True resiliency does not ignore oppression but celebrates our inherent strength, creativity, and joy
Over the last several months, various observers — including the author of a piece in the Times — have noted the perils of the code word “resilient,” especially for people who are not in positions of privilege. Too often, these observers note, “resiliency” or “grit” translates as “fix yourself because you can’t expect society to help.”
It’s a fair and accurate argument in many ways. Bootstrapping is a quintessential element of the American dream, which imagines one person, alone, conquering all obstacles to achieve what our culture construes as success.
For hundreds of years, resiliency has been required of Black people, in particular. It is the core of both the reviled trope of the “magical negro” and the pop culture touchstone of “Black girl magic.” And no bootstraps story resonates more, in some quarters, than that of a Black person who has moved on up. (Witness the number of people in my own life who eagerly sought my up-from-the-ghetto story, when in fact I am the upper-middle-class child of an engineer and an education executive.)
So yes, all of these observers have a point: the notion of resiliency can be a toxic distraction from real issues that need to be fixed. Yet, in spite of all that, it is too soon to give up on the notion of resiliency.
For many of us, the ability to rise, rise up, and rise above is a powerful personal and cultural attribute — it is our superpower. It is not the result of oppression and trauma; it is the essence of our creativity, our growth, and our joy, and would be so under any circumstances.
This kind of resilience is deep, and is passed from grandmothers to granddaughters. It is not about an event or a political decision or a response to injustice or disaster. Rather, it is a depth of strength that not everyone will have or know how to cultivate.
To insist on this kind of resiliency is to insist that grit does not arise from someone else’s determination to grind us down. True resiliency, the energy that allows any of us to grow, does not depend on one’s being held back. It helps us heal, but does not require the infliction of trauma. That kind of resiliency doesn’t run out, or wear down, or get used up, any more than sunshine wears down because it sometimes has to shine into dark places.
Most important, it is necessary to have that kind of resiliency to push for change, to call out systemic injustice, and to stay on the barricades, resolutely and with fierce purpose, even when we’re exhausted. It is what distinguishes the civil rights leaders we most admire: Harriet Tubman, Gandhi, John Lewis, Angela Davis, Harvey Milk.
For those of us who work with and support and serve young people, especially young women, helping them find true resiliency is crucial — not because it allows them to overcome obstacles but because, in an even more fundamental way, it fuels and feeds them. What we need to teach them is not to let their sense of resiliency depend on whether some system or individual does right by them or not. We need to teach them to cherish their resiliency and be proud of it.
It is absolutely right to call out any expectation that Black and brown people, or anyone in a position of less privilege, should somehow magically conquer injustices and traumas themselves, so that society isn’t on the hook to do it. And it is absolutely right to insist that the notion of grit not become a way of normalizing the horrific circumstances that too many young people still confront, just because of their zip code or gender or the color of their skin. We do need to screen the world around us for the racist, sexist, and otherwise oppressive presumption that the problems these systemic ills create for people without privilege are their problem to solve — and not problems created by these systems.
But to give up the idea that any of us might have — or develop — the wherewithal to soar is to clip our own wings. Even as we question the unexamined concept of resiliency, let’s also reclaim the idea of true resiliency as a precious and powerful strength that we all can access.