The Coding of Resilience
I’m starting to get tired of how often we describe oppressed communities and individuals with an awed praise of their “resilience.” Yes, oppressed folks are often resilient, and there are positive things in that recognition–it’s impressive how creative people can be under stress, how we can survive and sometimes even thrive in remarkable conditions. But praising resilience also hides a lot.
What does resilience really mean? That you’re strong? That you’re connected enough to survive? Who gets to choose who’s resilient and who isn’t? What conditions create resilience? This isn’t a word that we use for everyone. It has an undertone of “hey, good job not crumbling under the horrible thing we just now did to you!” and shifts the spotlight away from the oppressor’s culpability and even tries to reframe a terrible experience as positive. Yes, resilience is impressive, but you know what would be even more impressive? Not subjecting entire groups of people to slavery, genocide, torture, and other forms of oppression in the first place!
When we focus on resilience, we don’t focus on accountability. We’re not talking about how conditions of oppression are created by real live oppressors. We’re not talking about ongoing culpability or solutions that the oppressing group can enact to get the weight off the oppressed person’s back. Instead, we’re saying, please perform daring and magical feats for us with this weight on your back. We’re so impressed by your skill! Framing certain communities–often black women, trans folk, Native people–as “resilient” can be harmful and fail to recognize the harm actually done to those communities.
So when you read the word “resilient” to describe these communities and individuals, if you’re in an oppressing group, take a step back and think twice. Ask yourself, if these survivors are so resilient, who hasn’t survived? Who from the same community have we killed through war, environmental degradation, the criminal injustice system, and similar tactics? Instead of offering back pats for survival, let’s offer changed behavior and meaningful reparations for communities to rebuild.