My hometown of Karachi, Pakistan, was severely damaged by urban flooding in 2020, with 40 people killed and several katchi abadi (slum) areas destroyed. The dominant conversation around the whole experience soon emphasized Karachi’s “resilience.” At the Karachi Literature Festival earlier this year, multiple speakers referenced the city’s resilience for attending two days after a terrorist attack on a police station. Every climate disaster, every horrible mugging, or even bombing became a reason for people to define Karachi as resilient because, after all that, it still managed to go on. But journalist Sajeer Shaikh disagrees. Her city and its people are not going on in spite of these challenges. It’s simply that there’s no other alternative.
“Karachi is not resilient. As someone from Karachi, I do not want to be resilient after the annual rainfall leaves me and my family stranded or hurt. I want Karachi to heal, I want Karachi to do better. This idea of resilience is an excuse to absolve authorities of their responsibilities. Karachiites are resilient—not by choice. And within that inherent lack of choice is an injustice waiting to be addressed,” Shaikh told The ARD.
• As an employer, teacher, or person in a leadership position, don’t assume “resilience” based on someone’s identity or past experiences. Let them set their own boundaries for what they can or can’t manage.
• Do more, say less. Instead of relying on describing people as“‘resilient,” build resilient resources like the Urgent Action Fund.
• Change your language. Call out friends, media organizations, and even yourself for focusing more on trauma survivors’ responses than the systems causing the issue.
This is hardly an isolated description. More and more, over the last few years, media and even offline well-meaning conversations have begun to rely on “resilience” as a descriptor for survivors of trauma and oppression. Many use it in what they see as a positive way, attempting to call someone strong or able to deal with their trauma. In terms of building cities or community resources, “resilient’ architecture or infrastructure can withstand damage. Resilience, when seen in people, is understood as their response to the struggles they went through and how people bounce back after difficulties (Ensia). But whose response is good enough to qualify as resilient? Inanimate objects and resources can be built and adapted, but for people, is resilience a choice? And if it isn’t, how can it be a compliment?
As the term becomes more broadly used, it raises questions as to what it really means and whether it truly reflects the experiences of who it’s describing. Dr. Jess Aiston, a research assistant at the linguistics department at Queen Mary University, points out that “resilient” can have a lot of meaning. While it can be positive in some ways, Aiston wonders how one shows resilience in the face of oppression or trauma. It becomes a point where one asks: “should I be more resilient, or am I allowed to take a break?”
Emergency manager and attorney Brandy Mai has seen the word being used in different ways by rehabilitation organizations, in disaster management, and in everyday conversation. Despite agencies often aiming to build “resilience” in communities, Mai is skeptical about the word being helpful. Similar to the “strong Black women” trope or using stories of disabled people as inspiration which many activists now term as inspiration or trauma porn, the increase of resilience as a constant adjective for marginalized communities feeds into how those in privileged positions want to perceive others.
“The term is too open to interpretation,” said Mai. “Who are you making resilient? What does that mean? There’s a broad amount of options that word entails, which is good to the point that it allows communities to get what they need. But in some cases, it’s a buzzword so people don’t have to face empathy or face anything deeper. It’s easier to say, ‘Oh, they’re so resilient.’ It prevents a deeper discussion and deeper conversation. It protects the feelings of the people saying it, not the people living it.”
Both Aiston and Mai suggest that it would benefit survivors of trauma and oppression to focus on the impact and causes of trauma as opposed to the survivor’s “resilient” reaction. In doing so, it covers up what the real issue is and the systemic oppression that needs to be addressed. Instead, it puts more pressure on victims to react the right way or to “bounce back” as expected in order to be resilient. Many times, this resilience is insisted upon so that society doesn’t have to address how it’s failed victims in the first place.
“A week or two ago, a friend of mine learned about some childhood traumas of mine,” shares Mai, who is disabled and has complex PTSD. “They said, ‘You’re so resilient. Look how far you’ve come.’ For the first time, I used my voice and said I’d rather I wasn’t resilient because if I didn’t have to deal with that trauma I could be ignorant to it and wouldn’t have to be resilient,” she tells The ARD.
Mai encourages those looking to support marginalized groups to “do well rounded research, learn how that word can be interpreted by people who are marginalized. If you have a trusted friend willing to give you that labor, listen to understand, not to be combative.”
• “Resilient” has evolved into a word used too broadly by media to describe survivors of trauma and oppression, complicating its meaning.
• Calling marginalized groups resilient makes the issue more about their response than the systemic oppression they face.
• “Resilient” isn’t the compliment many people often think it is, and assuming it to be so can be patronizing and even harmful.