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Obama, Trayvon, HIV and the Problem of Empathy

By Olivia Ford

July 23, 2013

Olivia Ford

Olivia Ford

This past Friday, President Obama held a press conference to share his reactions to the Trayvon Martin verdict. His speech has been heralded by some as among the most important he has ever given and lambasted by others as too little, too late at best. I encourage you to listen to the speech, if you haven't already, and form your own opinions. I had my own cascade of thoughts, but I'll get on to what all this has to do with HIV.

Obama made three statements in particular in this speech that resonated under my HIV-community hat:

"... for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes, and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they're a full part of this society and that they've got pathways and avenues to succeed -- I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation."

We know this in the HIV community: Individuals who value themselves and feel valued by their communities and by society are more likely to safeguard their health and that of others, and to plan for productive and fulfilling lives.

Back when the Zimmerman trial was just revving up, blogger Khafre Abif wrote a piece here on TheBody.com imploring those rallying in opposition to Trayvon's murder to show similar outrage for the growing HIV epidemic among young people -- especially young men of color who have sex with men (MSM), a community that's experiencing what seasoned advocates call a sequel to the earliest days of AIDS.

This need not be two separate struggles -- placing a high value on the lives of young African-American boys should also lift up young black MSM. And indeed, Obama made a similar comment specifically about young black gay men on World AIDS Day 2011. But in the HIV community, we also know that this sense of value does not come from nowhere, and mere words do not instill it.

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In response to Obama's comment, I'm not the first person to retort that, in order to show African-American boys their immense value to this society, we need to talk to them, not just about them; and we need to fight the defunding of programs that reflect back to them the value of their lives.

"... the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."

True indeed, but the history of state-supported racial and economic oppression experienced by black folks is not their's alone -- just as the scourge of HIV stigma, and the responsibility to fight it, cannot be the sole responsibility of people living with and directly affected by HIV.

Obama identifies the link between the African-American reaction to the Zimmerman trial as the ongoing result of a brutally racialized history, while neglecting to train his lens on the behavior of non-blacks (Zimmerman being our most public current example) or to remind non-blacks how this history conditions them to respond to black people. "By not specifically addressing this audience, by silencing whiteness and choosing to center again and again on black young men," Aura Bogado wrote on Colorlines.com last week, "Obama gave whiteness a pass. He gave it power by masking it."

Similarly, in order for HIV stigma to be eradicated -- along with the factors that fuel it, like gender violence and homophobia -- it must be examined, and fought, even by those who stand to benefit from it.

"... it's going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. ... [A]sk yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can? Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy."

The President needs to use his power to affect systemic change (per above) -- an entreaty to examine our internal feelies and interpersonal interactions cannot be the last step. That said, obviously, this man has a broad platform -- if Obama asks the U.S. citizenry to think about something, more people are likely to do so than if, say, I asked from my wee platform on this blog. But there seemed to be a missing bridge between Obama's acknowledgement of the African-American experience with law enforcement and his mandate to search our souls.

Empathy, in terms teachable to a 9-year-old, is the ability to put yourself in other people's shoes, and have the information you gather from that exercise inform your behavior toward others. Instead of essentially just explaining black people to the non-black majority, what if Obama had actually given people a tool with which to look at themselves in the form of a focused exercise in empathy?

Nearly every child has walked home with a snack from the candy store while wearing a sweatshirt and talking on the phone, which helps people empathize in a broad sense with Trayvon Martin, his parents, and the horror of his fate. But what if Obama'd asked non-black Americans to reflect on how their own lives might be different if they were regularly stopped and frisked for doing nothing; if they were regularly refused cabs and jobs; if they were regularly greeted by clutched purses and rolled-up car windows; if they regularly turned on the nightly news only to learn that boys who looked like their sons had been murdered while carrying nothing but candy and the murderers had gotten off scot-free; and if they had to prepare their own children for the fact that much of this would likely happen to them as well?

Empathy is a tool the wider world could also use more of in examining perceptions of HIV. Let's take criminalization of HIV nondisclosure as an example: What would be the reaction of John and Jane Q. Public if they were diagnosed with a disease that they were able to manage so as to stay well and not transmit it to others, but every time they shared with an intimate partner that they were living with this condition, they ran the risk of someday being put in jail as a result of their honesty? The same person who believes in mandatory HIV disclosure might rethink his or her position when considering all the factors that must go into that real-life, often-agonizing, decision.

Don't ever let anyone tell you that empathy is easy. To some people, showing empathy means showing vulnerability -- not an accusation that the leader of the free world, or his speech-writers, would want to leave himself open to. It can also be quite painful to imagine what life looks like through the lens of another's radically different experience. But I believe empathy is a sign of strength -- and a tool for growth, mutual understanding, systemic reform, and a host of other conditions that make the world an easier place to share.

Olivia Ford is the executive editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

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