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How 'Resilience' Is Misunderstood When Talking About Racism


We've been reporting over the last few weeks about a wave of student activism on the country's college campuses over what protesters describe as hostile racial climates. The protests have garnered some support but have also triggered a debate over whether or not the students who are protesting should just buck up, be more resilient. And that word resilience is everywhere these days. The New York Times Magazine often takes another look at words that are buzzing around the culture in a column called First Words. Parul Sehgal is a writer for the magazine, and she has some thoughts about the word resilience. She joins me now. Welcome to the show.


MARTIN: Parul, you noted in your piece all the places this word is popping up these days. Can you just list a few of them for us?

SEHGAL: Yeah, it's suddenly everybody's favorite word. It's like the sexy new word in development, in disaster relief, in climate change, in security. And it's not just a matter, I think, of an exciting new jargon. It does, when you're talking with institutions, suggest a slightly different way of looking at things, a more sort of pragmatic way as if to say, you know, we can't prevent disasters, but we can minimize risk.

MARTIN: And in some way, it puts more of a responsibility on the person who is suffering or the victim in any circumstance.

SEHGAL: Well, yeah, I think when we look at individuals the way that resilience is being talked about when it - you look at college students and children, it's definitely sort of like a doubling down of old, like, bootstrap logic, where your success or your failure comes down to your character.

MARTIN: So what's the problem with using this word in the current context of these college protests?

SEHGAL: I think we've all seen actually, like, examples of resilience. And it is something fantastic to see how people can rebound from trauma. But the way it's being used to describe these students protesting is a kind of distortion because it sort of equates protesting and sort of objecting to racism with being weak. And that I find incredibly perplexing - you know, article after article calling these students brats, crybabies, little fascists. And I couldn't understand it. I couldn't understand how something that, to me, felt very brave to organize and to sort of join other students and protest circumstances that were hurting you could be seen as a sign of weakness.

MARTIN: What do you make of these other cases of students demanding to be alerted in advance about potentially offensive material in class assignments? And perhaps that could be something that has racial overtones. But this whole idea that professors need to give so-called trigger warnings. I imagine this is feeding the idea that college students need to be more resilient. Do you see any credence to that?

SEHGAL: The whole trigger warning thing, I think, is a slightly separate issue. And I think it can sort of - you know, it deserves, you know, discussion. It's getting a lot of attention. I think what's happening is that a lot of these commentators are saying that, you know, these protests are just another example of these sort of coddled millennials who need handholding and, you know, universities to act like mommy and daddy. And nothing should be scary. Nothing should be challenging. When, in reality, it's something very, very different.

MARTIN: You mention that parenting, that world, is full of talk about resiliency and how we have to instill this in our kids.

SEHGAL: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: And even more broadly, we do hear all the time about how resiliency is key to happiness. Do you think that's true?

SEHGAL: Yes, I think that resilience is key to happiness. But how people are resilient and what resilience entails has become somewhat misunderstood. What seems to me to get people through these kinds of trauma are other people. It is an ability and an opportunity to talk about one's pain. It is an opportunity to be vulnerable and to change and dictate the course of one's life. And that feels actually rather similar to what a lot of these students on campuses are doing, which - they're coming together. They're saying that we want an entirely different course. And that, to me, seems to be profoundly resilient.

MARTIN: Parul Sehgal is a writer at The New York Times Magazine. Thanks so much for talking with us.

SEHGAL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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