Deconstructing Resilience: Notes On The Notion of Trauma

Resilience: the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. 

When I see activism efforts addressing the work of colonialism and white supremacy plaguing the marginalized identities and communities, the term that I most often witness as words of comfort is “resilience”. How I should carry resilience in myself, just like my ancestors did. How being resilient brings us closer as a community. How what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. It has become the beloved word to instill hope and unity. 

But words of comfort do not heal the pain we carry in our blood. Our flesh. Our body. Our mind. It is a pain that we have before we are born and a pain our children have before they exist. Before I was born, I was predisposed to live a life of this pain. This is my inheritance. My issue lies not only in the systems of power that dictate my being but also in the way this is uplifted by a false appearance of liberation. While the intention of this word is meant to rescue me, it only traps me. 

Marginalized communities, of my own identity and of others, endure the worst conditions. Conditions that are a product of white supremacy, colonialism, racism, ableism, heteropatriarchy, and other systems of power are meant to displace and erase our presence. It has become ingrained in our minds that we must praise each other and ourselves for being strong; for overcoming these “obstacles”. This has become our narrative and we are only known by it. We see this false appearance in films that center trauma and racism towards marginalized communities as inspirational stories––trivializing their pain. We see this in college essay prompts––how lived experiences that are the direct product of colonialism make a good essay submission. I know this because that was the essay I wrote when I applied to Bates. I performed trauma to an institution that refuses to acknowledge the ways in which they have a problematic history. We perform trauma and relive it daily, which only strengthens the very same structures we wish to destroy. We feed the beast instead, letting it grow and overpower us. 

The definition of resilience implies that there is space for trauma, a capacity for it. While it is important to acknowledge the ways in which we deal and understand trauma, there is too much focus on the notion of it. By centering trauma as part of our identity, the effects of it almost make the word “resilience” a survival strategy. Resilience is a way to survive trauma without ridding of it entirely. Thus, we are generationally tied to it and reproduce it without knowing it. This creates a cycle of structural oppression for particular communities and is reflected in healthcare, education, law, and citizenship. 

So what do we do now? How can we rethink, restructure, and decolonize the way in which we perform activism? What will our identities, our narratives, our history, our bodies look like after decolonizing trauma? Audre Lorde said “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. We must learn to create our own tools, otherwise we will lose every time.