Guest Writer Josh Rivers encourages us to question how we think about resilience and how communities can really unite to instil change.
by Josh Rivers
The mark of any queer person’s humanity appears to be indelibly linked to their resilience. Resilience is praised as one of our queer virtues, indeed the bedrock of our existence: in the face of increasing and persistent adversity, we keep getting back up, keep pressing on, keep surviving. But resilience is defined as the ability to recover quickly from difficulties, a specificity of action I’ve not understood the word to mean before this moment. Why quickly? Who decides how quickly is quickly enough? What if we don’t recover quickly, but keep moving forward anyway: are we still resilient? If we examine resilience up close and in the context of our lives in 2023, is resilient even a good thing to be?
Other definitions of resilience include the ability to withstand immense pressure and the ability to bounce back and return to original form. The former is an exercise in rigidity in a world that always wants us to be something else. Bayard Rustin, a queer Black icon to whom I look for unending inspiration, withstood immense pressure and at great personal sacrifice. Throughout his life agitating for justice, he kept coming back to fight, despite being thrown in jail repeatedly for “lewd acts” (read: cruising), where he wrote heartbreaking letters about whether or not to deny his desires. Which leads us to the latter: even if we’re able to withstand the pressure, even if we appear to bounce back and return to form, are we not forever changed by the very life that demands so much resilience?
To understand resilience, we have to place it in the context of its necessity. Resilience is at once a testament to an individual’s determination to survive and an indictment on a society that demands it. Perhaps my issue with resilience-as-virtue is that the pressure to be resilient lies firmly on the person who relies on their resilience for survival (for example, LGBTQIA+ people) and not on the systems, structures and societies that demand resilience in the first place.
As Guiliane Kinouani writes on Race Reflections, “While some may argue that by focusing on [our] psyche, we stand a better chance at building our psychological or psychic resilience… such unbalanced attention actively locates the disturbance in [us].” I can’t help but feel that all this pressure and attention that is placed on resilience should actually be channelled into questioning why we have to express such resilience at all.
In their new book, Healing Justice Lineages, community organisers Cara Page and Erica Woodland write that we must “address the ways events or conditions impact entire communities and movements, and envision ways for us to hold each other together”. We cannot only be called upon to withstand the pressure of the system, noble as surviving is. Our resilience must be oriented towards the wholesale transformation of systems and structures which are not designed to include us or allow us to thrive. To do this, Page and Woodland offer up a “healing justice” framework: “a political strategy [that builds] collective practices and spaces where healing shapes the culture in which we do our organising”. A resilience made possible through communal care and structural transformation then becomes a queer virtue because it moves us towards collective justice.
To be resilient is also to be courageous. Courage is important because it assists us in the pursuit of our joy and our joy demands our courageous defiance. It was poet and human rights activist PJ Samuels who forever altered how I understand the tough work of joy-finding: “If I’m not finding joy in it, I’m going to find another way, which then frees me from the situation that was oppressing me and getting in the way of my joy.” My conversation with PJ Samuels and so many others are my demonstration of my commitment to creating spaces that offer the communities I love the opportunity – over and over again – to encounter reflections of their courage; and that they understand deeply that they are surrounded by communities of people, near and far, gone and with us still, who are dogged in their pursuit of what lights them up. Pursuits which, in turn, enlighten and enliven us all.
Perhaps I want to exist within my own definition of resilience, one that isn’t ahistorical, but that acknowledges the time, place and context of its necessity, and one that doesn’t tell me my resilience is anchored to speed. Or perhaps I resent that resilience requires so much of me so often and nothing from the external pressures that demand it. Resilience in theory and execution is emotionally, mentally and physically expensive. Perhaps in using resilience to confer admiration, we should do so remembering that it all comes at such a cost; and that our decision to continue on trying to make positive change in our communities and to improve life for those around us, knowing what it will cost doesn’t make us resilient - it makes us courageous.
Check out the Busy Being Black Podcast. Themes touched on in this article are explored further in the below episodes:
PJ Samuels, “Black She”
Zinzi Minott, “Ancestral Interference”
malakaï sergeant, “I Sparkle When I Sleep”
Travis Alabanza, “None of the Above”
Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, “Knowing Where to Dig”
Josh Rivers (he/him)
Josh is the creator and host of Busy Being Black, the podcast featuring cerebral and tender conversations with queer Black artists, activists and intellectuals.
You can find more information about Josh's work here.
If you would like to book Josh as a speaker for a workshop or panel event, please get in touch with us via email at email@example.com
While you're here...
Did you know we consult with 100+ Businesses, ERGs and Change-Leaders providing bespoke corporate solutions? Through consultancy we design shared learning experiences, produce DEI insights and craft bespoke content that support individuals with strengthening their roles as change-agents within their communities and organisations. Find out more here.
We also organise FREE community events throughout the year! We offer a variety of ways to get involved - both online and in person. This is a great way to network and learn more about others' experiences, through in-depth discussion on an array of topics. You can find out what events we have coming up here. New ones are added all the time, so make sure you sign up to our newsletter so you can stay up to date!