How Promoting Resilience is Harmful to African-American Families

Resilience theory suggests that we are to encourage  successful adaptations to negative life events, trauma, stress, and other forms of risk. In other words, in the face of adversity, we promote people to perform at optimal or ‘normal’ adaptive levels and work through these situations, events and circumstances.

Many African-American families in the United States deal with chronic adversity marked by systematic oppression. Families are often encouraged to demonstrate perseverance, regardless of the conditions in which they live—essentially, to model resilience. However, temporal positive adaptations displayed by African American families could be fostering greater, more damaging future vulnerabilities.

The concept of re-thinking resilience implores family scientists and practitioners to think critically about how processes of resilience may be imposing risk on families when they are expected continuously to adapt internally but, externally, their adverse environments remain unchanged.

man carrying child

Family scientists and practitioners bear the responsibility of not only encouraging positive adaptations in families but also intentionally working to ameliorate conditions that necessitate resilience through acts of social justice.

For black or African-American people, continuing to ask that they remain or develop resilience, is not productive, nor healthy-physical or psychological. By far, African-Americans have been subjected to the some of the most severe forms of human atrocities in this country.

When we ask their families, their children, to be resilient, we are placing responsibility for outcomes on them. What must accompany this encouraged skill, is that systems, too, must change. The door is still left open whereby they will continue to suffer social, legal, academic, economic…..injustices and challenges disproportionate to other groups.

Certainly, we wish to focus and promote the strengths of others, and build their capacity to utilize them when bad things happen to good people. Yet, when bad things happen, by mere configuration and design of policy, practices, programs and perspectives, asking others to be resilient is not a reasonable request.  It is unfair.

Policies remain unchanged, mindsets remain the same, but we ask those whom are negatively impacted by these things to be resilient; just adapt. Resilience need not be OVER-promoted, as it is practically inherent among African-American people. It is resilience that enabled their ancestors to survive the mass injustices of hundreds of years of enslavement.

close up photo of a woman listening to music

It is their resilience that enabled them to survive Jim Crow, the era when lynchings were regularly placed on public display and discriminatory practices were a way of life. Resilience enabled them, as a whole, to survive in the face of all social injustices which negatively impacted their lives all throughout this nation’s history. Sadly enough, so many have grown blind to systemic injustice still present today.

Resilience, in fact, is not the result of some extraordinary characteristic or ability. Teachers don’t need to convince young black kids to be resilient. They already are! Educators have little need to ask parents and entire communities to be resilient, too. The fact that families, regardless of structure or household composition, and adults continue to raise children, demonstrates resilience and hope for the future.

It is most likely that you nor I could not survive so flawlessly under the chronic stress, trauma, and incredible risks faced on a daily basis as have African-American families. Why ‘flawlessly’?

When families can spend lifetimes and generations within a framework of ‘justice’ where poverty and unmet needs are intentional in system design, and still contribute to and influence society at large–Music, language/slang, fashion, dance, body type, hair styles[cornbraids], athleticism, and so much more amidst it all…..that is flawless!

freedom bus

The flaws do not exist among little black children or their families as one would be made to believe. The flaws exist within a system that lies to them, maligns them, and places barriers before them on a daily basis. Yet, the system’s agents expect them to be resilient without doing its part to remove the barriers created by that system. Despite reforms and amendments, this same system continues to pave the way for a select group to acquire and maintain wealth and power absent accountability. Don’t ask; don’t tell.

The flaws also remain due to the fragility of those whose ancestral and historical power originated through immoral practices. Quick to preach about morality and hard work and opportunity, there are few with the strength of character, legitimate sense of self-worth and self-confidence required to practice what’s preached.

Shoveling words, hoping to sound genuine, are seen as they are, just noise and empty soundbites.  It takes bravery and courage to recognize the gross inequities which dictate the reality of many families.  It requires bravery, honesty and sincerity to examine history, identify historical references, synthesize this information, and critically dissect policies, laws and practices.

It takes bravery, sincerity and self-confidence to remove all constraints of structural racism. It really takes a self-assured individual to step outside of the established social ‘norm’. Aware are we, that the historic aim was to pass privileges along to the direct ancestors of the racist American ideologues. They took their privilege and crafted social norms to their advantage, and with purposeful system design, integrated oppressive practices into this democratic framework.

Leaders and would-be leaders need be motivated to establish a pure democratic society. This begins with social justice. With social justice, resilience normalizes. No longer shall we continue to ask and demand that people must ‘adapt’ to chronic adversity, when this adversity was not their own design.

person holding smartphone

We now live in an information-driven society, where knowledge is globally available and shared. Young people, as young as the early grades, will absolutely positively be our change makers and leaders in society. The vast information highway will inform youngsters so significantly, that it will take only one curious mind to ensure that change is inevitable. Throughout the world, we are witnessing uprisings and protests against injustice and the absence of choice in society. Demands are being made for equity and social justice, not resilience.

Youngsters are accessing information from countless sources, and unless you destroy the facts in history, up to today, it will be in their hands. We are inter-marrying, and not just in America, but the entire globe is becoming more ‘brown’ and ‘other’. Will we continue to marginalize and oppress and ignore the root causes of chronic adversity?holding hands civil

 Social justice is everyone’s responsibility and demanding resilience will continue to harm more than strengthen those who have been historically oppressed and marginalized.  We run the risk of perpetuating further marginalization if we continue to constantly promote adaptive behaviors from historically oppressed African-American families without also engaging in social justice work that opposes the systemic challenges that affect most African-American families daily.

The onus cannot be merely on families to adapt to threatening conditions; the conditions themselves must be altered.

We must strike the critical balance of promoting agency and empowerment with the marginalized while also engaging in advocacy and activism alongside families and communities. We can simultaneously promote the use of resources and cultural strengths while taking action to dismantle structural constraints through practical social justice actions.

Let’s re-think resilience!


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