I am not an HIV poster child. I will never be that. I am not a black queer man who has broken some proverbial glass ceiling, and I'm am not an aspiring professional. I say that to say: how I speak and write centers my blackness and queerness. How I dress is a conscious decision to disrupt narratives of respectability, and how I move my body is intended to take up, reclaim and move into my space. I could unfold for you all of the trauma that my body and mind hold, but that isn't productive right now. Black trauma is a crop; these oppressive structures live and thrive off our despair and bodies. If I screamed a thousand times about how my body had to hold anti-black violence, it would only be the beginning.
I must confess, I used to buy into the idea that exceptionalism is survival. I listened to the voices telling me that difference, education and achievements increase safety and that state-sanctioned violence is less felt in that context. I vividly remember being infuriated with my brother because I couldn't understand what made us different.
He was caught in the trap of systems, and I thought I had escaped. The truth is that I was operating within the same frameworks; it was an illusion that I had escaped. He knew that the system by design was not made to protect us. I, on the other hand, felt as if we could push institutions to include us.
I was wrong and he was right. He didn't need a book to tell him that the new Jim Crow was here; he didn't need ten pundits to debate whether we are living in a post-racial society; he had his scars to remind him of where he was localized in the structures of white supremacy.
A Courageous Accomplice
I had a very courageous accomplice when I was in high school. My teacher, Ms. Billick, is to this day probably the most memorable educator in my life. She fought for her students and told the truth. We discussed the theory of filmmaking, politics and other subjects. We had a project to discuss Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, and I purchased it and began to dig deep. I learned how despicable Ayn Rand was and how she was a chief influencer of Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman who presided over the "housing bubble" and other forms of financial and economic violence. In addition to leading me to becoming a very adamant rejecter of Ayn Rand's capitalist ideas about the individual, Ms. Billick led me into a conversation with a coworker that would render the most violent form of racism I had ever experienced.
During this time, I was working at a casual dining restaurant after school. I walked into work and was about to go on the floor to serve, and I sat The Fountainhead down on a chair. A coworker walked by and noticed the book and asked, "What do you know about Ayn Rand?" I discussed my class and my thoughts on the book, and told this coworker that I would come back to him and finish my analysis after I'd completed my reading.
He immediately began screaming and told me I wasn't as smart as I thought I was and that, given his intellectual pedigree, he would annihilate any of my analyses. I remember being so shocked I couldn't respond. I had been called nigger before, but this was layered and different. I guess this was a microassault? I will never forget it because I remember going home that night, immediately telling my mother what had happened and wanting to hear her thoughts. She knew exactly what was going on: simply anti-black racism coming into play.
The Insidiousness of Racism
I mention this experience because it let me know that the insidiousness of racism is embedded in the language white people use or don't use, and it is in how they frame the work they do in black and brown communities. Given my name and presentation and being a dark-skinned black man, I could continue to give receipts about my experience, but I want to dig into a situation that occurred to me at a non-profit. There, I was reminded that my black life didn't matter, but my black representation did. It was framed as diversity, and they couldn't wait to take a photo and place it strategically on marketing materials.
I worked there because I was poz, and I had been socialized to believe that I needed these spaces to do the work that I was so passionate about, which was to build with community. I now know that narrative isn't true. I worked there twice because I have a pattern of centering on the work and not myself. I went back because I was asked to. At the time, I had been working at a food cooperative that was going through a pretty rough transition, and I figured, "Hey, let me go back to the devil I know!" I had known that the nonprofit was a toxic place to work, but my I felt indebted to this institution because I tested positive there.
Such organizations do a good job at using guilt, be it subtextual or direct, to get poz people to buy into their culture. Here is an example: another AIDS non-profit in the same region has a photo series in which poz patients disclose their status and uplift the institution by saying this agency either saved their lives or if it wasn't for this agency they wouldn't know what to do. My personal thought is that this is a commodification of narratives that does nothing to bring equity and clarity to these experiences. It is visibility for funding's sake. I'm sure they used it in a narrative report or a funding application to prove they are doing the work.
There is oblique hilarity in listening to messages from non-profit spaces about the "problem" in the context of HIV/AIDS. One of the messages is: the system is broken because the people are broken. We're told the task of the oppressed is constantly to prove we aren't broken -- without exposing the system itself as inherently unjust and broken. The outcome is as intended: no changes to the underlying system that upholds white privilege.
Here's an example: Someone black or brown talks to white compatriots about how to engage our communities in the struggle to eradicate HIV. They respond by saying, "Let us do it! We have the tools and resources to help impact these outcomes." But the reason they have the tools and resources is because of the system that they profess to be disrupting in doing this work. How does that work?
I Thought They Knew Me
Back to the nonprofit where I had returned to work, again as an HIV prevention counselor. They had asked me back but never considered giving me a wage that was commensurate with my experience. They gave me the base rate for that position. Talk about inequity! I accepted the job anyway because, again, I felt indebted.
But, not long after, I was hauled into the CEO's office for what would become one of the more humiliating, dehumanizing and anti-black moments in this agency's very white and privileged history. This one is, as they say, "for the books." It is a moment I hope they wrestle with for years to come, because Allah knows, it continues to wrestle with me.
I walked in and my supervisor was present with her boss (a cis white man) and her boss' boss (a cis white man) and the CEO of the organization (a cis white woman), who was behind her desk.
The CEO said that this would go easily if I were honest. She then proceeded to say this: "We have some evidence that suggests you have been selling drugs (cocaine) at our flagship testing space and using cocaine there. Also, that you've been running a prostitution ring and a speakeasy at that site as well."
She then asked what I had to say. I was between extremely mad and about to laugh at the ridiculousness of the accusation. I said, "None of that is true" and stopped there. She said that because of how serious these "allegations" were, she'd have to call the police. I said, "Call them!"
Then, the tone changed. I was asked why someone would claim that I was doing these things; who might want to hurt me. I said, well, people do all kinds of things, and you as CEO of a non-profit should understand that.
I then had to explain, because of the power in the room and how vulnerable being black in this space is, that I was being stalked and threatened by someone. I had to show my call log -- he called from various phone numbers and I had to share the numbers he had called from. They had me read humiliating personal text messages between us and heard voicemails of the individual saying extremely nasty, abusive things to me: all very private embarrassing things. They put two and two together, and I was told to return to work. I said, "Go back to work?" I left and was immediately overcome with heat; that's how upset I was.
I was later informed that management had gone to the flagship testing site and looked through th trash and searched the place in full glove and bag mode, "looking" for evidence.
The immediate response was to believe this about a black queer man before the "benefit of the doubt" was even considered. They didn't do a thorough investigation and brought these claims to me. I was hurt that they responded in that way. I had volunteered and worked there previously. I thought they knew me.
This moment clarified some things for me. It made clear that things wouldn't have unfolded in the same way if I had been white, and that no matter how much investment into the community and the institution I had behind me, they would think of me as a criminal first even though I'd never committed a crime.