43 deaths of hostages’ guards and prisoners. These horrific murders were felt all over the world, revealing the inhumanities of man against man in the operations of prisons in America, showing the hypocrisy and the double standards on human rights, all which remain today. Following these demands for justice from within the prisons, the government and prison officials began the proliferation of supermax control units targeting individuals who were perceived as leaders by other individuals in prison for prolonged isolation, using the “Marion Control Unit Model.” The vast majority of those targeted were and continue to be racial groups, historically marginalized in American society—the Black, Brown, and Indigenous. Inside the supermax control unit prisons dissidents who insist on their humanity to be recognized are caged, are labeled as troublemakers, are isolated, and punished. Including me, Xinachtli. According to Solitary Watch (2023), there are 122,840 people in solitary confinement in the United States each day.
Despite these oppressive realities, the prisoner revolutionary consciousness movement is being revitalized today. Justice advocates on the inside are teaching themselves and each other the law to free one another and organizing themselves to change the law through initiatives like Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative founded by Jhody Polk. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2008) has noted, prisons are spaces where people may be lacking resources but do not lack resourcefulness, and indeed prison may be a forgotten place but it is a place where people “combine themselves into extraordinary forces and form the kinds of organizations that are the foundation of liberatory social movements” (p. 29). Political education and mutual aid initiatives like Study and Struggle support the movement toward abolition creating bridges across the walls of prisons. Beginning in Mississippi but spreading throughout the country, since 2017, Study and Struggle has been organizing reading groups inside and outside of prison, creating a shared space for learning and collective consciousness raising. Movements like Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative and Study and Struggle are extensions of a long tradition of combining political education with mutual aid and direct action in line with the work of the Black Panther Party and the Third World Women’s Alliance.
Current resistance and organizing within prisons show us that resistance is social awareness. This awareness is not just an individual phenomenon, the unit of analysis is not the singular body—as certain psychological narratives would have us to believe. Resistance is social awareness in street by street, village by village—it is a deliberate movement away from isolation and toward collective response. This is awareness that is embodied by responsibility for one another, being accountable to one another, sharing information and power to name and change these oppressive conditions. This begins with the decolonization of the mind, as Steve Biko reminds us. Echoing Ricardo Flores Magon, a Mexican revolutionary who took refuge in the US when the Mexican government was persecuting activists but was imprisoned by US prosecutors during the ‘Red Scare” and sentenced to 20 years for alleged inflammatory language use against the government and assassinated while in prison in 1922 (Morris, 2007), the first step is to break the chains that make us slaves.
We need to reevaluate psychological concepts including how we understand mental disorders. When we confront the reality of white supremacy stitched into the discipline we can see that they are psychological chains and the damage-centered narratives have never truly honored the experiences of those who most understood survival. Instead, psychology’s narratives have functioned as a form of oppression. In the United States, when Black people rose up and demanded freedom, psychiatric hospitals were built around the country to enforce social control of Black people as the desire for freedom was considered evidence of mental illness (Metzl, 2010Willoughby, 2018). These patterns must be confronted with the truth. A true recognition of this violent history would then give power over and let the healing process begin for those most impacted. Giving power also means the power for people to write their own stories and to reassert their humanity and dignity as a free people. That’s what this collaborative autoethnography invites academia to imagine. We do not have to give power back to people, we have to listen to those speaking and legitimate that as world constructing knowledge, data, and interpretation.
Resistance is not the work of individuals nor only of communities, it also requires the dismantling of institutions. Abusive structures must be dismantled through social change pedagogies “that convert systems of inequalities into nonhierarchical equitable systems” (Satgar, 2022). Solidarity across borders and solidarity across identity—joining movements together will be necessary to slow the destruction of the planet and it will be necessary to reimagine our institutions as we do so. During the past three years as the globe was gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw the urgency to act in solidarity with one another sweep through and mobilize communities. We must continue to embrace this dire need for change as we see the world around us burn and as we see our beloved community be lapped by the flames inside of prison walls and outside of them. Isolated communities have long been metabolizing the blow of structural violence and oppression into methods of human restoration and emancipation and have been writing their own revolutionary psychologies of collective resistance and liberation even if their wisdom has not been validated by structures of power. Not only have they not been validated but they have been intentionally suppressed, as the APA apology voiced in 2021.
True resistance has always meant a breaking away from the demeaning, defeatist psychological boxes predestined by those who most benefited from structures of white supremacy. How we understand what it means to be human and how we relate to each other has to be rethought when we see that today’s psychology has upheld the systems—like prisons—that rob so many of their humanity. A psychology of resistance is a psychology of liberation and that is always both about the individual but always also about the community. A psychology of the future must be able to hold both.
A truly liberatory psychology will take love seriously and build on the work of scholars and communities whose voices and perspectives have been sidelined in favor of scientific conclusions. Feminist scholar bell hooks asserted that “the underlying values of a culture and its ethics shape and inform the way we speak and act.” She proposed creating the social and academic momentum of collective mutual aid comprised of a “care ethos, or love ethics” but as she clarified, “awakening to love can happen only if we let go of our obsession with power and domination” (hooks, 2000: 87). She called for a love ethos and utilizing the dimensions of love—care, commitment, trust, responsibility, respect, and knowledge—in everyday lives. What would a psychology infused in this love ethos look like? A psychology that took love seriously could move beyond the limiting frame offered by the current patriarchal and capitalist prioritization of objectivity and distance. The same emphasis in psychology on some mythical unbiased omniscient researcher animated by an overvaluing of quantification allows for systems that then dehumanize and commit epistemological erasure. These are not new ideas. Many around the world (Goeckner, 2022) continue to practice and thrive because of indigenous ways and traditions and the discipline of psychology would benefit from engaging indigenous leaders not as tokens or temporary balms but as essential to our understanding of what it means to inhabit this globe.
Psychology like the rest of the world is not a monolithic inanimate structure that wields disproportionate power. Psychology is comprised of people, of practitioners, of academics, of researchers, professors, and most importantly students. Often it is students who have anchored themselves to values that honor the collective wellbeing of all and by informing the University that they come not to work for the University, but to make the University work for our oppressed communities. What would it look like if everyone who comprised psychology invited the discipline to work for oppressed communities, to be led by, to give power over to communities most impacted by systems of injustice?

Built by people, racist oppressive systems, including psychology and including the carceral system, can be dismantled by and rebuilt by people. This heavy and joyful work will require radical solidarity among movements, academics, lawyers, practitioners, and communities. This work will require strategies that can challenge white supremacy in the academy, including within practices of research and publishing. As Talcott (2020) has written, we must


abandon the hierarchical research models and the too limited forms of “research ethics” that predominate across disciplinary canons. Pursue models of research justice. Decolonizing and dismantling white supremacy in the academy is not possible until researchers who investigate the racist police-, prison- and military-industrial complexes radically transform how, and for whom, we do research. (Talcott, 2020)
This act of solidarity itself is a new psychology of resistance and liberation. One that is drawing on the theories and research of foundational psychologists like Frantz Fanon. The new school of thought driven by community based-theories and practical solutions to recognize the power held by isolated, excluded communities is rooted in a radical history that is often denied or actively erased—like Frantz Fanon’s writing and the work of Black psychologists. What would it look like if our education system honored the knowledge held by communities, held by people who have not had access to elite spaces, what would it look like if we continued the conversation started by theorists like DuBois and Fanon?

Not a conclusion but a beginning


In our conversation, we find ourselves moving across multiple levels and engaging in multiple ways of articulating experiences and concepts. We consistently come back to the way that liberation from oppressive white-supremacist systems of violence requires radical (meaning, reaching to the root) transformation of individual thoughts, actions, relationships, communities, and an absolute reimagining of broad structures. Psychology has struggled to honor this complexity, pathologizing the individual and upholding systemic structures of violence, but we believe if it will weave a foundation from the wisdom of those most impacted, those who have been most isolated because of oppressive systems, then it will have no choice but to become expansive enough to hold the way lives are lived.
The theorizing we have offered in this document is for anyone who is embedded in the world, whether surviving through the state-sanctioned violence of incarceration or complicit in holding up these systems of harm. Through our bricolage of approaches, emboldened by Foucault’s encouragement for his approach to be molded to be useful not to be strict, we tried to create a conversation that could move walls—including the ones between us as we write back and forth.
Theorizing of resistance and liberation cannot be limited to the academy, especially when the academy is “white men engaged in conversation with themselves” (Yancy, 1998: 8). It is not sufficient to bring in the voices of others because as Leonard Harris (quoted in Brookfield, 2004) observed that “the academic works of Afro-Americans are trapped, as it were, in a labyrinth where even the walls are white” (p. 275). We have to tear down the walls that are currently there and rebuild our world. Everyone will need to share in on the labor. A new psychology that can contribute to a truly liberated geography of our shared world will require ALL of our imaginations. We will need to follow the leadership of those who have been pushed to the margins of our society, communities who are most intimate with the violence of the current structures. We will need to be in community with those in prison, support one another through mutual aid. We need to abolish for profit corporate prisons, refuse to look away as our brothers and sisters on the inside are dehumanized, tortured, and severed from their beloved community. We need each other, mutually, to help us build communities that are deserving of all that we each offer.